Wonderful Characters Who Taught Me Important Things
Happy New Year everyone, and thanks for coming back to this column again.
I would like to begin the year by talking about some wonderful persons who have taught me many important things at various stages of life—not that I’ve had the strength of character to be able to make good on many of these things. You readers must also have unforgettable friends, relatives, family members and so on who have enriched your lives, their personalities leaving a deep impression. Some of them might be like those on my short list of unforgettable characters.
First there is K.M., who to me is a near-perfect example of a Japanese Canadian gentleman. A warm and genial personality, ever considerate, always thinking about the needs of those around him first—but ever-ready to take the initiative if it’s for their benefit. He was in fact my classmate at an American school in Tokyo from 1960 to 62. We had lost contact after we graduated, as he went to a university in Rhode Island and I to one in Tokyo. But we were reunited in 2003, when I found out during a school reunion that he lived only ten blocks from me in Vancouver.
His attention to detail and consideration for others…these qualities stood out, for example, during two trips we took together. Back in the winter of 1961, he and I with two good buddies at school, one an Indonesian and another Taiwanese, went up to Karuizawa, Nagano Pref. to enjoy the freezing but pristine air of the mountain resort, practically deserted but for local tradesmen during the off-season. Already back then, he seemed much more mature and resourceful than me.
The second trip was when he drove us down to Seattle back in 2009 for the 47th year reunion of our American school class to spend a weekend with some 20 former classmates, most of whom we had not seen for half a century. As soon as we checked into the hotel, our main venue, he was making sure all the arrangements were in place for the activities planned. He’d also brought some expensive scotch, not for himself but to offer to others. Being an architect travelling frequently around North America, he knew the sights and the best eateries…in short the most reliable travelling companion one could ever ask for.
Another unforgettable character is “N-sensei,” who among other things, taught Japanese classics and calligraphy at the Vancouver Japanese Language School on Alexander Street and elsewhere. If anyone young or old wanted to learn, he offered his services, asking for nothing in return and without even a hint of hubris. He showed me the true meaning of service and devotion. One episode I recall is walking from the school in a group through mild drizzle to a cultural event at Oppenheimer Park, where he stoically proceeded to present a serious calligraphy demonstration to a small group of spectators, including kids.
He also came up with what to me is a quintessential expression of the inescapable longing some of us feel for the old country we “left behind,” no matter what our practical considerations. He once wrote in an essay: “I feel sabishii (feeling of loneliness, of something missing) whenever fall comes around, because I can’t hear the insects chirping.” His recollection of the music the chirping bell crickets would play around his old home took me straight back to early autumn evenings in my old family home in suburban Tokyo, long since gone.
Generosity toward friends, family and anyone else was what I learned from G.T. another unforgettable friend from my university days in Tokyo in the early sixties. I cannot count the number of nights I spent in his rooming house near the campus or his parents’ home in Yokohama after bouts of heavy drinking. As he was born of Hawaiian Japanese American parents, who grew up in Japan, we had many things to share, talk about.
“Want some chicken?” were the first words he uttered when we met for the first time at a beach party near Yokohama. That summer of 1962, I had just graduated from the aforementioned American school, and he from a US Navy dependents’ high school, and we ended up going to the same international university near Tokyo
We resumed our friendship around 1968 while I was working in Washington, D.C. and he was undergoing training at a US army camp in neighbouring Baltimore, getting ready to go to Vietnam. In the early seventies, I was trying to find employment in the US, when he took me in with him in Denver, Colorado, no conditions attached. By then he was working in an airline office there. A natural-born cook, if there was food to be prepared at parties and family gatherings, he would beat everyone else to it, and then serve it and watched as everyone tucked in. He would stand there grinning with a can of beer in hand, happy just to see everyone enjoying his creations.
When I think of Y., a cousin two years younger who migrated to Venezuela around 1970, the words paragon of filial piety, the most important of our traditional values, spring to my mind. Having lost his father as a child and not having a particularly academic bent, he chose to go to Venezuela while still a teenager to start his apprenticeship at a family friend’s business. The many hardships he must have gone through never spoiled his cheerful disposition. The happy smile he always wore when we were kids was still on his face on the few occasions we met in subsequent years when he came back to Tokyo to see his mum.
He had launched his own retail business in Ciudad Bolivar in eastern Venezuela by the time he was in his twenties. Over the ensuing decades he showed the rest of us cousins what taking care of an ageing parent was all about. If his mother wanted to live with him and his family in Ciudad Bolivar, he would come to Japan to fetch her, and did everything to make life comfortable in Venezuela.
When she couldn’t adjust and wanted to return to Japan, he brought her back and found a home for seniors of her liking. When she wanted to move to a different home with care, he would fly back, via Los Angeles, to take care of that and all her other needs.
By now, you’ve surely realized that I’ve been talking about unforgettable characters who are no longer with us, despite my attempts to make it a little fuzzy. In fact, my old high school buddy K.M. passed away just before Christmas. But my sincere intention in reminiscing about them is not to mourn, but to appreciate anew the fine qualities in the friends, family, relatives, colleague or anyone else around us now. The hard part for me is trying to emulate even some of those qualities.