We’re Huge in Japan

I just got back from a trip to LA to visit the Whiskey brood and got to wondering what an appropriate age might be for sending the kids down to visit their cousins, sans parenti. Considering that I have nightmares about putting my kid on a school bus, I’m thinking it’ll be a long while before that happens.

In contrast, when I was about six years old, my parents sent me to Japan. Not to get rid of me, as far as I know, but for a sort of vacation. Other kids went to camp, we flew to Tokyo. Smokey’s grandparents lived in Japan, and he was heading out to stay with them for a couple of months. The invitation was extended to the newish step-siblings. Which was pretty damned generous, honestly. Or insane. Possibly just a polite gesture my parents mistook for sincerity.

I try to imagine my parents working around to this seeming like a good idea. I mean, travel…yes. Travel is good, right? And Japan! How many kids get the chance to see Japan? “That’s what it is,” dad would say, “it’s an opportunity.” And mom would chime in, “we can’t pass up an opportunity like that…can we? That would be irresponsible.”

Yeah. You wouldn’t want to appear irresponsible.  I’m sure neither parent was planning for a child-free grown-up fun having summer.

So they packed us up and took the three of us to the San Francisco Airport wearing dogtags and our passports strapped around our necks, in case we got lost. Then they put us on a 747 for a 13 hour Pan Am flight to Japan to meet our step-grandparents with whom we would live for a month.

What could possibly go wrong?

And for some reason, my parents thought THIS was the proper way to dress ones children for such an event.

Have You Seen These Children?

I keep this picture in my wallet to remind myself that, whatever questionable parenting decisions I make on a day to day basis, I have yet to send my children traveling internationally on their own.

The expression on my face, here, is enough to tell me I was not ready for this trip. I look way too happy and unconcerned. At least Whiskey and Smokey seem to realize they might in fact be heading off into some sort of little-white-kid cage match event. They’re ready for anything. They know traveling to a foreign country is SERIOUS business.

Me? I’m dressed like a goddamn cowgirl. A tiny, blonde cowgirl. Do you know what the black-market value of tiny blonde cowgirls was at that time!? I knew I looked crazy sassy in my cowgirl boots and jean miniskirt, and that was all that mattered. Only when we got to Japan and were collected at the airport by my new grandparents, one of whom I couldn’t actually understand, did I realize (not for the last time) that the adults in my life were not to be trusted with decision making of this caliber.

Whiskey, Uncle Smokey, and MILK. We're huge in Japan.

Whiskey, Uncle Smokey, and MILK. Even the onlookers seem concerned.

I could not have felt farther away from everything that had ever made me feel safe. My brothers and I were already accustomed to a certain leniency when it came to adult supervision, but we were also accustomed to buildings and streets and EVERYTHING looking and smelling and tasting a certain way. It had never occurred to me how different a place could be from the place where I lived. It was like walking into somebody else’s dream.

I was terrified. The length of my intended stay (one month) seemed to stretch out before me like years. And my feet REALLY hurt. I got out of the car and limped toward the house, unlike any house I’d ever seen or imagined in a million little ways. A crate of octopus sat on the front stoop – a gift for a favor Grandpa had done. Inside, my new grandmother eased off my too-small cowboy boots and unveiled three or four of the biggest, blood blisters you’ve ever seen.

Grandma, all business, got a bowl of hot water and a needle and I spent my first minutes in my new home wailing like a banshee and begging to go back to America. As the red blood swirled out into the warm water, and the pressure eased on my pale soles, she shoved a bowl of creamy rice cereal into my hands. There was more white sugar in that bowl of rice cereal that I was typically allowed for dessert, much less a meal. Different could be good, I realized. And Grandparents are the same everywhere.

When I was able to walk again, and was willing to brave the world outside our weird, tatami matted house, I discovered something else I hadn’t been prepared for. I was the whitest, blondest little girl any kid in that town had ever seen outside of television. That made me the most fascinating, brilliant thing those kids were going to see all summer. I was like a princess. Or a unicorn. Or a two-headed frog. Just, you know, special. And really, celebrity was all I’d ever wanted out of life at that point. Finally, I was getting the respect and admiration I so obviously deserved. Strangers stopped to take pictures with me in Tokyo Disneyland, and the only other blonde, Cinderella, gave me an unsolicited wave and “what’s up, sister” nod. Or maybe she was signaling for help.

The boys were absolutely in heaven because the fireworks were top notch, and because it’s impolite in Japan to say no. This system works well if everyone has manners, but we were Americans. We may have bankrupted our babysitters. And the language barrier turned out to be a boon when the boys learned they could do pretty much whatever they wanted if they just played dumb. Two hour wait for an amusement park ride? Just walk to the front and get on! They were true ambassadors for the USA.

So Japan turned out to be not so scary a place. Even for a six year old, monolingual white girl without any adult supervision. Except for the typhoon…and that’s not a metaphor, we were in a goddamned typhoon. (another story).

Still, considering the fuss she would later make over taking the bus, I can’t believe my mom was onboard with this trip. Despite everything my mother had ever believed to be true about the world (and would continue to believe), I wasn’t kidnapped even a little and Whiskey was not crushed by a bullet train because of his lack of any sense of self-preservation. Nor was he arrested when he smuggled a grip of Japanese grade fireworks on the return flight in his GI Joe carrying case, which was markedly low on actual GI Joes because, again, fireworks.

Cobra never stood a chance.

Cobra never stood a chance.

And, again, no adult oversight.

Our childhood was awesome.


9 thoughts on “We’re Huge in Japan

  1. This totally takes me back, you should have come the second time they shipped Smokey and myself off, we discovered Japanese game shows, pachinko and the Yakuza!

    • The time you two got on a bus and got yourselves completely lost!? No thank you. That’s the year I threw boiling water on my feet to get out of the trip. “Sorry, can’t go – 3rd degree burns. Darn the luck.”

  2. There were many occasions when I wanted to send my children to Japan. There were more occasions when I wanted to send them to Transnistria (even if it didn’t exist back then).

    Modern parents are not like that though. They may still tempted to send their children to exotic places – but these days no parent would consider subjecting their child to air travel, no matter how naughty they have been. It’s too cruel.

  3. What a great memory! I am also in awe that your olds went along with such a hair raising plan. Can you remember where your grandparents lived? I’m assuming in or near Tokyo, if you went to Disneyland. I want my boys to have awesome adventures too but that would mean me as a parent letting them do that and I’m really not sure how to do that! Well, yet.

  4. Pingback: Too Much Over-Self-Confidence | Milk & Whiskey

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