Last Saturday, the Japanese community here in Qingdao held a fundraiser for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. It was held outside a kindergarten at the Silver Garden apartment complex, where I have heard Japanese spoken by mothers-waiting-for-children on previous after-school visits (there’s also a great little western-food shop in the complex). I was so excited to go, that when I got out of the taxi and saw a couple of moms leaving with their children, I totally forgot that I know the word for “kindergarten” in Japanese, and had to ask them in Chinese and English to point me in the right direction!
(Aside: Have you ever had a language moment like that? I didn’t think “Um, what’s ‘kindergarten’ in Japanese? Rats, I can’t remember,” but defaulted straight to “Let’s see, in Chinese ‘kindergarten’ is something like ‘you er yuan,’ I can pair that with Japanese ‘wa doko des ka’ for ‘where is…'” and only days later did it hit me that ‘yochien’ – Japanese for ‘kindergarten’ – is not only a word I know, but probably the one word I’m least likely to forget in that language!)
When I located the sale it was already in its third and final hour, but I had fun walking around, buying a few things, and dropping off the money I’d earned for them by auctioning off some Stuffed Mushrooms to folks at work via e-mail. It was amazing to hear Japanese being spoken around me. But I was also really frustrated. I don’t know enough Japanese to have any sort of conversation. I can’t even always tell Japanese from Korean when I hear it spoken by adults, unless I recognize a word. For instance, “kyotskete,” which I have no idea the meaning of other than a command from mother to child, but I KNOW it’s a word in Japanese and I heard it a couple of times! I want to claim this part of my past, my connection with Japan, but since I’ve never made any effort to build my Japanese language ability, I could not even tell them, “I love Japan.” I just walked around, feeling like an outsider while I tried to absorb the atmosphere, and finally wandered off to buy some Western food and go about my other activities for the afternoon. As I walked away, eying the blossoms on the trees and listening to the children behind me play, I remembered telling my college English students that “nostalgia” is being homesick for the past. It was exactly what I was feeling. I don’t see myself living in Japan again (of course, I don’t really know the future), but I do love the land and the people, and this longing for something that is only a part of my past… well, I am very glad that I have some knowledge of Japan – not the political entity, but the culture and customs and people that make up Japan. It’s very small, but it is a part of me, and so I am a part of them, even if no one knows it but my family and I.
Today was a day for wishes about the past as well. It was the day of Tim’s memorial service. Tim was the son of fellow staff here at the school, a fifth-grader this year, who died at the end of March following a tragic accident. I didn’t really know Tim. He was already in fourth grade when I started teaching third last year. I would see him around now and then during the school day and at staff-family functions, but I only ever spoke a few words with him. In February, I had lunch at his family’s home, and that was the most time I ever spent with him. Now he is gone, not forever, but until I also leave this life, which feels very final and forever-ish. As I heard people speaking about Tim, and laughed and cried with them at the wonderful memories and the pain of the loss of those who knew him so much better, I wished I’d known to spend a few more minutes talking with him that day at lunch, getting to know this amazing person who was funny and kind and creative and loved to play baseball – even if he did have a Yankees cap. May I be reminded to make the most of every opportunity to know and love the people who come into my life. And may those who knew Tim be comforted through this time of grief.
*To share some of the joy of today in honor of Tim, here’s a story that was told during the service: During a test earlier this year, his teacher saw Tim looking repeatedly at his palm. When Mr. A. circled around behind Tim, he saw written on Tim’s hand the words “Made you look!”