Saturday, March 20, 2010

Outside In (by Liz Sheffield)

The first time I went to Japan I was sixteen years old. My ability to speak Japanese was limited to singing (off key) the lyrics of a Japanese folk song, "Sakura". During my interview with the sister city selection committee, I sat on my sweaty palms to stop my hands from shaking, but despite my nervousness the committee chose me as part of a delegation to Sapporo. Three brief weeks sparked an interest in a foreign culture that inspired me to return to Japan five years later after I graduated from college.

As the plane landed in Tokyo, I listened to the flight attendant in her high-pitched, polite Japanese and realized I didn’t understand a word she was saying. I got off the plane with three huge, black suitcases, my size nine feet, and a Japanese-English dictionary I would carry with me at all times. I stayed for three years, teaching English in junior and senior public high schools. My ability to speak Japanese improved dramatically. I came to enjoy discussing the pluses and minuses of natto (fermented soy beans) with taxi drivers on my way home after nights out on the town singing karaoke. I got over the fact that, at five feet four inches, I was taller than sixty or seventy percent of the women I met and was grateful to my mother for shipping me a new pair of shoes at least once a year.

Twenty years later, I look back at myself as that nervous sixteen-year-old girl answering questions about how I’d handle people staring at me or what I’d do if I couldn’t explain myself in English. I don’t remember how I answered. What I do know is that returning to Japan as a young woman, and living there by myself, helped me get comfortable in my own skin.

That’s one reason I so enjoyed reading American Fuji. Gaby Stanton makes sense. I understand the life she found and created in Japan. I get it that even though she’s an outsider, Japan becomes an integral part of who Gaby is. Just like it is for me.

Liz Sheffield
Photo of bicycle in the snow by Liz Sheffield.

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