My world opens from East to West

Didn't start school in September, as most American children do, or in April, as do most children in Japan, the country of my birth. My first day of school came late in the fall, and although I was not aware of how momentous a step I was taking, I was of course excited; a new adventure was about to begin. For my parents had decided to send me not to the neighborhood Japanese school, but to the American School in Japan, an hour's commute by streetcar and bus from my home in the suburbs of Tokyo.

My parents must have had many a discussion before they made a decision that was highly unusual in the context of the Japan of the 1930s. (The nation was already beginning its slide into disastrous militarism and war.) My father's reasoning was relatively simple. Having struggled with English since his teens, and having become a rising employee in an Anglo-American trading company, he wanted his first son to become bilingual at an early age.

My mother had more complicated motives. At home, I spoke English with her, and Japanese with everyone else, including my best friend, Jun-chan. To my mother, English was more than a means of communication. She had learned it the hard way, having joined her diplomat parents in Ottawa when she was nearly 14, straight from her grandmother's home in the depths of rural Japan.

Along with the language, and the friends that went with it, came new values, nurtured during 7-1/2 years in Canada and the United States: freedom, equality, democracy, individuality, Christianity. If her husband's job couldn't give her two sons the opportunity of living in these lands, she wanted them to have whatever came closest to duplicating her own experience.

Whatever their motives, my parents' decision severed me from the normal pattern of my neighborhood pals. I would not be going with Jun-chan and my other friends - with whom I had caught cicadas, stolen green tomatoes, and played at war with thorn-tipped bamboo sticks - to the primary school down the street, to be educated in the language and culture of my own country. That would come later - after reading and writing in English had become so natural to me that I would never forget it.

The decision to enroll me in the American School marked the first step in my journey out of monoculturalism and into the appreciation and practice of multiculturalism - being at home in more than one culture. That sounds sententious, but I have to say it because, over the years, along with my own personal values - belief in an omnipotent and all-loving God, respect for the individual as the expression of God's being - multiculturalism has become so ingrained in my makeup that I cannot think in single-culture terms.

The journey has been far from easy and obstacle-free. Many times, especially during World War II, I resented my parents' decision and wished with all my heart that I had had the normal Japanese upbringing - believing in the uniqueness of the Japanese people and worshiping the emperor as the symbol of that uniqueness. I knew too much to accept at face value the propaganda being churned out by the government and the imperial Japanese forces, but I was uncomfortable in this knowledge and wished I could be a true believer in the righteousness of the Japanese cause.

Sociologists refer to people like me as marginal - meaning that we live on the margins between two cultures. I don't like the connotations of that word, but I can understand why it is used. The conclusion I have come to, however, after much questioning, grief, and pain is that it is indeed possible to experience and to appreciate more than one culture at a time, and that the process can be enriching and enlivening.

None of these musings were in my thought on my first day at school, or for years thereafter. My parents had reached their decision after school had already begun, and I had just passed my fifth birthday. The American School had been established to educate the sons and daughters of the American community - mostly businessmen, diplomats, and missionaries. But other members of the foreign community in Japan sent their children there, including a sprinkling of Japanese.

My mother went to see Mr. Charles Mitchell, the headmaster, and persuaded him to accept me on the grounds that it is never too early to start learning English. Mr. Mitchell had been in India before coming to Japan and knew the value of early exposure to English.

I can only remember fragments of my first day at my school. In those days, the American School was a two-story wooden building on a campus large enough to accommodate a soccer field, a playground, and a couple of tennis courts, with dormitories, faculty housing, and plenty of lawn in between.

I arrived hand-in-hand with our family maid, Masae, and was conducted into the first-grade classroom, where the students had already started learning to read. A tall, slender, black-haired lady was standing in front of the class, reading from a primer. "The wind went 'Oooooh,' " she said. Turning to the blackboard, she wrote a series of O's. "Oooooh," she repeated. So the first letter of the alphabet that I learned was "O."

About 20 children were in the classroom. Across the aisle from me was a long-haired girl who looked Japanese, but not quite. Jackie was her name, and during recess we agreed to have lunch together.

JACKIE had been brought to school, as I had, by the family maid. Hers was an elderly woman whom she called Ba-ya - Grannie. When we came skipping out of our classroom at the stroke of 12, Masae and Ba-ya were waiting for us with our lunches wrapped in furoshiki - square, dark, patterned pieces of cloth that the Japanese use for carrying everything from books to food and toys. Jackie suggested we go out to the bleachers overlooking the soccer field. The sky was blue, the wind mild, and we could smell the clover that covered the field.

Masae and Ba-ya chatted away, while Jackie and I unwrapped our lunches. It turned out that we both had the same menu: rice balls wrapped in black nori (dried seaweed), each with a deep red sour plum inside. I don't remember what we chatted about, but Jackie, like me, was most comfortable talking in a mixture of English and Japanese. She told me her last name was Gauntlett, and that she was three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter English. I had the warm, comfy feeling that I had made my first friend and that school was going to be fun.

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