Friday, March 02, 2012

Remembering Yuko

The other day, I came across our third grade year book.  RR and I pointed me out in one of the school group's group picture, but at first we didn't see her.  Her initial reaction was "Wait, where am I?" followed by an ". . . Oh." when we realized the she was in the picture, but her face was completely obscured by the leaves of a potted tree.  I don't have any comment to make about that except that if anyone was going to be obscured by a tree in a school picture, it would be RR, and that if anyone was going to get stuck behind a tree and not say anything because she doesn't want to make trouble, it would be RR.

But in the individual pictures of each class, there she is, next to me, unobscured.  Two places to the left of my picture is a picture of Yuko Maekawa, my first ever best friend (besides my sister RR, of course) and, for about the next fifteen years, the yardstick by which all future friends were measured.

I met Yuko on the first day of kindergarten.  It's been thirty years, so my memory is a bit hazy, but the way I remember it, I'd forgotten something--I think it was my nap mat, but I'm not sure--and my mom had to go back with me to pick it up.  I remember having left it at home, but what's more likely is that I just left it in the car.  I'm sure the reason that I left it behind because I was nervous--really nervous.  RR and I were going to be separated for the first time since we were newborns and I was discharged from the NICU a week before RR.  I was excited about school and the possibility of this grownup sounding "homework" that my brother was always worried about.  Yep, I was a nerd even then.  But I was extremely anxious about the newness of everything, and about not having RR with me.

As a side note, our school was a bit experimental and had no walls separating the classrooms, so for some time, RR and I would randomly stand up in the middle of class and wave to each other.

Anyway, my mom and I had to go back to get the item left behind, and as I was walking back up to the school with my mom, Yuko and her mom were also walking up to the school, at the same time, on the same path.  As we proceeded side-by-side, Yuko and I silently and openly checked each other out.  By the time we reached the school doors, I had basically imprinted on her like a baby duckling.  She had become familiar and a friendly, comforting face.

As it turned out, we were in the same class.  All the student desks were tables with two seats, and we were told to pick a seat at a desk.  (This was the first feeling of the terror I would experience in later science classes when the teacher would tell the students to pick a lab partner, and I'd worry that no one would want to pair with me. This never happened, but I never stopped being afraid of it.) I don't remember whether I sat down first and Yuko, much to my relief, joined me, or if Yuko sat first and indicated, much to my relief, that I should sit with her.  I do clearly remember the feeling of relief combined with the instant knowledge that I had a new friend.  That's how five-year-olds are: you spend about thirty seconds with someone, decide they're ok, and this is your new best friend.

But it wasn't just my relief at not being shunned and having nobody to sit with that made me like her--Yuko really was cool.  We got on like a house on fire.  Yuko was from Japan, and I had never met anyone from Japan before.  Her father worked for Sharp, which had offices in my hometown.  She spoke English well, or at least in my memory she did, so we had no communication issues.  She, RR, and I became fast friends. 

I credit her and my friendship with her for opening me up to new cultures and lifestyles at an impressionable young age and for RR's and my casual, unquestioning acceptance that although every family is a little different, it's no big deal.  (Well, that and that RR and I have a personally quirk in that if something new is presented to us, we usually just think "this is different from what I've experience before but it must be normal, I'll think no more about it.") I hadn't spent a lot of time with kids outside my neighborhood, but just from that exposure, I already knew that not all families were alike.  Even though our street was primarily white and of a similar economic status, each family was a little different.  Lisa, two houses down, didn't share her toys. She basically just invited you inside to show them to you and not let you play with them, whereas in our family, that was considered being a bad hostess.  Her dad subscribed to Playboy.  My dad did not.  Her family room had the heads of dead animals mounted on the walls, and ours, thankfully, did not.  Kim, across the street, lived with her parents and her grandparents, who smoked in the house and had raspy voices.  Her dad was a Shriner and listened to Neil Diamond, and for years I believed without thinking about it that those two interests had some kind of correlation. My dad was not a Shriner, and he did not listen to Neil Diamond.

So when I met Yuko, because we were so young but knew enough to know that rules and customs varied from house to house, RR and I just accepted in the way that children do that in some houses, you always take your shoes off at the door without being invited to do so.  In some families, they eat food that tastes and smells differently than what you eat at home.  In some families, the parents speak another interesting-sounding language and speak English with a noticeable accent, and they are very sweet to you, aren't loud and overly-familiar like some parents, and they offer you fruit all the time.  And in some households, the kids have much, much cooler school supplies than you do, including things you'd never seen before like pencil cases, mechanical pencils, retractable erasers, and this really neat brand called "Hello Kitty."  

