The Other Side of the Pacific – Japan

The Other Side of the Pacific Japan As a young child I grew up a Caucasian middle class kid in a Caucasian middle class suburb of Seattle. My direct experience with the rest of the world was limited to trips up and down the coast to visit relatives in Oregon and California. I remember feeling that the west coast of the United States was the edge of the world, a place that even if it could be crossed, shouldn't be. In 1991, when I was nine years old, my mother informed me that she had been invited to a social science conference in Okinawa, Japan, and that she was taking me with her. The plan was that we would stay in Japan for two weeks, only three days of which would be spent working. During the remaining week and a half, we would travel alone. When we left, I had a vague notion that Japan was a place where televisions were made and where ninjas roamed the streets, but I had few expectations beyond those, and I was shocked when we arrived. At age nine I was approximately the same height as many Japanese people, and as a curly headed Caucasian boy I stuck out. My conspicuousness was not helped by the presence of my mother: A woman traveling alone with a child is unusual in Japan. There were few Caucasian people in the Tokyo airport, and the further into Japan we got, the less we saw. We spent much of our time moving from town to town, trying to see as much of Japan as possible and we proved to be something of a curiosity wherever we went. After exiting a bus we had taken to one very small village, the name of which I can no longer remember, a car immediately pulled over to the side of the road we were on, and a man climbed out. He approached us smiling and began politely speaking to us in Japanese. No one around spoke English and our Japanese was woefully limited. Verbal communication was impossible and as the man stood before us, a crowd began to grow behind him filled with people excitedly speaking in Japanese and motioning towards us. My mother pulled me close, and we were about to try to get back on the bus, when the first man that had stopped unassumingly ventured forward, reached his hand out slowly, and patted me on the head. Looking back, it wasn't exactly a greeting – it seemed as though he wanted to make sure that I was real, as if he had never before seen a Caucasian child in person and needed to prove that I actually existed and was not just a ghost. The group of ten or so Japanese men and women all repeated the same ritual, and although it may sound creepy or inappropriate, it was not. The feeling of mutual curiosity and good will was almost palpable, and I am sure that we would have been treated as guests if we had been able to understand more Japanese. After some smiles and laughter, the crowd dispersed and walked away, occasionally looking over their shoulders, and we continued to our hotel. The same experience was repeated throughout our time in Japan, although never to the same extent as in the first village. In time I grew accustomed to being patted on the head by Japanese people that approached us, although I never fully got over the shock of being so obviously different than everyone around me. The kindness and the gentle nature of the Japanese people we met-usually elderly men or women-never ceased to surprise me and looking back I wonder if they viewed me as a bridge between two cultures, part of a young generation exploring the other side of the Pacific, something not commonly seen. I do not know if that was the case, but the experience I had traveling through Japan has stayed with me, and probably directly influenced my restless spirit. Whenever I start to get comfortable in one place I always seem to find myself asking "What else is there?" Like the Pacific Ocean, there are many boarders and boundaries to cross and a seemingly limitless number of cultures and places to experience on the other sides. For me, the most exciting part of life is finding out exactly what that means.

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