After my breakthrough with the stove incident, I couldn't believe how different things were with my family. Being there felt really comfortable, and I felt I had a close—and genuine—relationship with the family. In fact things were so comfortable that I wanted to delay going back to graduate school.
But I had to finish my degree. So, after lots of farewell parties, I went back to Boston, found a place in a place to live in a cooperative house, and caught up with my classmates in my graduate program. I was just settled in after a few months, when I got a letter from Katsuko's husband's younger brother Yuji in Nagano. He wanted to fulfill his lifelong dream of running the Boston Marathon—this year. Not knowing any English, he was at a loss as to how to register. I agreed to do it, and found that registering him wasn't all that hard. I did have to fill in his previous marathon race-times, and not knowing these, I inadvertently made him into a champion runner, with an extremely low starting number. Of course I also invited Yuji to stay at my house, and explained the situation to my housemates.
My housemates and my other friends quickly rose to the occasion and helped create an organization to motivate Yuki as he went along the race route. People were spaced at crucial points along the route, who were to hold up banners spelling out: "Gambare!" (the ubiquitous Japanese phrase which meant "Keep Going!"). They were also to hand him a banana or some water. The day of the marathon was cloudy and chilly when we delivered Kinya to the starting line. But as we madly ferried people from points Kinya had passed to points further ahead along his route, we realized it was worth it to him when we all finally saw him cross the finish line. The joke was that his real marathon times were so much slower than I had written into the form, that he started at the front of the race and had to watch everyone pass him by. But it didn't matter— finishing was all that mattered to him—and we all celebrated that with a huge turkey dinner.
Yuki had helped me enormously with my research and was an extremely astute observer of social situations. Even though he had not attended university, and wasn't good at foreign languages, he nonetheless had intuited the issues of unspoken meaning, and could quite accurately grasp what was involved in intercultural communication. While he was visiting me, I decided to take him to my graduate department. When I introduced Yuki as a key native informant, my professors treated him very cordially—even though he couldn't communicate directly in English—because this a respected category in anthropological research. Yuki also wanted to see a class, so I took him to a small lecture class that I was attending. Not understanding the content, he focused totally on the non-verbal communiction that was going on in the class, and when it was over, narrated his insights to me.
He had three. The first was that he had somehow realized that what was going on was not completely beyond him. His second, and the crux of what he had gotten out of the class was the possibility that he too, might be able to do this kind of thing. This wasn't out of the ballpark, considering his natural abilities. But his third assessment took him around the bend: He had decided that Harvard University was a piece of cake! (Ha-ba-do daigaku wa taishita tokoro jya nai!) This observation had to be understood as a substitute for Tokyo University, regarded as the apex of the Japanese education system, which puts it completely beyond the reach of most people, especially those from the countryside like Yuki. But his insight had to do with realizing he did have intellectual abilities, even though his educational system had never given him any inkling of this. Yuki's insights, combined with his finishing the marathon, turned the visit into a great success for him. Interestingly, my housemates and friends felt the same way. Even though he hadn't been able to communicate through language, everyone had enjoyed him, and felt fortunate to have met him. Somehow I found that my new role, which involved considerable "wrapping" of Yuki, was a great experience as well.
After that, for several years I was preoccupied with finishing my degree, finding a teaching job, and getting tenure. When I could finally take the time to reconnect with the Shinodas in a short summer visit, I realized that Katsuko's daughter Ginko, whom I was very fond of, was not having a good experience in high school. I had known Ginko since she was a baby, so I began to wonder if Katsuko might let her come to visit me in North Carolina where I was now working, during her next summer vacation.
Getting Katsuko's approval turned out to be harder than I thought. Eventually she did agree, but just then Ginko's teachers started actively discouraging her, telling her that she was too low-level a student with too little English aptitude to even think about going to the U.S. Ginko then decided that she was going, no matter what anyone said. When she arrived, I immediately enrolled her in a free English school in a church right next to my campus. There her conversation classes in turned out to be largely role-playing, and Ginko who loved theatrics, was right in her element. In fact, her teachers were encouraging about her progress, and regarded her as quite talented.
After a few weeks at English school we flew to Florida and stayed at my parents' house, where Ginko met most of my relatives. Then we went to Disney World. To me, nothing captured the ambivolence of Ginko's precarious hold on adulthood as well as her reaction to Mickey Mouse. "There's Mickey Mouse!!" she screamed, tears streaming down her face, as she ran up to the mouse figure and hugged him.
When we returned to North Carolina, it was time for Ginko to leave. She wanted to have a farewell party, to which she invited all the new friends she had made. She created a number of Japanese dishes for the party, and I could see that she was able to converse with everyone throughout the party in English. I couldn't believe the progress she had made in six weeks, and I hoped the feedback she had gotten on her talent in communication would carry her through the rest of her high school English classes (where communication unfortunately was not the focus).
I went to Japan again the New Year's after Ginko had come to visit, and Katsuko's family invited me to spend New Year's Eve there. As we sat down to a delicious dinner, to be followed by a large cake Ginko had baked, the family made it clear that they were very glad she had made the trip. They could see the confidence she had gained, and everyone thought this was just what she needed, as she was planning on working in Tokyo after she graduated. At the start of the dinner Katsuko's husband proposed a toast to the unforgettable thing they had learned from me. Wondering what this was, I raised my glass and was greeted by a loud chorus from the entire family in unison: "Harvard University is a piece of cake!" (Ha-ba-do daigaku wa taishita koto jya nai!)
After that, this chorus became a regular punch-line for all our get-togethers.
For both Yuki and Ginko, being able to make a trip to the US that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to make, seemed to open up big doors. Neither were good exam takers, and in an education system that focused largely on entrance examinations, their talents went unrecognized, and they ended up believing they didn't have talents.
Of course, both Yuki and Ginko were "cultural children" in the U.S. But they were both able to "grow-up" considerably, even though their stays abroad were much shorter than mine in Japan. Because they were able to realize talents that they hadn't even been aware they had, they were both able to see themselves in very different ways than they had before. Although I didn't realize this until later, it felt like the tables had turned, and I had now become the host "parent", caring and facilitating for the "cultural children". In any case, I felt like I did as much "growing" as they did over the course of their stays, and their visits were unforgettable experiences to me.