Kathy Pooler, a fellow memoir-writer who also encourages others to write their stories, just posted in her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog about a recent visit to Italy where she met her overseas family for the first time. See Back to My Roots: A Memoir Moment. What a meaningful vacation! Her post made me sad, though, as I have never seen my Japanese relatives. I would need a translator and lots of money because Japan is an expensive place to visit–and I would want to visit all over the country. Then there is that omiyage thing. Omiyage is “the gift you keep on giving.” In the land of respect and politeness, visitors must bring gifts and they in turn will be given gifts. Heaven help the person who brings over a tray of cookies - the return of the tray (never a throwaway) involves gifting something back, and then back and forth the tray goes forever, so goes the joke.
My parents could not afford trips to Japan, and omiyage was intimidating to my mother on a budget. My dad finally insisted on taking my mom back ten years after he brought her to the US, and us kids had to stay home “because you won’t like the food.” It’s true we cried for McDonald’s whenever Dad took us to Japantown in Chicago so Mom could buy food stuffs at Star Market and they could eat at Kamehachi sushi restaurant. I’m sure the real reason we kids had to stay home was cost.
The visit was just in time. Mom was able to reconcile some issues with her mother before her mother died. It was a sweet homecoming. After that, she saw her two sisters and their families only once every 10-20 years, and my sister and I were never able to go with her for financial, work, or our own family reasons. I rarely see my own sister, but I couldn’t imagine being away from her that long!
Kathy Pooler had the joy of seeing the house where her grandfather was born and of meeting his nieces and nephews. And eating Italian home cooking! Apparently in Italy they practice omiyage, too, as Kathy was laden with gifts by delighted relatives. If I went to Japan, I would find nothing left of where my mother lived. She remarked on all the changes after her first visit back. Her old home was gone. Her small town in the tea fields, with its dirt roads and wooden shop fronts, was quickly becoming a bustling bedroom community of Tokyo. She had only the memories – and her sisters. Johnson Air Base where she worked was turned back over to the Japanese around 1970, then abandoned. The remains of a few base houses are engulfed in overgrown brush, viewed behind barbed wire.
Someday I hope to go to Japan. Someday I hope to go to Holland to see where my dad’s ancestors came from. Until then, I live vicariously through people like Kathy and Kim Wolterman, another memoir-writer and history-loving friend, who has just travelled to Germany and Switzerland to discover her faraway family. I’m so excited for them!