A man sweeps with vigorous strokes
petals stuck to the street.
A grey sky hovers so close;
it finally touches my face.
Instantly umbrellas float over commuters,
I walk in a current of skirt and suits, gaijin.
One face nears. She stops and holds out her umbrella
so insistently I accept,
then try to give it back, but she pulls up her hood
and disappears like a pebble dropped into a puddle.
I kept this umbrella
collapsed, this story in the folded
fan of my tongue until now:
I raise its spokes, its flower-patterned nylon
above a squall of self-loathing, I take cover
in that moment—her wrist still kindling my sleeve
~Julia Shipley, “Tokyo, Near Ueno Station” from Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry
In our six visits to Japan over the past decade, we became more comfortable with what was expected of us as “gaijin” (foreigners) while shopping, traveling, and attempting to communicate when we had neither words nor understanding.
We were always treated with utmost respect and politeness by those we encountered. There would even be an occasional smile or moment of warmth and connection which is remarkable in a city of 38 million people.
Never were we invisible to others – we stood a head taller, and could not disappear in the current and flow of people. Clearly we farm people didn’t fit in a huge city – just as we felt while visiting New York City or Chicago – we were not “of” them or their country, only visitors who would eventually leave and go home.
Yet Japan has left its mark on me and always will – especially in the lives of our grandchildren who are of two close-ally countries despite two very different cultures. The challenge of their mixed-race will be to understand how each forms and shapes who they are and will become.
And always to accept the offer of an umbrella as an act of grace and friendship.
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