I was born to live overseas.
As a child it was my lifelong dream to live in another country. It was so embedded in me that it became one of my goals in life.
My dad always said that the future is in the “far east”. Back then the words “far east” meant Japan because of its booming economy. I was about eight years of age and my parents had enrolled the three of us in Japanese school which was located at the Hongwangji Mission on Church Road in my hometown. There I had a sensei from Japan who introduced us to the basics of the Japanese language; hiragana and katakana. I also learned about Japanese folklore, songs, and dance as well as how to make mochi using the usu.
Ironically I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition. Even more ironic was the fact that the local Southern Baptist Church and the Hongwangji were neighbors. So on Sundays I would be at the First Baptist Church of Waimea. But I would be at the Kamuela Hongwangji during the weekdays.
I loved Japanese culture. I especially adored their kimonos for their vivid colors and their intricate handiwork. I admired traditional wood prints for their attention to artistic detail and craftsmanship.
I also loved Japanese food especially sushi and mochi. And while most tourists turn their noses up on raw fish I devoured sashimi with ease. I loved its freshness and the fact that I don’t have to deal with the tiny fish bones. And anything with a teriyaki sauce was music to my taste buds.
But the thing that attracted me to Japanese culture the most was Japanese kawaiiness or cuteness, all embodied in their toys and crafts. I loved looking at all Japanese dolls from the whimsical to the traditional. Like many girls my age I squealed with excitement every time my relatives from Honolulu came to visit because they always gave us Hello Kitty and My Melody pencil cases. And when guests from Japan came to visit they would always bring more kawaiiness. One of them even brought a kendama, a toy that looks like a wooden mallet with a peg and a ball tied to it.
In short, I was in love with Japanese culture. I was so much in love with it that I believed that God was calling to live and work in Japan. I started to prepare. I would go to our local library and borrow books on foreign exchange student programs. I would show these brochures to my parents pleading with them to at least allow me to apply.
They said no.
“We can’t afford to send you overseas.”
I was devastated but undeterred. If I couldn’t go as a student maybe I could go as a missionary.
In high school I had classmates from all over the world. They came from South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Germany, and Scotland.
And, of course, Japan.
I also continued studying Japanese because it was offered at my school.
Because of this exposure I started showing an interest in learning about other countries besides Japan. Every time my church invited a missionary who had just returned from overseas I would be the first to knock at the church door just so that I could get the best seats to view their slide show. One of them mentioned that if anyone wanted to write him and his family we could find their address in the Foreign Mission Board’s booklet of missionary family addresses.
Guess what I did?
As a teenager I bought teeny bop magazines like Teen Beat and Pop Hits. Pop Hits, a British teen magazine had a pen pals page. It would list the names and profiles of young people my age looking for pen pals. It also listed their addresses. Many of them lived in countries outside the USA. I had pen pals from England, Pakistan, and Sweden. My British pal was actually an overseas Chinese like me. I know because she sent of a photo of herself. My pal from Lahore, Pakistan was a model in London and my Swedish friend was a girl named Lena who was just a year older than me.
We would write about our lives and our likes. I was into the Norwegian band A-ha and the British duo Pet Shop Boys. One of my buddies was into another British group Duran Duran. She’d send me posters and pics of my favorite singers and I would reciprocate by sending her Duran Duran pictures.
Despite my ever expanding horizons I still had a passion for mission work in Japan. After all, God called me.
When I arrived at the University of Hawaii at Hilo to start my undergraduate studies, I chose to major in Japanese against the advice of my Mom who wanted me to major in something that would put food on the table. But like I said, God had called me and I was determined to carry out His will no matter what anybody else said. For four years I stuck with my plan. I joined the Japanese ensemble. I tutored Japanese students in their English speaking and writing abilities.
I was also active in a student religious organization on campus called the Baptist Student Union (BSU). I would invite my international friends to our Thanksgiving and Christmas parties as a way to introduce them to Christ. I saw this as my training ground – a missionary in training.
The BSU, in accordance with local Southern Baptist churches, and with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, also provided summer mission opportunities for interested students. In 1992, there were two summer mission opportunities. One was to Barcelona, Spain. The other was to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Barcelona was appealing because I would be right in the middle of Olympic fever. Barcelona was the host city for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. The fact that I would be in contact with so many people from around the world was a huge draw.
Knoxville also had something of interest. Although I would still be on US soil, the church there was looking for someone who could bridge the gap between the local women and the Japanese families who had just arrived. I put my name in for both positions because I felt qualified to do both and it didn’t matter to me where I was sent.
Eventually the decision was made. I was to pack my bags for Knoxville, Tennessee.
My job there was to establish an exchange program between the Knoxville ladies and the Japanese women who had just moved to the area.
Blount County, where Knoxville is located, had just opened up to foreign investment and Toyota was one of the first Japanese auto companies to open a plant and provide job opportunities for local residents. To do this company executives from Japan needed to move their families to the States.
