8: Standing Out

8: Standing Out

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Standing Out

Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.

~Dan Rather

I always knew my mom was different from other moms. It wasn’t just her appearance — her petite frame, black hair, and dark almond eyes contrasted sharply with the statuesque blondes who accompanied the other kids to school. Her speech was peppered with extra syllables, and sometimes words would come out in the wrong order. It didn’t bother me that she was different — after all, I looked different from my friends, too!

On the outside, our house looked like every other house in the neighborhood. But inside, beautiful dolls dressed in colorful kimonos posed in their glass cases. Our refrigerator and cupboards held foods other kids had never seen. I never thought about the significance of these items. They were just a part of my life.

At lunchtime, other kids asked to trade the cookies and candies in their lunches for the rice crackers I brought. And they asked me to show them how to fold squares of paper into little toys like cats, baskets, and birds the way my mom had taught me. If there was any malice directed toward us, my siblings and I were sheltered from it by our wonderful teachers and the other adults in our lives.

The only thing that bothered me was not having relatives nearby. Other kids went to visit their cousins, and talked about their aunts and uncles. My relatives lived on the other side of the world. I knew I had cousins, but I saw them only in pictures. When Mom talked to her sisters on the phone, she used a language that sounded mysterious and fun. At Christmastime, we got beautiful cards embellished with strange looking characters.

It wasn’t until I enrolled in a Japanese language class in college that I realized how great an adjustment my mother had made when she followed her husband to his homeland. Until then, Japan was an exotic faraway place, where people spoke differently and ate food that we couldn’t find in most Midwest restaurants. Thanks to the international students on campus, I learned more about the customs and culture. In the class I managed to learn several words and phrases, but there were few opportunities to use them once I began my teaching career.

Later on, I became a mom myself. My children inherited my dark hair and eyes, but they were not the only children of Asian descent. By now there were others — children adopted by Caucasian couples, as well as children of immigrants. They, too, were taught to celebrate their differences. When my older daughter was a toddler, my mother and I took her to visit our relatives in Japan. I loved visiting my relatives, but it was frustrating not being able to communicate with them. On shopping trips, my cousins, even though they were younger, watched over me as they would a small child, knowing I couldn’t read the street signs or make purchases on my own. Again, I was different. Now I looked like everyone else, but I stood out because I couldn’t understand. Was this how Mom felt when she first came to America?

Now that I’m retired from full-time teaching, I have more time to pursue some of my earlier goals. One goal is to learn to speak Japanese fluently. The single year of instruction during my undergraduate years was not enough to carry on a conversation with my aunts and cousins when they came to visit. I want to get to know these relatives. I want to learn about their likes and dislikes, to know about their daily lives, and share stories about our families.

They say it’s more difficult to learn a new language after you become an adult, and since I’ve been an adult for many years, I’d say it’s true. But I’m enjoying this new venture. Four days a week, I sit in a classroom with people less than half my age. Four nights a week, I pore over the exercises and diligently complete the worksheets. It may be more difficult for me to retain the new vocabulary, but I have the time now to do the work and practice. I’m doing this for me, not for a grade. But even more, I’m enjoying the connection to my culture. Every night when I finish my homework, I call my “personal tutor” to check my grammar. She’s glad I took on this task. It must have been difficult for her, having to be the interpreter for every visit to Japan, and for each time a relative came to visit. If I become fluent, I can share the burden. But even more, we’re building a precious connection to the land she loved and left.

I still think my mom is different. She is different in that she had the courage to leave behind everything she knew and go to a new place and build a new life. She had the intelligence to learn how to assimilate into this unknown society and raise three children, teaching them by example the importance of hard work, perseverance, and respect for others.

I hope I’m different too, and that my kids and grandkids appreciate the difference.

~Patricia Gordon

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