My Second Choice

My first day in Japan, my host family put me on the train (the orange one, the Chuo Line) and sent me into Tokyo on my own for orientation and first day of class. It was quite the experience, but I didn't get lost and made it home at the end of the day!
One of my favorite images of Tokyo – Ochanomizu Station.

Looking back, sometimes in our lives there’s that one choice we make that seemingly changes everything, and affects everything that comes after it. We may or may not recognize its importance at the time. Call it fate or whatever, what appears to be an insignificant choice at the time can end up having a profound influence on almost everything that happens after, in both small and large ways.

I graduated from high school in 1970. I had applied to several colleges, but Lewis & Clark College in Portland was at the top of my list, and I was accepted in early spring. Lewis & Clark is known for their overseas study programs, and after my acceptance I was sent an application for the upcoming overseas programs that were being offered during my freshman year. The only one I was even remotely interested in was England. On the application we were asked to choose a back-up program just in case we weren’t selected for our first choice, so I marked Japan, the only other program where language proficiency wasn’t a requirement. I didn’t know the first thing about Japan, and didn’t give it another thought – I was going to England.

On graduation day in June I received a letter from Lewis & Clark informing me that I had been selected for the 1971 Overseas Study trip to Japan, and in early January 1971 I and 18 fellow Lewis & Clark students boarded the S.S. President Cleveland in San Francisco, and sailed off to the east. Two weeks later we disembarked in Yokohama. Right behind me in the immigration line were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had been on the same cruise as our little group*. At one point, John leaned over and asked me if I had had a nice trip. “Yes, I did. How about you?” I have no idea what he answered because I think at that point I had melted into a puddle on the floor.

Our group spent five months in Japan, doing homestays in Tokyo and Hiroshima, and living in a hotel in Takarazuka (located in the middle of Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka, and famous for the all-female Takarazuka Review). The final two weeks of our trip we traveled by train along the western coast up to the north, staying in youth hostels each night, all the way up to Sapporo for another short homestay. During our time in Japan we took language and culture classes, visited famous and interesting locations, learned to eat (and love) sushi, wasabi and other Japanese food, did research for a major paper, and improved our Japanese.

I didn’t see it coming, but in those five months I fell totally and completely head-over-heels in love with Japan.

Looking back, that one trip, taken when I was just 18, has played a highly influential role in my life ever since. It’s influence has stretched far beyond a young college student’s visit to a foreign country (which of course is one of the reasons Lewis & Clark holds overseas study trips every year).

Here’s some of what’s resulted because instead of going to England, I instead went to my second choice country:

  • Because of my desire to go back, Brett did two tours with the navy in Japan, when our son was young. Our first tour was for three-years (1980-1983), the second for three and a half (1989-1992). The second tour included nearly two years of living out in town like a local. That was hard at the time, but I now feel so thankful for the experience. We traveled all over Japan both times we lived there, made wonderful friends, and brought home some beautiful treasures.
  • I taught English conversation during our tours in Japan, which inspired me to get my Master’s degree in TESOL when we returned to the U.S. I had a wonderful career teaching English to amazing and inspiring students from all over the world, and am so much richer for it, as well as getting a pretty nice retirement package.
  • When we returned to the U.S. after our second tour, our son decided to teach himself Japanese because he wanted to read the manga (Japanese comics) he had brought back from Japan. He ended up more proficient than the Japanese teacher at his high school, and went on to major in Japanese Studies in college. He did his junior year abroad in Japan, and met a Waseda University student at a party; she would eventually become his wife. Following his graduation from college, he went to Japan and taught English for a couple of years, then worked at the U.S. Embassy for several years before returning to the States to attend law school. He has been working as an attorney in Japan since graduation.
  • When I went back to college, I took an anthropology class on East Asia to learn more about Japanese culture. My professor had just adopted a little girl from China and told me about the process. Two years later Brett and I travelled to China to adopt Meiling, and we went back twice more to adopt WenYu and YaYu.
  • Because our son and his family live in Japan, one of the things we were looking for in a retirement location, besides good weather, was proximity to Japan. It’s one of the reasons we ended up in Hawai’i, where there are plenty of direct flights to Tokyo, and a prominent Japanese influence in the local culture. I’ve been to Japan twice since we moved, and we’ll be going again next year to meet our new granddaughter. Brett and I are looking forward to spending several months in Japan each year once YaYu has headed off to college.