The church members of Broadway Baptist Church, the church I was working with, knew where most of the Japanese families lived. I depended on their local knowledge and they depended of me for my cultural knowledge and know-how.
I would usually go knocking on doors with my hostess, an elderly woman of Italian descent by the name of Christina. We would knock on every door and hand out fliers about Vacation Bible School and picnics to everyone local or foreign.When we came to a local residence, we’d be greeted by a kid or one of their parents. When we visited a Japanese home, however, more often than not, the only adult in the house was a woman.
I would then hand her a flier and try in a mix of Japanese and English to introduce ourselves and explain who we were and what we were doing. They would smile, accept out invitation, and say, “yes, yes. We’ll come. Thank you.”
But on the day of the events only local ladies would show up. No Japanese women. This went on for at least a month and a half. I kept on thinking, what am I missing? What am I doing wrong?
I then remembered something I learned in my Japanese corporate culture class. I remembered that everything in Japanese life revolved around pleasing the kacho, or the boss. For example, worker’s desks all faced one direction, the kacho. When it came to Golden Week, a time when workers get a raise and some vacation time, they would give the best gifts to their boss. Even the kacho’s children were given an honorary position even though they may be younger than the workers themselves. That’s how much authority the kacho has over his employees.
Getting to meet with the kacho of Toyota was key to my success. I was terrified, however, of Japanese men in positions of authority. I thought he would be much like one of my Japanese professors, a very strict man by the name of Honda Sensei.
I can’t say I was not forewarned about this man. When I was in Japanese 100, classmates who had taken Honda Sensei’s class said, “It’s difficult.” When I enrolled in Japanese 200 they said, “He’s really strict.”
When I enrolled in Japanese 300 I could no longer avoid taking a class with Honda Sensei. My moment of truth had finally arrived.
Honda Sensei was a professor originally from Kagoshima, Japan. He taught his classes mostly in Japanese and even though I’ve had at least five years of Japanese under my belt I still had difficulty in his classes. He smiled a lot but that smile could be misleading as in Japanese culture it is a sign of embarrassment.
But it was his exams that I dreaded the most. After all I had been warned. Since Japanese 300 was a translation class we had to translate sentences from English to Japanese and from Japanese to English. To prepare for these exams I would ask Japanese friends to tutor me. But on the day of the exam I would find words or expressions that I did not recognize and had not studied. I ended up writing down nonsense and many times I would be the last person to complete the exam.
I dreaded the Monday following the day of the exam because that is when Honda Sensei would return the tests to us with our scores. More often than not I would get a score below 70%, including several Fs. No matter how hard I studied I just could not master the art of translation at least under Honda Sensei’s direction.
As a result I was terrified of him. I was so afraid that every time I passed his office I would look away and quicken my pace just to avoid him.
But I could not totally avoid him since I was vice president of the Japanese club and he was our club advisor. Honda Sensei was much more approachable as a club advisor than a professor. After all, a bottle of sake and a karaoke box goes a long way. But I was still uncomfortable being around him because he had failed me.
He failed me. But he did not deter me. Remember, I was called.
I had knots in my stomach before entering Kataoka Kacho’s office. The day before our meeting my supervisor had given Christina and me an article about this man that was published in the local paper. There was a color photo of him along with a caption. The photo displayed a portly and spectacled Kataoka Kacho sitting at his desk hard at work. The caption mentioned his English name as “Andy”.
I had knots in my stomach because I wondered how good this man’s English was. I wondered if his English was anything like the Japanese ladies we encountered – nonexistent. I wasn’t really confident in my translation skills after failing Honda Sensei’s class.
I also wondered if he was anything like Honda Sensei. I hoped Kataoka Kacho would be much more approachable than Honda Sensei ever was.
Before we entered Kataoka Kacho’s office we made an outline of what we wanted to talk about. We figured that Kataoka Kacho was a very busy man and time is money. The meeting had to be short. The only issue that we wanted to address was to invite Japanese women to our culture exchanges. Our purpose was simple and to the point.
Kataoka Kacho was nothing like Honda Sensei. As soon as we entered he stood up, shook our hands, and offered us the two seats across from his. And his English was impeccable. I was stunned.
“What can I help you with?”
“We are trying to set up a cultural exchange,” I stammered.
“And we would like to invite the Japanese ladies to join us,” Christina added.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
And with that, our meeting ended and our problem solved. The next week we had a cooking exchange. Five local ladies arrived with their recipes and dishes. Three Japanese ladies arrived with theirs. The next week we had a craft exchange. Five local ladies arrive. Five Japanese women showed us how to make Japanese bookmarkers.
I was relieved to say the least. Success at last.
Someone back in Hawaii must have heard of my success because six months later I got a call from our state BSU director.
“Jada, how would you like to go to Nagasaki, Japan?”
I was stunned. My heart leaped into my throat. I was speechless. But I jumped at the offer.
“Count me in!”