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Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Rootless, wandering nomads on the shifting sands of time


Of all the things I have given my children (bicycles, braces and bald chromosomes) and of all the things I would like to give them (resilience, compassion and an early introduction to Rogaine) nothing seems farther beyond my meager means than the one gift I care to bestow the most:

Roots.

Like many international families, my wife, kids and I have trekked our way through life to the tune of "The Happy Wanderer." Various jobs, schools and houses stretch behind us like a trail of litter from a Japanese tour group.

For us, each new flip of the calendar appears not as an ordered unit of time, but rather as a window to some fresh opportunity. We live with our bags always packed and our fortunes forever ticketed.

Our kids have thus grown up in that misty netherworld sociologists now term "the third culture." Yet, the situation is infinitely more slippery than merely being slapped between separate slices of Japan and America. For with relatives far away and friends and teachers in constant turnover, our children have reached adolescence with no special anchors to any person, place or time.

Along the way they have of course reaped the "bi" bonanza. They are both "bicultural" and "bilingual." Though we parents worry they might also be "bizarre."

For rather than fit into any specified group, our boys tend to best represent only themselves. Fast on their feet and open-hearted, they own limitless futures . . . but have no handles on the past.

Not so my wife and I, who, despite living 11,000 km apart, seem to have grown up in the very same village.

In my wife's case, the town was a tiny fishing port on the East China Sea. Everybody knew everybody else and even some of the fish seemed oddly familiar. People lived so close together that if someone's tea kettle whistled, the entire neighborhood would line up for a drink.

Meanwhile, I grew up amidst an ocean of cornfields in America's Midwest. My local town comprised an immigrant population, part Irish, part Slavic, part Hispanic and altogether mixed up.

The old folks all spoke different tongues, but we young 'uns ran together in one tight pack. I entered kindergarten and graduated from high school with the exact same bunch of kids. To this day, the whole town feels like family.

Our boys have instead been raised in the global village. Yet, while there is indeed wonder in being able to share in the anguish or joy of various tragedies or celebrations around the world, those miracles of media somehow pale against the power and poignancy of real live neighbors.

My wife's village, for example, would mourn in unison whenever some storm-swept fisherman failed to come home from the sea. The folks in my town too would tromp out en masse for any local event: sports, festivals, parades or funerals -- whenever the situation called for involvement.

While I have since clipped off to a separate corner of the earth, that old tie still binds, a wholesome lifeline that I fear my children do not have.

Not that I haven't tried to pass it on.

It is summer vacation and my older son and I now motor through the streets of my hometown. He has the wheel, practicing for his driving test. I sit alongside and try to steer him into a relationship with my past.

"See that tree? That's the one I climbed the day Jerry Donovitch chased me with the ball bat. After I beaned him right in Soprano City."

"Fascinating." His voice carries the same thrill as a dial tone.

"And that's where Suzy used to live. Suzy in a bikini was so hot I think she's the one who started global warming."

The boy wrestles with a yawn, one hand free from the wheel.

"And that's Old Lady Ptasnik's house. We should visit her before we leave." "Who?" "Old Lady Ptasnik, your great-grandma's cousin. You met her before when you were 5. Remember?" "Oh . . . " He rolls his eyes. "Of course."

We enter the town cemetery, the perfect place to practice. For here there is no traffic and the cemetery lanes stretch on forever. Wood, McGinn, Domingez . . . the chiseled gravestones yank out more memories still.

"Later you want to drive down by the creek where I used to catch crawdads?" "Nope." "Or how 'bout we ride past the corner where the cattle truck crashed?" "Nope." "Or I could show you the restaurant where I took my first date? I hear it's a mental clinic now." "Nope." "My junior high school? My best friend's house? My dentist?"

The "nopes" pop out like a motorscooter with a slow idle. I turn to him.

"Don't you see this as special? Having one place so deep in your bones that it will always be a part of you and you a part of it? One place that is undeniably home? One place to which, no matter where you roam, you can always moor yourself down?"

He pauses before flashing the cyber-smile of the brave new world. A smile that placidly truncates the past and forever flirts with the future. A future of no roots.

"Uh, nope."

"Besides," he adds, half in jest. "Won't I always have you and Mom?"

He points the car down another row in the cemetery . . .

Where the silent gravestones provide his answer.



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