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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has changed most of all?


When I look in the mirror each morning, I pretty much see what I expect . . .

Which isn't much.

Yet -- assisted by effort, self-delusion and failing eyesight -- I have, as the song says, grown accustomed to my face.

As I age it also grows increasingly endearing to realize that this bloody-eyed, nub-chinned goon . . . with more hair poking out from his nose than from his head . . . is indeed alive and indeed me.

However, there is another reflection that is not nearly so flattering. That is the image we expats greet upon returning home after years of absence.

For time and distance are not the best cosmetics. In but a few hours of travel, the familiar likenesses of friends and family -- likenesses which sit frozen in mind -- become speed-warped into the Twilight Zone.

My brain swells with puzzles . . .

How come our foxy little neighbor girl now has a butt the size of a Buick?

Or how is it that my teeny-weeny nephew now has a better view of my bald spot than I do?

And when did my pimple-grinned golf buddy trade all his divots for wrinkles?

Lord knows what these people now see in me. Who needs a mirror? There is nothing like a trip back home to let you know things have changed. To let you know you are not only getting older, you are arriving there in record pace.

When I first landed in Japan, traveling back home was not a cheap endeavor. Yet, as the economy zoomed and air prices turned flirtatious, my Japanese wife and I adopted a pattern of returning once every two years, kids in tow.

These days those kids still fly back almost every July, but jobs or other obligations always seem to tie Mom and Dad in Japan. In fact, my jump home this past summer was my first such leap in close to four years.

And who should I meet, almost right off the plane? None other than my old junior-high PE teacher, Mrs. Moore -- whose summer job used to be training Navy SEALs for suicide missions. Back then she owned a glare that could melt metal and her voice, raised in anger, could cause a tree to rip up its roots and tip-toe away.

Now, 82 years old, she looks fabulous. Ramrod straight and spit-shine alert, she tells me she still teaches -- meaning current generations and I share both the same fine education and the same fear of being ordered to run laps around the block. I ask her about my other junior-high teachers.

"Mr. Greer?" "Oh, he's dead." "Miss Irwin?" "Dead." "Miss Rawson? Mr. Cooper?" "Dead, dead, dead . . . " She spits out the word like a CD player with a glitch. "They can't all be dead!"

She pokes me right in the flab. "Sure they can. And if you don't start running around the block some, you might just join them." Then she grins and marches off -- as the rest of the town snaps to attention.

While there are few changes more profound than death, I still find them.

At home my mother has transformed into a look-alike for my grandma. My father, who in my youth once dominated the town's handball league, now can only inch about with the help of a walker. His hair has turned the color of a halibut.

Then come my little sisters, girls that I used to chase and tickle. Now they hang on the arms of their big-biceped husbands -- men whose faces say these days it is only they who do the tickling.

The town holds even more Rod Serling surprises. While the streets are the same, the houses lining the sides prove different. Old homes and businesses have been bulldozed into the soil. In their places stand shiny buildings and fresh houses with suburban brick veneer.

I drive about, bewildered. Like finding an old friend with a new personality.

Of course, phone calls and letters had led me to expect all this. But expectation and realization are often quite different.

"How do I look?" I ask an old pal. We sit, comfortingly enough, on the same bar stools on which our fathers used to sit.

His summation: "Like a silly geek who can't hold his booze."

"Thank goodness," I exhale. "I was worried I had changed."

But now he has his cue.

"Well . . . you are balding . . . and you have a paunch . . . and bifocals . . . and you act like you just dropped in from outer space . . . and . . . "

I stop him before he kicks into overdrive. As for him, the only outward change seems to be that he now smokes menthols instead of Marlboros.

But inside I know it has been rough. Two springs before, his son -- his only son -- killed himself in a bout with depression.

The tragedy hangs in the air and our conversation fizzles. That's the way it can be when you're an expat. It is hard to get in step with old friends and the life you left behind.

Yet . . . not impossible.

"Guess what? I saw Mrs. Moore today!" "Did she make you run around the block!?"

And just like that, the years melt away, and once again we are giggly schoolboys. Not a care in the world. Buddies, as we once swore, for life.

I guess -- in the end -- there are some things miles and mirrors don't change. I guess there are some things they can't.



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