I think because of our early friendship with Yuko, RR and I developed a habit of wanting to befriend other Asian kids.  It wasn't because we had a "thing" for Japanese or any other Asian culture. We didn't and don't think it was or is better than our own.  We think all cultures have unique, interesting, and wonderful aspects to them, and why wouldn't we want to learn about them?  And we like learning about other cultures from a sociological and anthropological standpoint.  And as far as people are concerned, we generally think some people are wonderful, some people are horrid, most people are somewhere in between, and where you grew up doesn't have any direct correlation to what category you fall into. 

But because Yuko was the first person of Asian ethnicity we had met, and because Yuko was one of the kindest, coolest, funniest kids we'd ever met, we generalized in a way that children (and, unfortunately, many adults) do: if person X is of group Y, and person X has character trait Z, then all people of group Y have character trait Z.  The paintings of clowns in my pediatrician's office were super creepy, therefore all clowns are super creepy.*  If Yuko is Asian, and she's super cool, then all Asians are super cool.  That the stereotyping we did was flattering to people of Asian ethnicities doesn't make our thinking any less wrong, but we were kids, and kids are stupid.**

*Actually, I still think this one is true.
**Whenever I say this quote from Home Alone, I always want to follow it up with the line, "You're afraid of the dark, too, Marv," but it's pretty hard to work that into a conversation or blog post.

Unfortunately, our thinking did make us predisposed to trusting that every Asian kid was kind and really cool.  Of course, as we grew up, we figured out that we were wrong about that, sometimes the hard way.

Although we know that not all Asian kids are like Yuko, our friendship with her helped create in us a mindset that other cultures are merely different, not inherently better or worse than ours, although every culture has some parts that are superior to ours and some parts that are, shall we say, unfortunate.  And it taught us that although we should be aware of and acknowledge our difference, you should focus on the ways that we, as humans, are the same rather than how we are different, or else miss out on some great relationships.  I will always be grateful to her for that. 

And of course this applies not just to people from other countries, but to anyone from another culture group.  For example, growing up, I'd always heard that "Yankees" were rude, and while some  are rude (just like in any culture group), for the most part, they just have a different idea of what it means to be rude.  So while they might be a little less circumspect in how they phrase things, they aren't actually rude.  Almost everyone I've ever met on trips to New York has been sincerely friendly.   So I learned that you shouldn't consider someone rude unless the person is being rude according to his or her native culture or has been in your culture long enough to know that what he or she is doing would be offensive to you. 

But even as RR and I learned to set aside stereotypes, one thing that never went away for us was that feeling we would get whenever visiting an Asian friend's house growing up.  The smell of the house just made us feel at home.  You know how certain smells just automatically evoke feelings that are tied to memories?  That's how it was for us.  Our friendship with Yuko was such a positive experience that our brains started associating certain smells with a warm, fuzzy feeling.  I really think that's part of the reason we have always had Asian friends, our whole life.***  Well, that and growing up, our Asian friends' parents were as strict as our parents, so my parents would let us hang out with them, plus we bonded over the experience.  Also, honestly, the kids with overly-permissive parents tended to be bratty to their parents, and that made us uncomfortable.  Things were much more comfortable over at our Asian friends' houses.  Well, and our one Mormon friend's house.

And by the way, I'm not saying that all Asian parents are strict.  Not knowing all Asian parents, I wouldn't know. I'm just saying that the parents of our Asian friends growing up were, like our parents, strict.

***Now that I've set up this theory, I have to admit that our friendship with our friend getting married this summer is the exception that tests this rule I've just made up.  Our friendship with her has nothing to do with any of these factors.  The truth is, she is basically the Korean RR.  They are too much alike to not be friends.  They met in grad school and had one of those instant friendship connections--you know, where you meet something and know you're going to like this person, and you feel like you've known them forever?  They then bonded over their mutual love of coffee and the fact that they were the only two people who did the work in their first class group project.  Coffee love + being in the trenches of a group project together=friendship for life.  And of course RR is my best friend, so anyone who is very much like her, I'm going to like.  Also, she actually is one of the kindest, coolest, funniest people I've ever met.  Plus, you know, she loves coffee.  Anyway, point is, maybe my hypothesis is false.

Yuko's father was transferred back to Japan after the third grade.  We kept in touch through letters for awhile, but I am the world's worst pen pal, so eventually we stopped writing.  But I never, ever stopped thinking about her and missing her.  I know we're both different people now, so even if she hadn't moved, and our family hadn't moved a few years later, I don't know that we'd still be friends.  But nothing can take away those warm feelings I have for her.

It's almost the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and caused the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.  Once again, I find myself thinking of my old friend Yuko and hoping that she's alive and well. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan as they continue to try to put their lives--and their country--back together. 

前川 優子, 会いたい

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