by Christine on August 12th, 2010
I’ve already talked about my journey climbing to the top of the volcano, Mount Fuji. That happened on my second trip to Japan, when I was in college. When I was in high school, I went to Japan for the first time. I befriended an exchange student in my high school who was from Nara. She said to me one day, “You should come home with me for the summer.” I was 16 years old and live in the cornfields in Illinois. I thought, “Fat chance!”
But..nothing ventured, nothing gained. That night I asked my parents if I could go home with Aiko for the summer, and they looked at themselves, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Sure, why not?”
Off I went to Japan for four weeks, for the entire month of July. In Japan, I think that’s the middle of the hot/rainy season. I remember it being hotter than I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was hot and wet, the kind of humidity that hangs on you and doesn’t let go. I was overweight, which means I was more suceptible to the heat than a thinner person, and it was really uncomfortable. I think I set records in Japan for how much a person can sweat.
Going to a foreign country as a 16 year old girl was, in some ways, easier than I ever expected, and in some ways, harder than I ever expected. It was easy because I grew up in a family (my mother’s) that spoke Russian. I don’t speak Russian except for some basic words and phrases, and it didn’t phase me much to be around people jibber-jabbering in a language I don’t understand. It was like an ordinary Saturday afternoon at my house. If I needed to convey any information, it came completely natural to me to use body language or hand movements. I never felt a struggle to communicate with the people around me, even though I didn’t speak a word of Japanese.
In some ways, the trip was harder than I imagined. I stayed with Aiko’s family, who were wonderful people. However, the moment we set foot on Japanese soil, Aiko decided to stop translating. She told me, “I’m on vacation. I’m taking it easy.” I had expected more support from her, but because of my background, I didn’t find it too hard when she turned off the communication with me entirely.
Aiko’s parents (especially her mom, Micky) were wonderful and took me to see many of Japan’s beautiful sights. Micky spoke very limited English, but did her best to explain to me where we were and what we were doing. She was eager to try to speak English with me, even though it had been more than 20 years since she had practiced her language skills.
One day she motioned to me to get dressed and get in the car. “Car trip,” she informed me, moving her hands like she was gripping a steering wheel.
Japanese cars are so cool. Even in 1994, which was the year I stayed with Aiko and her family, the cars were so much more advanced than the USA’s! Their Mercedes had a build-in refrigerator in the back seat of the car, located between the two backseat car speakers. That way you could get fresh fish and produce and put it in the refrigerator and not worry about the food spoiling in the oppressive heat. Brilliant idea! One day we went to the market and bought fresh shrimp. The shrimp were still alive, and were wiggling around in their plastic bag! Micky put them in the back seat refrigerator. They made the fridge lid go “thump thump thump!” the whole way home. I kept turning around backwards, wondering when the shrimps were going to leap out and land on my head!
This day we put some water in the fridge and headed out on the road. It was a longer drive than usual. I couldn’t read the signs; I couldn’t speak the language. I had no idea where we were going.
We ended up at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. It was 1994, and unbenonced to me (I’ve never been very good with dates), it was the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing. I only realized this fact as we walked in the doors, and the signs told me about the anniversary.
I never felt more out of place, more humiliated, more utterly American in my entire life. The moment I walked through the door, I felt all the beautiful slanted eyes staring at me, staring at my white skin and blue eyes and overweightedness that clearly identified me as American. I fidgeted. I watched for the exits. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to get attacked for merely being there, on the 50th anniversary of the USA’s slaughter of millions of Japanese citizens.
Visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, for multiple reasons. The biggest reason is because my grandparents on my mother’s side — both Russian — were concentration camp survivors. Born in Russia, both grandparents were put into not one, but two concentration camps. They escaped from both of them and lived a life trying to avoid capture from the Nazis. My mother was born in a converted concentration camp (after the war these places were called “displacement camps”) in Germany, for 10 years until they were able to come to the country. I am a first-generation American, but I was raised hearing stories about my small family, where they came from, the horrors they faced during the war.
That day, looking at the photos lining the wall, there was so much horror and anger and violence. I teared up, my vision blurred. In every photo I kept seeing my grandmother’s face looking back at me. It didn’t matter that it was a different country, different people. They were human — they didn’t deserve what happened to them. My grandmother was there, in every photo. All of those faces were someone’s mother, father, uncle, brother, grandmother. The room started to spin, and I felt sick to my stomach.
I went outside to sit on the bench, in the 100 degree humid weather. It was a beautiful outdoor area, with a beautiful view of the temple post that had been halfway destroyed by the bomb 50 years prior (standing on one leg of the post). The area was surrounded by trillions of multi-colored paper cranes, a symbol of peace, hope, and love. (If you don’t know about the history of “A thousand cranes,” you can start by reading here.)
I put my head in my hands and cried. I cried for my family. I cried for all the families that were hurt by the bomb. I cried for being American, for being a part of such a horrifying history.
As I sat there, a little old Japanese lady came up to me and made herself at home next to me on my bench. She was probably my grandmother’s age, not quite five feet tall, with a crooked back. She had a lifetime of wrinkles on her beautiful face. She sat down next to me and held my hand as I sat sobbing. She sat patiently with me until I caught my breath, then she looked into my eyes. Speaking in very broken English she pointed to me.
“Peace starts here. Today. With me. With you.”
She reminded me so much of my grandmother. When I was younger and my grandmother told me stories about the War, I was always astounded when she said, “The German people are the kindest, most wonderful people I ever met.”
“How can that be, Grandma?” I would ask her. “They put you in the prison. They killed your family. They tried to kill you.”
She would shake her head and say firmly, “NO. It was a poltician’s war. When I needed a place to sleep, the Germans gave me a bed. When I was hungry, the Germans gave me food. When I was lost, the Germans gave me love. The killers, those were politicians. The people, they are family.”
The Japanese lady holding my hand clearly shared the same ideology as my grandmother. I know this, even though we did not share the same language and could not speak to one another.
Love and compassion is powerful enough to transcend all cultures. All religion. All geographies. All prejudice. All you have to do is open your heart and let the love come through.
Peace does indeed start today, and it starts right here, today, between me and you.