“Open Letter” to Son Studying in Japan: Things I Must Tell You …Though You (Think) You’ve Heard ’em All
All you readers who have raised children are familiar with the problem. There are some things you deem so important that you end up repeating them to your kids over and over. But because you’ve talked about them so often over the years, they eventually stop listening. (“Yeah right, dad,” “Yes I KNOW mom,” etc. etc.)
My relationship with family members is of course private, even allowing for differences in degree and context between North American and Japanese cultures. But this time, my usual desperate quest for a topic worth sharing with our Nikkei and ijusha readers has led me to an “open letter” to my son, who’s been studying at a university on the outskirts of Tokyo since last October.
The letter is basically about some of my thoughts on Japan and its people, possibly like some of our readers who might also be caught up in varying degrees in the complex emotions and workings of the North America-Japan cultural interface. (As for my son’s privacy and integrity, I’ll do what I can to respect them.)
In the way of background, my wife, now a Canadian, is of Indian (Kerala)-Singaporean origin, and I’m three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter Finnish (paternal grandmother), which makes our son and daughter an interesting “Japanese mix,” i.e. “a unique cocktail of Indian-Japanese-Finnish blood coursing through your veins” as I would jokingly and proudly tell them. We moved from Singapore to Vancouver nearly 14 years ago when the kids were about to start elementary school and kindergarten respectively.
While my daughter, like many Canadians, has always had friends of many different races, my son has tended to hang out with almost exclusively Korean, Chinese and Japanese or Japanese Canadian friends through high school and into a local university, which he began back in September, 2009. During his first year, he applied for a one-year exchange program with Tokyo University of Foreign Studies for his second year, saying “I probably won’t get it, but I’ll give it a try.”
Luckily he did get it, so we parents, happy with his opportunity to be able to study Japanese intensively for a year and also experience life there, sent him off from Vancouver International Airport only four months ago, with the usual pre-departure angst and emotional upheavals in anticipation of our first long-term separation. “But at least he’ll be back during his long spring break in February and March, and then return again in August to finish his remaining two undergraduate years here,” we parents consoled each other. In hindsight, did we ever underestimate the magical pull of Japan!
Barely two months after he arrived in Tokyo and began his dormitory life, he abruptly told us over Skype (the preferred means of international communication nowadays) that he’d decided to transfer to a Japanese university and finish his education there. He wanted to become proficient in Japanese and maybe even opt for Japanese citizenship when he reached 22.
We came to Vancouver from Singapore 14 years ago to raise our kids as Canadians receiving a creative, liberal education and fortunately managed to get our son into a reputable university that should equip him for global career opportunities . . . and now this! The following letter sort of sums up all the things I said to him during several Skype conversations, though he might have thought he’d heard most of them many times before.
We were at first shocked, as your decision came so suddenly and so soon. But looking back over how much you’ve liked Japanese things since you were little, from Pokemon and Japanime to J-rock, and how much you enjoyed Akihabara when we were in Tokyo two years ago, I guess I’m not really surprised. Deep down, I’m happy that you’ve “connected” with your Japanese roots to the point that you want to master the Japanese language and graduate from a Japanese university, maybe even going on to work for a Japanese multinational company eventually.
And to think that we were worried that you might not “fit in” and make friends soon enough and be lonely in the first weeks of your arrival in Tokyo! We thought you’d be contacting our relatives right away, but instead you plunged right into Japanese university life, playing guitar in a rock band, going out with new friends both Japanese and foreign and, I know, also devoting much time to your Japanese and other studies. I’m glad you’ve since contacted the relatives and visited some of them, because they were also concerned that you might be lonely at first.
I’m also happy that you’ve decided to become proficient in Japanese language. Obviously, you’d be much better at it after two additional years there . . . but do you know what? After primary and tertiary education in Japan and working off and on in the Japanese print media since the mid-70s, I still find it a challenge to write half way decent Japanese . . . so you too should expect this to be the beginning of a very long haul.
About graduating from a Japanese university instead of your university back here, you should also keep in mind that the Canadian one would look a lot better on your CV for life than a much lesser known Japanese one, especially if you want to retain the option of working globally.
You’re now enjoying life in Japan and want to acquire proficiency in Japanese considering, as you say, that future career prospects look better there than in Canada. If you are going to compare career opportunities in Canada and Japan, I can only say from a long-term perspective that you might factor in such things like quality of life when you’re ready to choose where you work.
Maybe it’s not that important for young people in the prime of their working life, but take commuting, for instance. I’ve always preferred a pleasant drive through not-too-congested streets through lots of greenery and along the water if possible, like in Vancouver and like how Singapore used to be if you still remember from your kindergarten days, rather than in a train packed with commuters. So don’t be in too much of a hurry to give up on Canada just yet.
And, this you’ve heard me say before, Japan is a very densely-layered ancient society with rich culture (e.g. variety of food) with strongly-held, complex values with constant, built-in pressure toward conformity that sometimes works in unfathomable ways. I’ve watched sensitive foreigners who want to gain acceptance, including those who are racially Japanese, even start seeing things and thinking like a Japanese without quite realizing it themselves.
So now that you’re there, you should keep nurturing your own, wider-than-Japan perspective all the more, including with respect to your future plans.
So for now, work hard and enjoy your life in Japan, including katsu-don and all your other favourite dishes. Did everyone get excited over there about Japan winning their record 4th Asia Cup soccer championship by beating Qatar, South Korea and Australia? It reminded me of the time we watched Japan’s victory over Denmark in the soccer World Cup championship on TV last year.