I'm sitting here barefoot in a Sunshine Will t-shirt, nursing a sinus infection, "Son of a Sailor" by Jimmy Buffet playing on my iPod, knees and feet tucked under me saza style, cool tatami reeds lightly biting my shins, a bowl of sticky rice and baked pork in one hand, chopsticks in the other, the smell of pan-warmed soy sauce and sugar tapping my nose...and I ask myself with a laugh, what events in my life led me to this place?
I remember a few years ago in a Seattle bookstore, I saw a book called "Everything Zen." Japanese architecture, Japanese religion, Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese gardens. I have no idea why, but I was riveted and had to own this book. I didn't have any previous interest in Japan. But the book spoke to me. The copy was tattered but I couldn't even wait for the store to order a fresh one. I bought the tattered copy. At the time I had no idea that I would one day live in Japan.
Last week I was sitting on the floor of a restaurant with Meegan, cooking Japanese pancakes. Eggs are included, but instead of butter and sugar, you add cabbage, pickled ginger, beef, tiny pieces of squid. "No, like this," I said bossily, instructing my friend to sprinkle on the seaweed after she painted on the sauce.
Today I stood in front of 42 Japanese students, waving a blank bingo card in their faces, telling them in Japanese, "Anywhere is okay. Please choose any box and write the words in whatever order you choose." The words, of course, being English ones. I stepped back for a second, staring at their Playboy pencil cases and striped bow ties and stern expressions, and asked myself with a laugh, "What events in my life led me to this?"
I sat there at my desk, hunkered over a bowl of tempura and white rice, Japanese words and school uniforms and test papers floating around my head...and as I bit into a piece of vegetable tempura I realized it was one of my favorite foods from childhood: fried okra. I grew up in the American south. But I was staring out the window at Mt. Fuji, eating the same food. I traveled this far to come back to the same food. And I wondered, are we really that different? That time I stole fried okra from my brother's dish when he wasn't looking, 15 years ago...there could have been a sneaky sister in Japan doing the same thing to her younger brother.
So how did the events in my life lead me here? It's one of those beautiful questions I don't actually want to answer. I feel like I forged my own path, yet at the same time, I never saw this coming. Two years ago I just never would have dreamed this. France, maybe. Asia? No. Yet here I am. I can't imagine my life now without this experience, and I am already realizing how much I'm truly going to miss this place. I'm not Japanese, but there was a seed inside of me I didn't know about. This place sprinkled that seed with water, and now whatever is growing will never be cut back. Like kudzu. That beautiful, winding, all-consuming vine of my childhood--a part of my happiest, earliest memories--it came from Japan.