There was a time when I lived in a luxury apartment in Tokyo and I had a housekeeper four days a week. I hate to admit it but shopping was one of my hobbies. In my defense, I must point out that Tokyo is like a giant shopping mall and it’s impossible to walk down any street in the city without glittering shop windows enticing you in. Yet deep spirituality and serenity coexists alongside the blatant materialism and quest for money. All of these things are evident every moment of the day in the chaotic melange that is Tokyo life. I’m not complaining. I love Japan and for all its paradoxes, I embrace it all.
When I left Japan and brought my daughter to Hawaii, all of that changed. There were no more shopping excursions and I had to work very hard just to put food on the table. I sometimes complained about the work, but I didn’t miss the shopping trips.
Now we live in a little wooden house that was built over a hundred years ago by a Chinese immigrant. His name was Tam and he was the eldest son from a large family. He came to Hawaii by ship and carried with him a small, bitter olive tree in a ceramic pot. He tended it carefully on the journey so that he could plant it in his new home. He knew that he would be homesick and he wanted to have a familiar taste of China.
When he got to Hawaii he built a small house in the upcountry of Maui. He planted the olive tree in an auspicious corner of the yard where it flourished in the fertile soil. Then he planted a yellow, bamboo grove so that when the wind blew through the trees, it would sound like China. Next he planted what his neighbors told him he needed to sustain himself: banana, mango, lilikoi, guava, papaya and taro. He tended pigs and chickens.
He brought his family over from China, among them his younger brother, Eddie Tam who would grow up to become one of Maui’s most illustrious mayors and he added on to the house to accommodate his family.
We were lucky enough to move into the house just after it was remodeled but the outside looks much the same as it did in Tam’s day. The Chinese olive tree towers over the house and shades the street, pelting innocent cats and playing children with olives when the wind blows. The rain beats down on the corrugated tin roof and the wild descendants of Tam’s chickens run through the yard chasing my cat into her hiding place under the house.
Not a day goes by that we are not grateful for our little Hawaiian house.
Some years ago my daughter came home from school with an assignment to create a power point presentation on her family history. I told her what I remembered about my family and then urged her to call her father in Japan. He had always been very quiet about his family history but because it was a school assignment he rallied to the cause and sent photos and stories of his famous ancestor, Jirocho.
My daughter and I were both astonished to discover that Jirocho was a 19th century folk hero, known as the Robin Hood of Japan. Legend has it that he was a young, charismatic samurai who started out as nothing more than a common gambler. In time he became an undefeated super-swordsman who rushed to the aid of the innocent in Edo era Japan.
His legend grew until over one hundred films were made about his life and adventures. Twenty five of these were silent films that have been all but lost. For most, only the still photos survive. No one knows just how much of Jirocho’s legend is true but he was very famous in his own lifetime and he was the only person to ever receive a commendation from the Emperor Meiji.
Though many of his exploits were probably embellished, Jirocho himself was not prone to exaggeration. Late in his life, someone asked how it was that he had never been defeated in a duel. Jirocho replied, “If someone was skillful enough to defeat me, I ran away!”
Good stories are what we are made of. Share them and we live forever.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin
When I was nineteen I went to Mexico for a year. I thought I would learn a little Spanish and return home the same person I was before. But living overseas changes the traveler and I returned home a different person.
I lived with the Lorenzo family. Senor and Senora Lorenzo were school teachers. They worked hard all week but every weekend there was a party to attend. There were weddings, Quinceanera and family parties. When the music started, grandparents, parents and children all danced together. And they often danced until 3 am. When the children were tired, the parents picked them up and continued dancing while the children dozed on their shoulders. For the Lorenzos, any celebration was an excuse to dance. I couldn’t imagine my family in America dancing together for any reason.
The first words I learned in Spanish were cantar, bailar, disfrutar, Sing, dance, enjoy. And I learned to celebrate life with abandon.
Next I went to live in France and I learned to enjoy the simplicity of eating and conversing with others. I learned to never talk about politics or anything upsetting at the table. The French believe it’s healthy to only talk about pleasant things while eating. Consequently, they spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about food and its preparation. Not too surprising, the first words I learned in French were les miette or bread crumbs and the names of various kitchen utensils.
In Japan, I learned the grace of living in a crowd. The first words I learned were Sumimasen, Gomen nasai, Arigato Gozaimasu. Excuse me. I’m sorry. Thank you. And eventually I found the stillness within, necessary for being at peace amid the chaos of Tokyo.
When I finally moved back to American soil, I chose Hawaii, the most exotic state I could think of. At first, personal transformation happened much more slowly in the familiar American setting.
But Hawaii has a generous spirit and it is here that I learned about courage. Not just the courage to take my young daughter and move to a state where I knew no one, but the courage to find true happiness by joyfully anticipating change.