Raising a toddler in the Land of Target and Starbucks and neighborhood play dates is hard enough. But, what if there are no Targets? What if the food and the language and the faces are different? What if home is all the way on the other side of the planet? How do you adjust to a place like that? How do you raise a toddler in a place like that?
Here’s the answer: Just like you would anywhere else.
My son was a little over a year old when my then-husband was given orders to Japan. To say that I was shocked and less than happy was an understatement. If I remember correctly, I threw an absolute fit. A fit that would have made any Southern woman proud. I was angry. But, more so, I was heartbroken. I had waited until almost 40 to have a baby. My mom’s only grandchild. My marriage and my baby were barely a year old and here I was packing to move my new family to another continent. Another country. Another life entirely. How would I survive the next three years? How would my marriage survive? How would my mother survive? But, more importantly, how would I survive with a toddler?
Well, we didn’t just survive. We thrived.
The morning we first woke up in Japan after a 30+ hour flight was awful. I was jet lagged and homesick with a cranky toddler, a suitcase full of toys, and a bag of diapers. Maybe there were clothes. I honestly don’t remember. The first few days – first few months, really – were all a blur. We left our temporary lodging that morning and headed to the beach, only a few minutes away. I remember the heat. It was God-awful. I was raised in the deep South, but y’all, I have never felt heat like that. It took my breath away. But, my son…my son was in heaven. The sand was white and the water was clear and blue. He laughed at tiny crabs and played in tide pools and had no idea we had woken up in a foreign land. It was a beautiful land. A special land. A land that would hold me in more ways than one as I navigated being a mother and raising my child and missing my home.
During our years there, I homeschooled my son. I learned to cook yakisoba (Japanese noodle) soup like a champ. I shopped at local markets. I became an expert at local fruits and vegetables. I began to crave seaweed and green tea. I got used to seeing farmers walking their bulls on the sidewalk. I fell in love with the East China Sea. I fell in love with the people. I almost lost my mother. I did lose my grandmother. I also lost three babies before I ever even saw them on the ultrasound. But my son grew strong and into the most amazing boy. Smart and brave. He never knew a stranger. He was cared for everywhere he went by every Japanese person he encountered.
We may say “it takes a village,” but they live it.
He was safe everywhere. No, that is not an overstatement. That is simply the truth. That land didn’t just hold me. It held my child too. It embraced and lifted him. He shown like a bright, little star there. We both did. The first year was hard. The second year was good. The last year was a dream. When the time came for us to leave, I was anxious to get back to “reality.” But, in my heart, I knew I would miss that place. And, I did. Even five years later, I still do. I miss everything about it. I miss how time stood still. I miss my son at that age. I miss how my husband and I avoided the inevitable divorce. I miss how every single day was filled with familiar and new, all at the same time.
I miss the mother I was in Japan. Constant and giving with no other focus but him.
When we returned to the States, my then-husband retired and I went back to work and my son started kindergarten. Life became more hurried, more scheduled, more American, less idyllic. No more strolls to the local farmer’s market that took all morning. No more old Japanese ladies rubbing my son’s red hair for luck, smiling warmly, and giving him sweets. No more slow, easy days of exploring our new culture and home. The learning curve of moving to Japan was steep. The learning curve of returning home was almost insurmountable.
My son is almost 10 now. He was five when we left there. Just today when I said “If I could go anywhere, I’d go to London,” he replied “If I could go anywhere, I’d go back to Japan.” That is how deeply our Other Home is embedded in us. In him. My once toddler. He still remembers it. He still misses it.
My only child, you bring tears to my eyes every time I read one of your articles, and “August” is no exception. You touch my heart with every word and sentence, and I love you for it. Give Liam a big hug from Grandma
I can totally relate! Twenty five years ago, I, too lived in Odawara Shi Kanagawa Ken Japan for 3 months for a technical training and somehow like you the memory is lodged in my heart and mind like it was yesterday.
The Japanese culture is both traditional and modern but definitely rich, unique and memorable.
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