Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Unlikely Friendship

We all know that as our life changes, our circumstances, our location, the time of our life, our circle of friends often change with it. Sometimes, if you are fortunate, you can keep in touch with these "old" friends (Facebook has been an amazing tool for this in MY life!), but the closest relationships are usually those that you can engage in most regularly. As a person who forms deep relationships slowly, only having a few close friends at any given time, those that persist through time and situation are precious.  And the ones that instantly fall back into the comfortable and familiar rhythm of deep friendship, not matter how long you've been apart, how long it's been since you've talked...well, those are the gems of life, aren't they? I have been blessed with several of these, actually, which is nothing short of amazing to me.  The most unlikely one of all, though, is with my friend Tomoko.

I met Tomoko in my fourth year of college at Central Michigan University. I was in my second year as an RA, and though my roommate and I had lived together the previous year, we had a vacancy in our suite.  Enter: a young Buddhist Japanese student, here in the U.S. for a year as part of her English teaching degree, who had purposefully requested NOT to be placed in the dorm where the foreign language students usually lived, i.e. away from any other Japanese student who she might feel more comfortable with. No, she wanted to learn English better, and she wanted the full experience of living in America. 

I heard about Tomoko before I saw her. One of the other RAs had been in the lobby when she arrived. She was tired, a little overwhelmed, and her normally decent English wasn't doing so well.  "Um, I saw your new roommate...she doesn't speak English very well...good luck!"

Great, I'm thinking, this should be a really INTERESTING school year.

You know, for someone who has the hardest time understanding anyone with a heavy accent, I never had a hard time understanding Tomoko.  

As the school year progressed, Tomoko and I took to one another. We just clicked. The difference in background didn't matter, difference of religion didn't matter, difference in world views didn't matter. I adored her.  Despite the fact that she kept trying to get me to eat dried kelp as a snack~ ICK.  She came home with me for every major break and holiday we had: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Spring Break....they were all spent with my family, who also took to her immediately. 

I remember distinctly the first time my mom met her. Mom kept speaking loudly to her, and as I realized what my (very sheltered, small-town) mom was doing, I said, "Mom, she's Japanese, not deaf. Speak slowly, not loudly."

Tomoko and my Mom at a wedding; the year we were at CMU.
When the school year was over, it was very hard saying goodbye. Email was just getting started, and phone calls were expensive. We knew it would be difficult to stay in touch.  There were many tears.

From 2001-2003, Tomoko had to chance to be a grad student at a small college in Tennessee, a Buddhist girl in the heart of the bible belt. We drove down to see her that first spring break.  However, being in the bible belt during and after 9/11 isn't kind to a Buddhist girl. America lost a lot of it's glamour during that time for her.  We saw her again the summer she went home, she came to Michigan for a while and flew out of Detroit.  

After that, we lost touch for quite a while.  We'd get the odd postcard here and there, but not much. I really hadn't heard from her at all for a couple years when my mom was diagnosed with cancer.  Tomoko and her brother Hiro adored my mom. (Hiro had visited at least twice in the past.) Hiro loved my mom so much that when he opened his vintage American clothing store in Japan, he named it Sandy Hunt (seriously). I sent word by every email address I had of hers, hoping she'd get the message. We reconnected on Skype, and they were able to talk to my family again. Unfortunately, neither could make it in time.  They both made decisions to come the next summer.

When the Tsunami hit Japan, my family followed it more closely than most, terrified that it had hit the region Tomoko lived in. Thankfully, it hadn't effected it much at all, but it took her a week or so to get back to me.

Then, last summer, Tomoko visited in August!  Eight years it had been!  She spent ten whole days with us. She got to get to know my husband better and meet my kids, hang out with my dad and siblings again.  It was fantastic. It was as if we'd never been apart. We lead totally different lives, but couldn't stop talking with one another!

We played Monopoly deal the ENTIRE time she was here! She bought a pack before going home!

One night while she was here, we stayed out in our pop-up overnight. She'd never stayed in a camper before, so she thought it was pretty cool. We stayed up talking until the wee hours of morning. She told me about two different guys she was seeing on and off, nothing serious, though. She told me that after seeing my family and spending time with us, it made her want to start a family of her own. I thought maybe she'd re-evaluate her on-again-off-again relationships and maybe change her perspective on one of them.  

So, she went back to her life, I went back to mine. We Skyped a few times in the fall...and then she fell off the map again in November. Not surprising, she always gets sucked into her job when school is in session. I was a touch worried, but not overly so.  So then, last week, I get a package in the mail from her. Inside was the usual, my favorites from Japan: curry mixes and raisin cookies (not together!). On top was a short note saying how busy she was with work (not surprising) and that a lot had been happening in her life and that she hoped I'd be thrilled, no one else in the US knew yet......and that was all the note said! AHHH! What?

I dug through the box, and at the bottom, carefully hidden (stinker!), was a small photo book. It contained several pictures from her visit, pictures of my family, some pictures of her brother and niece, all captioned and including her cute little Japanese-style emoticons. And the last two pictures.....of her....and her HUSBAND! She apparently met someone AFTER she came home, and got married before her birthday, which is Christmas Eve.  And yes, I have a thousand questions and STILL haven't been able to get a hold of her!
Tomoko and Satoru

So, here is my dear friend and her new husband, who I will get to meet in several years in Hawaii, where we all plan to get together again.  However, if I don't hear from her soon, I may have to fly over to Japan to get some questions answered!

I have learned so much from this woman. She is a wonderful example of how to be kind and selfless, to respect others, to hold your tongue, to be a hard worker, to honor your parents, to love your family. In fact, she probably embodies all of these things better than most people I know.  I hope all the best for her.