by Libby James
My youngest grandchild, who will be 15 in a few days, has lived in Tokyo since she was two. She and I have not had many chances to hang out together over the years. I have watched from afar as she has grown into a beautiful young woman.
Gradually, over time, I have come to realize that while Brenna’s heritage is both Japanese and American, she has lived far away from America for so long that her everyday lifestyle, language, and cultural orientation, is Japanese. Her only American contact is through her school, ASIJ, the American School in Japan.
In my mind, she had become a Japanese girl. While I understood this was only natural, it saddened me to think that my relationship with her was so limited and was likely to grow more so with the passage of time.
And then, a few months ago, things began to change. A pandemic hit the world. Brenna’s school went online. She was confined to home. Her tennis lessons were canceled.
About that time she wrote a poem she titled I’m two but full. Below are a few lines from her poem that surprised and delighted me.
“I’m two pieces, like the way you split KitKats into two equal pieces.”
“I have two countries to represent in my body.
I have the responsibility to be able to know that nationality
I have the right to choose which one I want to make my home
But I don’t, because both of them are equally my home.”
“I have a full heart
Even if I have to change who I am between cultures
I will never change the kindness I have towards anyone in the world.
My outside might change but my inside won’t.
I’m always going to be two pieces
But always full—at the same time.
I was inspired by her words and grateful to know that she embraced her American heritage along with her Japaneseness.
And then, a small miracle occurred. She and her dad, Kurt, who lives in the US, had been in touch daily via an app that allows both visual and audible international exchange. Brenna wanted to increase her English vocabulary. In order to do that, father and daughter were sharing articles. Brenna read aloud and when she came to an unfamiliar word, they discussed it, she learned its correct pronunciation, and then she wrote a sentence using the word. They set aside a time to do this every day. I was thrilled when they invited me to join them.
Together the three of us have been reading detailed news reports and excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. He writes beautifully, with great clarity, and he uses plenty of “hard” words. Brenna takes them all on with glee. We laugh about alternate meanings and some of the craziness of the English language. Is the word “read” past or present tense? Or both? And how do you spell the past tense?
Sometimes our conversation strays. “Yuk,” said Brenna. “Dad thinks uni (that’s raw sea urchins) are delicious. I think they are disgusting.” And then they went on to discuss durian, a fruit that is prized by many, but that smells so bad that by law you cannot carry it onto a train in Singapore. This morning we were together for more than an hour and a half.
Her dad bought her a tennis racquet for her birthday but reported that she won’t be getting it any time soon. These days it costs $500 to send it to Japan on one of the rare flights headed there.
Who knows when she will be able to travel to the US or I will be able to go and see her? No matter.
Thanks to a world-wide pandemic, I have a new and fulfilling relationship with my granddaughter.