Life is full of the unexpected. Some surprises change your life for the better, while others are extremely painful.
All of us in the JET Programme have different reasons for wanting to live in Japan. Still, I am always surprised when I talk to someone who has dreamed of coming here since childhood. I often hear, “I’ve just always been fascinated with the culture.” Of course, I admire people who are interested in a culture with which they share no blood connection. That notion, however, is not something I understood until I entered my 20s.
I didn’t have a particular fascination with Japan, or any other Asian culture, as a child. My family celebrated its strong Irish roots, even though my siblings and I also share German and Czech blood. We went to Chicago’s famed Irish parades on St. Patrick’s Day, my Mom cooked Irish food and I studied the literature of the country. As a result, I always dreamed that Ireland would be the first country outside of the U.S. that I would visit. I assumed this would be on my honeymoon because that was the first time my parents traveled outside of the country.
But as I grew independent and traveled on my own, my worldview slowly changed. With the help of some scholarship money and my parents, I traveled to France on my first international voyage. Six months later, I left for an extended stay in Ireland, a country I still admire and feel a connection to.
But Japan is my home for the time being, and it is a country I love for many reasons. I will always feel a deep admiration for Japanese culture, even if I can never call myself Japanese.
When I visited Chicago in August, my Mom asked that I spend one afternoon organizing some books stored in our attic. I was taken aback when I saw the Japanese book (written in English) The Old Man Who Made the Trees Bloom, or as it is known in Japan, Hanasaka Jijii. The book was a gift to me and my twin sister Brigid from our parents. They bought it for us to commemorate our first visit to the Art Institue of Chicago. In this folktale, an old, poor couple in rural Japan grieve after their greedy neighbor kills their beloved dog Shiro. The kind and patient couple are rewarded, however, when the dog’s spirit brings them wealth in the form of gold and cherry blossoms. When I opened the book, I read this inscription from my parents:
July 6, 1991
To Sheila and Brigid,
I hope you enjoy this book. This was your first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 6, 1991). Mom and Dad took both of you on the train. We ate in the Garden Restaurant.
Mom and Dad
Never in a million years did my seven-year-old self dream that one day, I would be living in the same country where this book is set.
Reading the book again 20 years later was a very happy surprise. Thank you, Mom and Dad.