A life of courage, joy and independence.
Our most important consideration ahead of the big move, or at least while we consider the possibility of such a move, is the welfare of our daughter Emily with regard to the impact and challenges this move might have on her young life. In this post I’d like to flesh out some of the concerns and considerations which are foremost in the minds of Emily’s mother and I at this time.
First of all let me share about the type of childhood we envisioned for Emily when we first decided to come to Japan back in 2003. At that time we were thinking of how nice it would be to give Emily a chance to live in Japan, to spend her early years among her Japanese relations, experiencing life in the same community and neighborhood where her own mother was raised. We thought that by so doing we’d perhaps give Emily a chance to develop what I like to call a “Japanese heart.” The Japanese heart is something very special, and a distinct hallmark and quality of the Japanese people, who generally speaking are typically focused on others ahead of themselves, and who most often prefer the satisfaction of a job well done in the service of community ahead of any personal gain. I know that such generalization borders on stereotype though my experience has shown this quality of character to be real and something I hoped my daughter would acquire through the process and practice of being raised Japanese.
By contrast though, we also wanted to give Emily what might be called an “American spirit.” This quality is that particular flair and individualism which is typically more admired and encouraged in the USA than in the more reserved and group-oriented society of Japan. We thought that if we could get Emily back to the USA by the start of her teen years then this might have the duel effect of allowing her the experience of being a teenager in the USA while perhaps retaining the positive qualities of Japanese character she gained during her earlier years growing up in Japan. This might sound like we’re asking too much of Emily, though we believe this process is less about anything she has to overtly do and more about the simple fact of spending some considerable time growing up in both cultures. Our aim in giving Emily an American Spirit is to help her develop her individuality and strength of character, a keen edge of thought and expression as well as the courage to speak openly and critically whenever necessary. We also want her to develop a sense of caution and reluctance to follow or adhere to the pleadings of unwarranted or mandated authority, as well as an unwillingness to trust outright her own thoughts as well as the words of others which may appear unsound or perhaps shared with less-than-genuine intent. In short, we wish to make something of a rebel of her, in the same way I was made rebellious and a bit radical by way of my being raised in a time (1970’s) and place (Southern California) where such attitudes were then being nurtured and encouraged. I know that time and place have both changed and that social norms have also moved on; yet I also think there’s a good deal of that spirit remaining in the land where I was brought up, and I am hoping that an influential decade or so from the teenage years on will form in the character of my daughter some measure of the American Spirit.
The timing of our move may also improve Emily’s chances of gaining and retaining near-bilingual fluency in both Japanese and English. I read or heard somewhere how children who develop a first language up to age eight before switching to a new language (for example by moving to another country) will likely retain the initial language into adulthood. Japanese is without question currently Emily’s first language, and it’s hard to imagine her losing spoken Japanese completely even if she never uses Japanese again after we return. Though it’s not our first concern or priority in moving, I nevertheless believe that the timing of this opportunity is such to make bilingual language development and retention something to add to the plus column when weighing the merits of such a move.
Like language, we are hoping that our move will also help Emily to become familiar with not just one, but two extended families on either side of the Pacific. We’ve lived very near the home of Emily’s grandparents for the entire 10 years of our current stay in Japan, and she has developed many special bonds with the people who are her family here and created memories which I suspect she’ll carry and cherish for a lifetime. Now it’s time to create the same opportunity in the USA by giving her a chance to connect with and develop meaningful bonds with her extended American family. This move should also help to make this happen.
Finally, though we rarely talk about it outside our family, Emily has experienced some sad and difficult social challenges as a schoolgirl in Japan. Though it’s rather hard to pin down all of the details it seems that Emily is sometimes singled out for ridicule or exclusion based on her ethnic difference. These problems began around the fifth grade and have continued right up and into the first year of middle school. My wife and I are aware that some of the problems Emily faces may not be related to her mixed race, but simply to her limited skill and experience handling complex social and interpersonal challenges such as the normal give and take necessary with both friends and acquaintances, and we plan to do our best as parents on either side of the Pacific to help Emily identify and deal with such challenges. Nevertheless, we are hoping that a new school environment where her mixed ethnicity is less obvious or even a consideration might help her to normalize into the community of her peers.
In summary I think that this move – should we be able to make it happen – may indeed be the best thing for Emily at this time of her young life. Yumiko and I understand that Emily will face challenges through this process and that some of the positive elements of her current life in Japan may soon be missed and perhaps lost forever. Though isn’t this the typical state of being alive? Isn’t life to be lived with our minds, bodies and hands forever in one situation or another, today experiencing childhood in one world, adolescence in the next and adulthood through a long succession of differing realities. Such it is with things now for us and so it will likely be as we move ahead.