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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Photographic record of a trail-breaking career


I sometimes eat lunch with a close friend who has but one child, a toddler aged 2. He likes to show me photographs.

"Here," he puffs, easing up beside me and trailing a wagon stacked with folders. "These are the shots from today's breakfast, just developed. Yesterday's load I had shipped straight to the restaurant."

Soon he may have to add a room to his house to store the excess footage. Or perhaps relocate to Hokkaido, where a wider land can conceivably hold more.

Yet, how well I remember . . . that precious first child, who captivates Mom and Dad's total attention enough to keep a photo shop afloat.

For we too have our album closet, jammed full with shots of son number one. In contrast, equally cute son number two has but a handful of photos slipped into an envelope somewhere. A discrepancy that is perhaps unfair, but also quite common.

Still, it is not the volume of pictures of our first son that I remember. It is just certain shots. Those that identify the boy for the role he has taken in our life as a pathfinder. Just as much a pioneer in our international marriage as my wife and I.

Picture No. 1: There he is, on the delivery room table. A wrinkle of flesh no bigger than a forearm. With his mouth open, a hint of things to come. His father mugs wildly beside him, but already it is the boy who is the star.

By the time he is age 1, he will do what took his parents 20 years to accomplish: ride a jet across the ocean. By the time he is 2, he will touch upon a goal that his Mom or Dad will never approach should they live to be forever: native fluency in two languages. And by the time he is 3, he will encounter peer pressures that his folks never dreamed of.

Picture No. 2: All teddy-bear cute in his coat and bow-tie, off to his first day at kindergarten -- where the other children will form a ring around him, the haafu boy from America, and pepper him with rocks, while my wife will deny every instinct in her body and hold back, watching, thinking, "He has to face it alone sometime. Better now than later."

Our son reached down, selected his own stone and threw back -- just as the teacher turned to look.

Later he ran crying to my wife. "The teacher yelled at me, but I didn't throw first! They did!"

She cried too. "That's OK. Someone throws rocks at you, you throw back! Fight for who you are!"

Picture No. 3: One day, playing in the bushes, he suffers a temporary reaction to caterpillars. The photo shows his face swollen up like a bomb victim. Sort of how I might look if I ever ventured a round with Evander Holyfield.

The doctor tells him to stay home, but the boy insists on going to school anyway. His classmates somehow pin his distorted face to his foreign roots and tease him with names that knife his parents to the soul.

The boy is age 6 now and much tougher than they are. He takes it, riding out the insults the way a sea captain might brace against a storm, somehow knowing there will be clearer skies ahead.

And those skies came. Through various achievements and disappointments, new friends gained and old friends lost, he carved his path and led his parents through the experience of being international just as surely as we led him.

Picture No. 4: Many years later. The boy is 17 now, full grown and lean -- while it is I who have become the wrinkle of flesh. He wears a pony tail and looks the cameraman in the face. The eyes are brown like his mother's, and set under his brows like his father's.

The picture reflects a maturity beyond his age, a balance that has been tempered not only in the hot furnace of growing up, but in the added heat of having to do so within the friction of two separate perspectives.

Luckily, there are moments when he reminds us he is yet a teen. The way he can blabber on about Star Wars. Or the fact that at times we have to threaten police action to make him clean his room. Still, I muse, when I was 17, was I this well-rounded?

Heck, am I that well-rounded even now?

True, we sometimes wish we could water his sophistication with a dose of simplicity. We wish, for example, he could share in the thrill his mother finds in a happy burst of summer fireworks, or in the joy I feel in sitting down with a classic novel. Little things that hark back to our own growing up, our own histories.

Yet he has long ago learned who he is. His little brother, meanwhile, has encountered his own troubles, but has been spared a lot as well, for he had someone else charting the way ahead of him, breaking the hard ground first.

Last shot, one not taken yet: Our pathfinder son gets on a plane for college, his life adventure forking off on its own. A day not quite here, but undeniably on its way.

It may be an emotional moment at which we may be too choked up to do much more than point at the camera, hoping the picture will be able to say what we cannot:

A thousand thankful words.



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