Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Author's Return to Japan After 28 Years

After being invited to my alma mater in Kobe, Japan, I was asked to write a piece for the Canadian Academy Review.  Here it is in the Fall Issue.

An Author’s Return

Observing the Sunday morning activity at Hankyu Umeda station brought back those memories that come with so much nostalgia—the kind that almost forces you to abandon your plans, sit on the platform, and write.  That’s what writers do, making non-writers convinced that we’re a peculiar bunch; we carry notebooks and pens with the spontaneity of capturing life onto the page. I wanted to write about what was new since the last time I was in Japan.  My list consisted of cell phones, the Internet, Starbucks, Family Marts, 100 Yen stores, Yodobashi Camera stores, fashion, high-tech toilets, and my alma mater—Canadian Academy.   

When the train sailed into the station right on schedule, I waited my turn and then gravitated toward a seat by the window just as I had done as child. The other passengers were absorbed with their cell phones. Unlike the old days, no one opened a magazine or paperback. 

I reached in my purse for my journal and pen as a young girl with a Hello Kitty bag sat across from me.  Some things haven’t changed, I thought, and made a list of what had not:  Hello Kitty’s hair bow, vending machines that sell everything from cigarettes to energy drinks, student uniforms, the speed of the Shinkansen, the taste of hot takoyaki on a winter evening, and the politeness of train station personnel.

Twenty-eight years was a long time to be away from the country of my birth.  I felt like Urashima Taro, the man in the folk story who goes back home to his fishing village after being gone for three hundred years. I was both disoriented and delighted. I also felt a bit like a dork when I had to pull out my reading glasses. The last time I was in Kansai, I’d come back to visit my missionary parents and ended up taking a job as an ESL teacher.  Back then I was able to study train schedules without reading glasses.  Now I clung to them and just to be safe, asked conductors if I was getting on the correct train, especially when I had to take the JR Line, which I was unfamiliar with.  

There was no time to spend being lost; I had only eight days in Japan as Canadian Academy’s Alumna in Residence.

When I was a C.A. high school student, back in the 70s—about the time that dinosaurs roamed—we had a rickety school building where the floors and stairs creaked and the classrooms had radiators that hissed. Now the new school on Ryokko Island is state-of-the-art with a theater, two gymnasiums, an auditorium, and an atrium where flags hang from all the represented countries.  I was back at my alma mater and yet, I was in a space so new to me that I was at the mercy of ninth graders to get me to my assigned classes.

However, the curiosity of students had not changed.   After I gave a tip on writing for a specific amount of time each day and the value of setting an egg timer, I was asked, “What’s an egg timer?”  The students’ faces showed confusion until their English teacher explained the history of the wind-up device for keeping time, especially in the kitchen.  

“How do you not get lazy?” 

An excellent question!  Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to share all the tricks of the trade, so I made my reply succinct. “There’s only way to stay disciplined,” I said. “You have to plant your bottom on the chair in front of the computer. That’s the way writing gets done.” 

A boy in the back raised his hand. “Can you speak Japanese?” 

“After twenty-eight years of not using it on a daily basis, it’s rusty, but I can.”

I couldn’t help but reminisce about some of the missionaries from my youth who came from states like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama and spoke Japanese in Southern accents.  A request was made.  “Can you speak Japanese with a Southern accent for us?” 

The thrill of the task was so great, and yes, I could have continued to talk in that syrupy twang for twenty minutes. But that was not what I’d been invited to C.A. for.  Quickly, I put on my glasses, looked over my notes, and finished the lesson with instruction on editing your writing. “You could be the world’s best story teller, but if your grammar, spelling, and sentence structure are flawed, then who is going to read your work?”

Except for Bob Hengal, who is still known after all these years for his terrific baking, all of the teachers were new.  I wondered if a few were actually high school students; they looked much too young to be teaching. One said that I had his permission to include him as a character in my next novel. 
“You can kill me off,” he whispered while his class engaged in a writing exercise that started with the line, I knew why the coastal town was haunted.  “Really.” He smiled. “I won’t mind if you do.”

On the weekend, I was grateful for two fellow class of 1979 graduates who met me in Kyoto for a mini-reunion.  After all, I needed to touch base with those who remembered the way things used to be.  Of course, Hanae Hosoda and Ioanna Sillavan recalled the long and tiresome walks up to C.A. when it was on the hill with the picturesque view of Kobe Harbor. They agreed that the school had felt old and creaky, but that it had been the familiar kind of old, like a worn pair of favorite tennis shoes.  Over a lunch of sukiyaki, and later, at a kissaten, we talked and laughed, weaving in the past with our current lives, our kids, work, and spouses.  No one would have guessed that it had been thirty-seven years since the three of us had last seen each other. 

My days back in Japan were a gift.  In the legend, Urashima Taro was given a lacquer box by the beautiful princess from the enchanted paradise under the sea.   Although she told him not to open it upon returning home, it was too late. The desire to peek inside turned Taro from his preserved youth into an old man with a gray beard.  

While I might have felt like an old graduate, there was a vitality that sprung while I was at C.A. In spite of jet-lag and culture shock, I felt renewed and rejuvenated.  I was so inspired that my current work-in-progress is about the return to my home land, the place where my love of writing began so many years ago.
And no, I do not plan to kill anyone off.

~ Alice J. (Stubbs) Wisler, Class of 1979
Author, Blogger, Bread Maker, Business Owner
Durham, North Carolina