Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Friendship on Foreign Shores

True friendship knows no nationality, no boundaries, no international law. My friend, Kyoko, who celebrates her birthday this week, is as dear to me as someone who grew up living next door, though her neighborhood is in Tokyo Japan.

We've been good friends since 1977. No, I'm not from Japan and she's not from the US. That's part of what makes our friendship so extraordinary. We met in Iwakuni Japan when another American woman and I were looking for a department store that was having a sale. Shopping: The universal language for women, right?

Millie and I were in Iwakuni to visit our husbands, stationed there courtesy of the USMC. Having ridden bikes into town to shop, we stopped some ladies on the street to ask directions. "Sumimasen," I said, "Excuse me." That and a few other words filled the short list of Japanese at my command. We spoke in English, and showed the women an advertisement. The women smiled and nodded to show understanding, but our communication was hindered by lack of a mutual language.

Millie, Kyoko, Susan 1977
Always helpful, the Japanese women stopped a young woman who was passing by and explained our situation. The young woman possessed a joie de vivre, a curiosity of all things that was immediately evident in intelligent eyes and a quick smile. And she had recently graduated university---majoring in English literature! How lucky for us to meet Kyoko on that day in that place. How fortunate I've been ever since.

Kyoko acted as our guide in her free time, showing us prominent sights and out-of-the-way places for the month I stayed in Japan. It was all new to me. Tatami mats, futons, toilets in the floor (even on trains--try to go with the flow in that situation!), Japanese etiquette and seafood (squid, octopus, and kelp). Before long we could ask her almost anything without offense and vice versa.

Kyoko married the next year, wearing beautiful traditional costumes; then changing into other outfits for the wedding events.

The next year, we received photos of beautiful twin boys, their sweet faces crowned with gobs of gorgeous black hair. We had two sons, as well, while Kyoko had a third son. Over time life got busier and the letters fewer. Without email and Facebook, snail mail and expensive phone calls were the communication methods of the day.

One evening in 1997 my husband answered the phone to a string of questions.  Kyoko had called around the country until she found us again. She remained effervescent. One of her sons was attending school in the US and he was in a difficult situation. He no longer had a host family, so when school closed on the holidays, he had no where to go. Our home became his home for the holidays.

We loved having Kyoko's son with us, partly because he reminded us of her. He has the same gusto; a reach-out-and-grab-life philosophy. The first time he came to visit he opened an email from his mother. The first part was addressed to me in English: Thank you for having my son, etc. The second part was in Japanese. "That's for me," he said. I left him alone to read.

When he came downstairs, he reported that his mother's email instructed him to "be nice, pick up your clothes, say thank you." I laughed out loud. It was an ah-hah moment for me. Mothers are the same the world over. We just want our children to be safe in a place where someone cares for them and to be polite in return.

Kyoko loves to travel as much as I do and has visited many different shores. She visited large cities in the US such as New York and San Francisco, where she could take tours and public transportation. Visiting slower paced areas such as the NC coast is more problematic for foreign visitors. Renting a car to drive the coast or mountain areas of our state can be daunting.

So in October 2010, Kyoko came to our house to visit the southern coast. We took carriage rides in Wilmington, ate shrimp and grits in Charleston, visited the Biltmore estate in Asheville, went to a college football game in Clemson, shopped the outlet malls, and stayed in my relatives homes along the way. As we traveled, we caught up, filling in details of our years apart. Kyoko said to me one day, "We're lucky we get along so well." Even though we had enjoyed communicating all these years, being together for two solid weeks puts the relationship to the test.

 My cousin Judy, Susan, Kyoko 2010, Grove Park Inn, Asheville
And we passed with flying colors. Our friendship is a blessing to me and it shows me how connected we are around the world. She and I mother in the same way; both of us helicopter mothers.  I understand her concerns for her children and she understands mine. When there is an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it affects me closely. When she cares for an elderly family member, I know her concerns.

 We can look at each other and see ourselves. That's a gift.

 Silver Pavilion