Of course, all these things might still have occurred if I had gone to England in 1971; there’s no way to know. However, I know for sure these things did happen because I went on that first trip to Japan.

I’ve always seen my life as a sort of giant flow chart. Each choice I make along the way, big or small, determines both future choices and the continuing direction of not only my own life but my family’s as well. These days I think carefully about how a choice or decision I’m making will determine or influence what happens in the future. But at eighteen I didn’t consider the future so closely, if at all, and couldn’t imagine that a casual selection of Japan as an alternative for overseas study would end up having such a profound influence on the path my and my family’s lives have taken, and for so long.

*I cannot find it, darn it, but somewhere I have the most wonderful photo, taken by the ship’s photographer, of John and Yoko stretched out on deck chairs, bundled up against the cold and wearing their puffy life jackets during the weekly drill.

10 thoughts on “My Second Choice

  1. Wow, it really is amazing to look back and see how such a small decision shaped your life in such a huge way. I love the story about John and Yoko which is much better than mine – I once sat in front of Dennis Rodman on a flight to Arizona! LOL


    1. John and Yoko pretty much stayed to themselves the entire cruise – they had a luxury suite with their own private deck. I couldn’t believe it when they ended up in line right behind me. I really didn’t want to bother them, but was shaking from anxiety and excitement having them behind me. No cell phones either for a selfie. John speaking to me just did me in – he was a very nice man.


  2. What a wonderful post! I wonder what your life would have been like it you’d gone to merry old England? And I can’t believe you met John and Yoko – amazing!


    1. I can’t even imagine how life would have turned out if I went to England instead of Japan. Very differently, I’m sure. It turned out that only juniors and seniors were selected for that trip that year. I was still surprised to have been chosen for Japan, although there turned out to be several other first-year students chosen as well.

      Meeting John and Yoko remains one of the highlights of my life.


  3. You’re right, we never know how our choices will change our life. Did you ever make it to England or is that on your bucket list? I was offered the chance to go to Paris, France by my college as a summer program for six weeks but my scholarship did not cover the trip and my parents did not have the money so I never made it. One of the big regrets in my life.


    1. I have never made it to England. I still want to go, but these days I’m not in as big a hurry. We’ll get there, but I want to see how things shake out after Brexit. I was also selected in high school for an overseas program, but my parents decided they didn’t want to pay for it (no scholarships). My travels in Asia have more than made up for not getting to England.


  4. Thank you for writing about second choices. Some of my second choices formed my life as I know it.
    John speaking to you. I would be melting as well.


    1. Maybe it’s a corallary to “be careful what you wish you; you just might get it:” “Second choices can be great choices too.” Or, “Second choices might turn out to be more important that you realize.”


  5. Truly amazing how life happens! After college, I was planning a “backpacking hippie” trip across Asia, and was only going to stop off in Japan for 2 days (concrete island, after all!). Ended up staying for 4-1/2 months, taught English (illegally), and was thoroughly enchanted. Came back to live in the mid-90s, and am going back to visit friends and relatives this fall. We’ll have to compare notes!


    1. Hi Greg! I’ve come to believe that you’re either, as you say, enchanted with Japan, or it leaves you cold. I met other English teachers when we lived there that had taught all over the world, and yet suffered far worse from culture shock in Japan than anywhere else – they couldn’t wait to move on. And someone (can’t remember who now) wrote that after one week in Japan he could have written a book about it; after a month, a paragraph; and after a year he might be able to get out a sentence. But that’s what I love about it – Japan is always interesting, there’s also another secret to discover, or facet of the culture to be revealed. A walk down any street is an adventure – it’s like nowhere else in the world. And, it’s safe.

      If it were possible for Brett and I to get a visa to live in Japan, once the girls were all off to school we’d be there. Unfortunately, there’s no visa that covers retirees 😦


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