Japan Firsts

I was reading the JET Programme Official Forums yesterday and someone posed the question:

What was your first experience with Japan?


When I was 6 years old, I hated the Narita Airport.

My family had gone back to America on “home leave” in 1994, the same summer that the Lion King came out in theatres. My mom took us (my siblings and I) to see it with my aunt and cousins. I soon became obsessed with Simba. I loved the movie so much and quickly became my favorite! While we were in the US, my mom bought me a Simba stuffed animal.

AAAAAmZqlV0AAAAAABqIwwIt was love at first sight for me. I had always slept with a blanket ever since I was born, but Simba and I soon became inseparable. Simba and blanket were my bedtime companions.

We flew back to Singapore and had a layover in Tokyo/Narita airport. Simba and blanket, of course, had to come on the planes with me. Carrying a blanket around was childish, but carrying a stuffed animal seemed okay. Before boarding our final flight to Singapore, I went to the bathroom, taking Simba with me. When I came back to the gate with my mother, they had already called us for boarding. So my family of five rushed to get in line.

When we landed in Singapore, I gathered my things and packed up my backpack. I looked everywhere for Simba, in the overhead bins, under the seats… but he was nowhere to be found. My mom said that I cried for about an hour.

Where did I last see him? In the women’s bathroom in Narita airport. I was so upset that I had lost something so special! But I was also a little angry upon imagining some Japanese child with my Simba. I imagined some cleaning lady finding him and taking him home to her child. I wanted to fly right back to Tokyo to get him, but… sadly, that was impossible. (I now know that the staff in Narita probably must have taken him to their Lost and Found, where he must have lived a sad, childless life… Sniff-sniff.)

They didn’t have those exact stuffed animals in Singapore at the time, so I couldn’t get a replacement. But, life went on until… My amah Maryflor took her winter vacation and went to Australia. She found that exact stuffed animal and brought him home for me! I was absolutely overjoyed. I think I still remember the moment in the kitchen when she came home and presented Simba the Second to me.

Every time I thought about Japan after that, I remembered my poor stuffed animal lonely in the women’s bathroom. When I returned to Japan by myself in 2005, I got off the plane and went to the restroom to brush my teeth. To this day, Narita Airport will always remind me of The Lion King.


My sophomore year roommate Asako snapped this shot of me while I was taking a nap.
To this day I am most comfortable sleeping while hugging something.

But other than that, what were my first real encounters with Japan and Japanese culture?

myneighbortotoroI’m pretty sure I was exposed to Japanese culture while living in Singapore as a child. I distinctly remember having a Japanese friend in elementary school. I went over to Keiko’s house to play a few times and I remember thinking, “Wow, we live in the same country, but our families’ apartments are so different!” I didn’t know back then, but thinking about it now… There was a hint of Japan everywhere. Kind of like how there was a hint of America in my family’s apartment, I guess.

Another thing I remember is watching My Neighbor Totoro in Singapore. My friend Amelia Henderson had the VHS and we would often watch it when we were at her house. We would plop ourselves in front of the TV and dance to the opening song. We would open our mouths wider and wider in time with the Totoros on the screen. Since we always watched the English dub, I didn’t really know that it was a Japanese animation back then… The same way I had no idea that Power Rangers originated in Japan.


The opening mouths of baby Totoros

And then there was also the Tokyo Disneyland commemorative plate that my grandmother had given me. I always kept it in my room on one of my dresser shelves. My grandparents on my mom’s side lived in Japan for a while back in the early 90’s and established some pretty strong connections there, so I was able to hear about their awesome adventures.

austin to singapore

The next thing that really stands out in my mind is my transition back to American life. When I moved back to Austin from Singapore in 1998, I told everyone that I was from Singapore. My classmates later told me that they heard there would be someone new from Singapore at the school, but they expected someone who actually looked Asian. They definitely did not expect a Caucasian.

That said, I was American, but I still kind of felt a little Asian inside. As my dad says jokingly, he is kind of like an egg yolk: white on the outside, yellow on the inside. I feel the same way because part of my heart will always be in Asia where I grew up. In Texas I felt a sad lack of things Asian or Singapore, so I began to seek them out. My mom and I even wrote a joint article for the Singapore American Newspaper about re-adjusting to American life. Or, in my case, becoming a “real” American living in America (since I had few memories of life before Singapore). I remember wanting to sit next to the Chinese girl in my class. I remember telling people where I was from and stories about Singapore.

I realized that I was not in Kansas anymore when I had a conversation that went like this:

Me: I’m from Singapore!

Girl: Oh, cool! Isn’t that in New Jersey?

As I began to integrate into my new surroundings and make new friends, I started watching Cartoon Network’s Toonami. Every afternoon, Japanese anime. I had swim practice right after school most days, so I had to record the episodes via VHS and watch it when I could. My group of friends were all really into it! My favorites quickly became Ronin Warriors and Dragonball Z. Not long after that came Sailor Moon and Gundam Wing, Escaflowne, Trigun, the list goes on. At the same time I started reading Japanese manga (comics).

About the same time I began to get into anime and manga, I started listening to Japanese music. Rock, pop, indie rock. My first rock concert was a band called Duel Jewel, an Japanese indie rock group who had flown in from Tokyo. This was in Dallas, Texas, at A-kon 14 (2003). I don’t watch too much anime or read much manga anymore, but I still love Japanese music today.

When I was 16, I began studying the Japanese language at Normandale Community College. I was still a senior in high school at the time, but was able to dual-enroll at the community college for college credit. I could have just graduated as a junior, but hey, I liked school and I jumped at the chance to learn Japanese. The class wasn’t the best of classes (they used a heck of a lot of romaji for the first year and never introduced kanji), but at least it got me on my feet.

215771_503936759847_31601346_30073747_1281_nI went to Japan by myself for the first time when I was 17, on a month-long study-abroad/cultural exchange program. I was paired with an amazing host family in Koenji, whom I am still friends with today. I experienced a lot of firsts in that month in Japan, and am forever grateful to my grandmother for sending me there as a high school graduation present.

After that summer, I started as a freshman at Lewis & Clark College. I requested a Japanese exchange student as my roommate, which was one of the best decisions I ever made. I started taking Japanese classes there as well, from amazing professors. It was at Lewis & Clark when I really started to learn about Japanese history, religion, sociology, language, culture… I was living with a Japanese person and making a ton of Japanese exchange student friends right there in Portland, Oregon. My interest in Japan really started to take off.

My college major ended up being East Asian Studies with a concentration in Religion and History. My minor was in Japanese language.

I could write so much more, but this is a post about firsts. I should cut it off at that, I think!

The rest is another story for another day.


3 Comments to “Japan Firsts”

  1. Read your blog on jan’s phone-she was here-and it was a
    fun read.You should put all your blogs into a book.Sure wish
    i were going to Japan too but know you twoi will have a ball.Love

  2. Your Japanese friend was the one who gave me my name! Mommy said she used to call me ‘kotori” hohoho~

  3. I was going to say my first experience in Japan was attending a sumo match on my very first day with a friend from LA who was visiting her fiancé. Then I remembered something even earlier.

    I took the hotel bus from the airport into Tokyo. Admittedly, I was a bit groggy from the flight. As I looked out at the passing scenery, something very familiar appeared on the horizon. Could it be, or was I hallucinating? No, there it was…Sleeping Beauty’s Castle! Talk about cognitive dissonance! (I had completely forgotten about Tokyo Disneyland…) That was my Welcome to Japan!

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