I have lived in Japan for more than half of my life. I first came here as a nine-year-old child, the daughter of a missionary. Later, after several years of study and work in the US, I returned as an adult with my Japanese husband. You'd think that after more than thirty years here, I could almost call myself Japanese! But no. In this homogeneous country, I'm still a foreigner.
The role of a foreigner in Japan is, for the most part, a comfortable one. Japanese people are polite. They don't expect foreigners to know Japanese, so when I do speak it (with my learned-as-a-child accent), I'm applauded and praised. This role can also be lonely, though.
As I go about daily life, my five-foot-seven height and Caucasian features automatically set me apart; there's no possibility of melting into the crowd. Small children stare at my blue eyes and light hair. Sometimes, on a crowded train, the open seat next to me will remain open. Gaijin, the Japanese term for anyone non-Japanese, means "outside person." I must accept that I am, and always will be, a gaijin.
The room is stuffy, but the woman is shivering.
Her husband stands by her bedside. An interpreter that they've hired to stay with her day and night stands at the foot of the bed. And then there's me, the doctor (I'm an intern), waiting to deliver one of many sad speeches I must give today.
Smiling wanly, she struggles into a sitting position and shakes my hand.
Even with a diagnosis of metastatic stomach cancer, she has movie-star looks. She's only twenty-six--the same age as me. I can imagine her stepping out of a red-carpet premiere in Shanghai. Instead, having hired personal interpreters and taken a flight halfway across the world, here she is in this hospital bed, waiting expectantly for me to tell her what we can offer her.
A man a few feet ahead of me
is pulling a rolling carry-on,
a clear plastic "belongings" bag tied
to the top by a white drawstring.
I can't resist a glance in the bag,
like a stranger who wonders about lives
in the elevator or grocery line.
It holds some clothes, playing cards,
the ordinary things. And lying on its side
is a small helicopter, its unpainted
wooden slats as thin as split popsicle sticks,
a broken rotor bent awkwardly