Be Genki

By Keith Bouchard ’14

And then I was in Japan. Everywhere is an alphabet I cannot read and a language I cannot speak. I came only with a few things, but these, too, feel strange as I unpack my old life in an unknown country.

I am now what one calls a ‘foreigner.’ To the natives I am gaikokujin, a foreign-country-human. But as a white American male, I have not exactly been an outsider before. Even in normal things I find a kind of newness at which I must glance twice.

I gawk at grocery stores that sell tentacles and at trains onto which only women are supposed to step. Public receptacles are rare and bathrooms have no paper. Toilets with myriad buttons spray water up and out, blow hot air, and even play the radio. Serious warning signs are funny and cartoonish.

Yet some things are the same, of course. They buy Kit Kat bars and Coca-Cola, drive cars, and love the movies. The world is new to me, yes; but not alien. We breathe of the same air and need it as the rest.

My roommate, I find out, is from South Korea. He speaks little English and our first conversation is something like, ‘Weather nice! Great to be here! So good!’ We sleep in our futons on the floor under the shade of sliding paper doors.

That first night I listen to his struggles learning English. “As a boy it cost many tears. I was very bad.” But he studies harder now. His dream is living in America or Canada one day and for years he wished to practice with Americans like me. Our speaking together is what he calls, “A golden time.”

Days go by and I begin a life. I find a grocery store I like and a favorite place to eat. I search the city and I see the season. The plum trees, pink and white, have petals in full bloom. Facades of steel and metal juxtapose the ancient wooden castles. Then, overnight, the cherry blossom trees absorb the world in white.

Epiphanies come. I am listening to a young woman whose distant relatives must eat roots to stay alive. I listen to a young man who hides inside because his family thinks that to be gay is to become a woman. I listen to my roommate’s fears when, dreading news of war, he could be ordered home to fight against his will.

But all of that means nothing in our company. We study together, travel, speak of politics, share favorite books and music. We develop a bilingual mantra –– “Be 元気 !” (Be genki … or, Be well!).

Our laughter contradicts that language can restrain our friendship –– laughter as we ride our bikes through the rain to the train, as we sing in unison to songs we do not know at karaoke clubs. And together we are humbled as monks ring gongs at a monastery in the mountains, the golden timber hanging in the sunshine of the shrine.

I love this country and I learned so much each day. How could I have known that in four short months I would have made such lasting friends? They have taught me the most about myself and where I came from. I became aware, in degrees, that it meant something when I said, “I am an American.”

Whether this was good or bad –– I cannot always know. For some it meant nothing. But I am beginning to understand it. “American” means something new to me now as well.