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.