Read on for a sneak peek at my upcoming EBook “Mind Your Chopsticks: Tales Of An American Family Living Abroad”
JAPAN – DECEMBER 1970
Here We Come-Ready or Not
I peered out my rain-spattered window at our new country. It was December 1970 and we had just landed at Haneda Airport, Tokyo, Japan. But even more unnerving, we had just left hearth and home and were about to become American expatriates for the very first time.
With sixteen-month old Ryan in my arms and three and a half year old Pauley, clutched firmly by the hand, I stumbled down the stairs into the frigid wet night. Paul, my husband, was behind me loaded down with our most precious possessions – diapers, bottles and toys. Together, we hurried across the slippery tarmac, dodging puddles and following the crowd into a huge brilliantly lit room jammed with thousands of people, all looking alike, all sounding alike. Our little family huddled together – a motley group if ever there was one – very American, very blond and not too good at blending in. And with traces of Gerbers pureed carrots and bits of chocolate cake, my outfit didn’t look too good either. I looked around. Not a word of English anywhere – plenty of noise though and lots of squiggly writing with arrows pointing everywhere. And long long lines snaking in every direction. It was a little scary. I stood there thinking, what in the world are we doing here?
Now, I realize that present-day wives would have googled the life out of every possible link to Japan and would probably even speak the language, but for me, the moon would have looked more familiar. Maybe this was all a mistake. We could just tell Head Office that we were not very good at this expat business. But then, they had only bought us one-way tickets. Deep in my thoughts, I was startled when Paul dumped our carry-on bags at my feet. He said, “Someone from the bank is meeting us but we have to get through Immigration first. Stay here. Don’t move. I’ll see if I can get some help.”
I looked at him. “And where would we go?”
“I’ll try to find someone who speaks English.” And off he went into the swirling, bowing, chattering crowd. I stood there watching his head move through the mob and thought, At least, there’s one advantage to being American. At a quite respectable but average five foot ten at home, Paul towered over everyone here like the mast of a tall ship moving across the sea. It was very reassuring. I wouldn’t lose track of him. But what if he couldn’t find someone who spoke English.
Suddenly, Pauley piped up, “Mommie. I’m tired. Can we go back to our house now?” and he began peeling off his sweater.
“No, no leave your sweater on. In just a minute, we are going to our new house.”
He began to wail, escalating to an astonishing pitch. “I don’t want a new house. I want to go HOMMME.”
People were staring.
“Wait, wait. Daddy’s coming.” That got his attention and the wail cut to a whimper. But then Ryan took up the gauntlet and began a wail of his own. Oh, Oh. Where is the bag with the bottles? Does he need a bottle? Let’s see. It’s about 10:00 p.m. Tokyo time. Do I give him tonight’s bottle or yesterday afternoon’s bottle? Maybe Paul can figure it out.
I had just spotted him on the far side of the room and was watching his head returning. He didn’t need to know where he had left us. He could hear us. In his wake followed a small man, probably in his mid sixties, dressed in a grey official-looking outfit. He seemed friendly and smiled as Paul introduced him, “This is Mr. Sakamoto from Immigration. He speaks some English and is going to help us.” At that point our new friend bowed, I bowed, he bowed, I bowed. This bowing business was tricky. How did you know when to stop? Finally, we were both standing upright at the same time. I was feeling a little dizzy. Then, he said in heavily accented English, “Good morning.”
At ten o’clock at night, this was not a good omen, but he seemed anxious to help. So, with our guide at the helm, the four of us were caught up in the swell of humanity as we moved through various posts with serious looking officials mumbling “Passaporto Dozo”. Each one stamped our passports and piles of other important looking papers, but as we moved along the line, I began to worry. How were we going to find our luggage? Then, out of the blue, our five giant suitcases suddenly appeared. There they were, piled high on a bright red cart.
Finally, clutching our properly stamped papers, we were able to take leave of our trusty guide, and after several more dizzying bows and profuse “Thank you’s”, we squared our shoulders and prepared for our next move. As we stepped through the door to the crowded waiting room jammed with thousands of relatives and long lost friends, I thought to myself. Now, this is big time scary. We are really on our own.
Paul didn’t look too sure either and he hesitated as he looked around, “Someone from the Bank should be here. Look for a sign.”
I said, “But what if no one came to meet us?” But, before I could imagine any more horrible possibilities, I spotted our name. There amidst a sea of waving signs – MAYNARD in big black letters. Next to the Japanese man holding the sign stood a tall thin American-looking fellow. We were saved. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As we threaded our way across the room, dragging the boys and pushing the luggage cart, he walked towards us reaching out his hand, “Hello. I’m Rod Steiner, Operations Officer. And this is Okada-san, your driver.” The Japanese man looked very serious but he smiled and bowed. We bowed and I thought, here we go again. But as it turned out, Okada-san was a man of few bows. Actually, we had been told that there were rules for bowing but no one told us what they were. In this case, though, a one-return bow seemed to do the trick.
Rod continued, “Okada-san here will take your luggage and meet you out front. I’ll go on ahead in my own car and meet you at the hotel just to make sure everything is ready for you.” Then, with a quick nod, our new driver took possession of our worldly goods and was gone. As I watched him disappear through the crowds, Rod said, “I think you’ll like Okada-san. It’s hard to believe but he drove a Japanese tank during World War II.”
“Really? But he’s on our side now, right?”
Rod laughed. “Oh, he’s very kind and loyal, and he speaks good English too.” Then he added, “They say he loves children.”
Looking down at our tear-stained and bedraggled boys, I thought, I hope so.
He turned to Paul and added, “The Bank is just a couple of blocks away from the Palace Hotel, where you’ll be staying. Also, you’ll be situated just across the street from the Imperial Palace, which has beautiful gardens and great running spaces for the boys.”
On the ride in from Haneda Airport, Okada-san had suggested that Pauley sit in the front seat with him like a big boy, while the three of us huddled in the back. Ryan had finally dozed off. It was about time, after all. He had spent the entire eighteen hour trip honing his newly acquired walking skills. I still wondered though, if yesterday’s bottle counted as tonight’s bottle. But far be it for me to wake him up and ask him.
As we sped along the highway into the city, it was immediately clear that the Japanese had fallen big time for neon lights. On every building, there were glitzy images of cars, cameras, stereos and a lot more of that writing, too. It was mind-boggling. Suddenly, Paul pointed out the window. There, attached to a high rise building in front of us, flashed a two-story high replica of Da Vinci’s masterpiece with the words, MONA RISA.
The Palace Hotel was lit up brighter than Disneyland but, then again, it was just two weeks before Christmas. Okada-san said with a smile, “Japanese people really like Christmas, but sometimes maybe too much with the decorating.” I thought, I kind of like it. It reminds me of home
It was 4:00 a.m. Tokyo time and I had been watching the little travel clock next to our bed for over an hour. Finally, I poked Paul, “Are you awake?”
“I am now!”
I whispered, “This jet lag is terrible.”
Then, from across the room, “What is jet lag, Mommy?”
Oh, Oh. Pauley’s awake.
Oops. Now we’re in for trouble. I made a mental note. When chartering unknown waters, or hotels, as the case may be, always carry your own midnight snack. Otherwise – well, you can imagine. One good thing about jet-lag, though. You are awake, alert, dressed and first in line when the hotel dining room opens for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. – and not too particular about what you eat, either.