Sharing a Home As Well as the Moon

I'm ever so grateful the Mizuno family didn't kill me when I asked them to. It was the summer of 1967. Along with nearly two dozen other American high school students, I had just landed in Japan to participate in an international exchange program.

The trip had come to be in a rather roundabout way. When my older sister was 17, she had the unexpected opportunity to spend a summer with a Spanish-speaking family in Quito, Ecuador. Using a clever blend of reason and whining, I reminded my fair-minded parents of this as my own 17th summer approached.

"Well.... We'll think about it," they harrumphed. Ours was not a family of jet-setters. In the experience of my practical, Wisconsin-born parents, fighting Hitler was a credible reason to travel abroad, but other than that....

"What if I do the research to find a good program? And fill out all the paperwork? And baby-sit like crazy to help pay for it?"

With their reluctant "maybe," I was launched.

Through a program called Youth For Understanding (YFU), I had a choice of six weeks in Europe, South America, or Japan. I'd like to say I chose Japan because of a keen and abiding interest in Asia, because of a deep connection with Eastern culture. Truth was, I thought kimonos were cute and I liked the movie "Sayonara."

So one afternoon in July, I found myself in an airplane high above the Pacific, poring over a purse-sized Berlitz phrase book, practicing the expression "I am very pleased to meet you." I thought it would be a nice thing to say when I met my host family, the Mizunos, in Tokyo.

It would have been, too, if I'd been more careful about which syllable to accent.

"Doh zo yo ro SHEE koo," I said one more time to a fellow YFUer with a phrase book of her own, hitting the second-to-last syllable - SHEE - with the force of a Benihana cleaver.

After hours and hours of nothing but ocean, sky, and wispy clouds worthy of haiku, we at last glimpsed the coastline of the island of Honshu, and the plane angled over Tokyo's endless rooftops on its way to the airport. The moment I had been preparing for was near.

After we landed and our group went through customs, the YFU chaperone introduced each of us to our waiting host families. I was nervous, but confident my linguistic efforts would make a good first impression. I greeted my Japanese family - father, mother, brother, and sister - with the words I had so carefully rehearsed. Or so I thought.

A startled look swept over all four faces. Then their expressions softened into smiles, and they bowed "hello."

Later I learned why they had looked so surprised. When saying, "Doh zo yo ro shee koo," I should not have emphasized "shee." "Shee" is the Japanese word for death.

As it was, I walked up to the Mizunos, smiled, bowed deeply, then politely asked them (loosely translated) to "Please kill me."

They didn't. Quite the opposite. For six wonderful weeks, I lived with them as one of the family. No matter that less than three decades earlier, the brother of my Japanese host-mother was a kamikaze pilot killed in his attack on an American warship. No matter that a stateside uncle of mine had been decorated for bravery on Iwo Jima. For the summer of 1967, all that was ancient history.

With my Japanese sister and brother - Norilko, 15, and Yukio, 17 - I often walked through the crowded streets of my new family's neighborhood, and like the awestruck Dorothy in Oz, realized: "We're not in Milwaukee anymore."

Japan was unlike any place I had ever known. It was a land of rice-paper walls and lyrical wind chimes, octopus entrees and bed-less bedrooms. It was the scent of soy sauce, seaweed, and damp bamboo; the sound of wooden sandals tapping across pavement and lacquer chopsticks clicking against porcelain. It was a country of large, steamy bathtubs and miniature gardens; a place of understated flower arrangements, temples with fluted roof lines, and inscrutable Buddhas bigger than buses. It had an impossible alphabet of several thousand elegant doodles, and a language with no root words a Westerner could recognize. Here even two years' worth of high school Latin was useless.

The Mizunos spoke little English, but through sheer determination, elaborate pantomimes, and worn-out phrase books, we managed to communicate. We started out with basics: "Where is the bathroom?" "Do you like rice?" "Want to watch 'Bonanza'?" And one evening in August, we moved on to ideas like, "What does Hiroshima mean to you?"

FOR me, Japan went from being everything foreign to being four people I came to love. One night after the family was asleep, I tiptoed to the balcony outside my bedroom window and just sat there, gazing up at the sky. A full moon rose overhead - bright and beautiful. I was struck by this notion: Hey, that's the exact same moon that shines on Milwaukee! The same moon my mom, dad, sisters, and I look up at from our lawn chairs in the backyard on Elsner Avenue! The same moon that lit last summer's pre-fishing-trip search for night crawlers! The same moon we hardly notice in the Fourth of July sky!

Sitting there with those thoughts and my cotton kimono, I sensed I was on to something. Something obvious, yet elementally profound. I stayed there till my neck was stiff, blown away by the luminous truth of it.

The other day my young teenage daughter, Anne, asked my husband and me if she could live abroad with a family some summer in the not-too-distant future.

Would we consider it? Please? "I'll baby-sit like crazy to help pay for it!"

In typical parental form, we said, "Well.... We'll think about it," though on a moonlit night many years ago, I'd already answered "Yes."

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