When I was about three years old, I lived in Iwakuni, Japan. I was a Marine Corps brat. However, we did not live on the military base. We lived within the local community. One day a Buddhist monk observed me playing with the other children in the village. In 1968, Iwakuni was more like a village than a city. He was surprised to see a blond foreign boy speak fluent Japanese. Only, the language the boy was using was horrible (Swearing without reprimand is easy when your parents do not know the language.)
Horrified by my behavior, he promptly instructed me to lead him to my parents. I think he intended to scold them for allowing me to behave in such a way. Given the monk's status in the local community, he was expected to do such a thing. That is, if I was Japanese.
I brought him to my house, and after meeting my mother, he quickly realized that she could not speak Japanese. I translated to my mother his strong disapproval of my behavior. In his eyes, I was running amok in the village. He then explained to my mother that he was the headmaster of a school called Houju- Youchien. He said that the school was specific for children my age.
My mother basically said
This is how I met my Sensei, and how I became the first foreigner to attend Houju Youchien.
Houju -Youchien is essentially kindergarten. However the lessons were more than just Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Houju was a Bukyo school. I think it is best described as the Buddhist/Shinto equivalent of a Catholic school here in America. The years I spent there were some of the most formative of my life. We were taught to observe proper respect for our ancestors. This is a central concept in Japanese culture. We were taught and sang songs about famous legends such as Momotaro (Peach Boy) and Saru Kani Gassen (The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab.) We also learned to respect all things in nature. This would be the Shinto aspect of Japanese culture.
We were shown how to be polite in our harmonized society, and how to show proper respect to our seniors and how to lead subordinates. There were many things taught to us that had more to do with being an integral part our society, than how to read and write.
Most of all, we learned the concept of honor as being the center of our character. And this was only kindergarten! This image of the hand was created there. It is my handprint, and my signature is at the bottom of it. More on this later, as it has a significant role in the discovery of my true identity.
While this period of my early life seemed idyllic at the time, there was something going on that would underline the next several decades of my life. I did not know what it was, but I sensed something even back then. It is something that I hear over and over again from people who had their true identities kept secret from them.
My first memory of any emotion was a deep, but nebulous sense of shame. There was no pin pointing the reason for this feeling. It was just there. It was like a default preset in my biology. I remember that it felt as if I had done something horribly wrong. In a 3 or 4 year old's mind, it could be the result of any simple misadventure. I sure had many of them, but this was something that could not match the guilt a child would feel for misbehaving. No, this was something much more serious, yet it had no substance. It had no definition. It was more like a shadow that seemed to always follow me, and would perch above me as I slept, only to trail me into the next day. It remained with me
for decades, and only now do I know the reason why.
After I graduated from Houju, my family moved back to the states. It was a very hard adjustment for me. I had acclimated to Japanese culture, and really did not adjust very well to American culture. To say it was a shock is putting it very mildly. Even my English had been compromised. The biggest shock though, was that my family split up right after arriving in the states. The break up was cruel and violent. Nothing seemed right, and I tearfully begged to go back to Japan. I felt safe there. I did not feel safe in this new place that appeared to put my parents at odds with each other, turning them into hate filled enemies. I just wanted to go home. That feeling never really left me. It was the only place I felt I belonged. My heart was back in Bukyo. There was nothing even remotely resembling it here is the states.
Then came "Kung Fu." It was a TV show back in the 70's starring David Carradine. In the show Carradine's character was from China, and was raised at a Buddhist temple. He would wander alone in the wild west of America, and when confronted by the evils of greed, corruption, and injustice, he would flashback to his lessons at the temple. It always ended up with him using the lessons to solve the problems presented to him, and also quite a bit of violent confrontation. At the end of each show he would walk away into the desert alone to the melody of a very sad and lonely soundtrack. I was instantly hooked. In my mind "That was me!"
Carradine's character had a nickname during his flashbacks to the temple. The monks called him "Grasshopper." It rang like a bell to my ears. When the monks spoke his name, it was with endearment and respect. Over time my memories of Bukyo clouded somewhat, and because of the lack of use, so did my ability to speak, write or understand the Japanese language. However, given that this show was the only reinforcement of what I learned in Japan, the name "Grasshopper" became a romanticized notion, and took on a much larger meaning for me. It was my only bridge back to what I considered home.
Many years later, I decided that I would try to re-learn Japanese. I joined an online language exchange and found someone who took interest in my story. She was shocked that I attended such a school. I decided to scan some old photos and send them to her, if anything, just to confirm that I did indeed attend this school. I think her heart broke a little when she discovered how I had been separated from my hometown. In Japan, this is like being torn from your family. So, she decided to contact the school. To my surprise, they eagerly responded.
As it turns out, they always wondered what became of me. Sensei's son now runs the school. When he received the message, he brought it to Sensei who was was overjoyed to hear I was trying to contact them. For me, I was just moved that they remembered me. What followed was a scrambling of all the teachers to get together and reminisce over that time in our lives. I received a lot of correspondence, and some heart warming photos. There really is no overestating that bond. It is deeply rooted in the culture, and within myself. They even put aside a section of their website for me, and that is when I got quite a shock.
I was looking forward to the resolution of so many things. How many times did I wish I could talk to Sensei? Too many to count. Even though this reunion was deeply felt, and I got so much out of it. There was still that shadow following me day and night. What I thought was a cultural gap was something else entirely. The beginning of the discovery of who I was, started with the discovery of my own "Grasshopper" Moment.
I sent the school many photos. One of them was my hand print with my signature. They put them on the school's website. I was confused about the title they put on my section. It said in Hiragana "Barby's Box."
I asked my language partner about it, and she laughed a little too much. It appears that when I entered the school, no one could pronounce my name. It ended up defaulting to Barby. Apparently I just accepted it. I did not know what a Barbie doll was. In all of my official records, and in all of the memories of everyone in my hometown, I am known as Barby. Back then, I was known as Barby Chan. Now, I am known as Barby San, or Mr. Barby. This was kind of an odd pill to swallow, and it definitely blew away the romantic notion of the name "Grasshopper."
However, I accepted it. Why not? So, I am Barby. I think I am manly enough to to put a little masculinity into the name. More importantly though, this was the first crack in the facade that was placed upon my perception of reality. It was soon after this somewhat embarrassing discovery, that I discovered that my true genetic identity was being held secret.
The shadow that stalked me was finally going to be revealed for what it was. After that was exposed, I gladly embraced the name Barby. After all, the handprint is definitely mine, and so is the signature at the bottom. That is real, and definitively me. This is why I chose the hand to be the logo for Identity Matters. That is really me, and that really does matter.