Moments: Anoo, nande ikimasu ka?*

Ha Noi, Vietnam, (Bui Duy Thanh Mai)

*(How will I get there?)

I awake to bright sunshine filtering through the curtains beside my bed. Stretching and allowing myself to sink into the mattress, I grin. I could not have wished for a lovelier homestay: my own spacious room, windows opening up onto rice paddies and the neighborhood below, children laughing in the streets and my own soft bed. My reverie is interrupted by Tamiko-san, my host mother, calling from the kitchen downstairs, “Sutefuanii!” (Stephanie in Japanese).

I leap out of bed and grab my towel and shampoo. The night before (my first in her home), Tamiko-san had briefed me in her rapid Japanese and broken English that we would be going to meet the rest of the family at her grandson’s Sports Festival, a day of competitions and performances put on by the elementary school. I could only imagine how nervous she must have been, trying to speak English and hoping that I understood. My own Japanese still quite minimal, I had nodded and smiled and attempted to make conversation about the meal and about what was expected of me.

Dousing myself under the showerhead, and then dashing up to change, I emerge several minutes later greeting Tamiko-san in the kitchen, “Itadakimasu!”, and the two of us sit down to miso soup, fried egg and salad. One thing had been troubling me since I learned we would be going to the school…how was I going to get there? I feel very nervous, fumbling with my Japanese and my head still foggy from the early rising. Tamiko-san scurries around the house like a bee, with me at her heels trying to help and catch what she’s telling me. Finally, my arms full of clothes and lunchboxes, I ask her, “Anoo, nande ikimasu ka?” (How will I get there?)

She leads me over to the screen and I behold the oldest, most rickety-looking bike I had ever seen. This apparently was the neighborhood bike, and for today I was kindly given permission to borrow it.

Since arriving in Japan several weeks ago, bicycles have been a common sight—everyone seems to ride one, whether commuting to work or school or going to the supermarket. And the Japanese ride with inhuman skill. Dodging in and out of heavy traffic, maneuvering tight corners and crowds of people, I had already begun to enjoy this lifestyle, and it was much easier than waiting for the bus. However, today would be a little different. Tamiko-san disappears to change, putting on a lovely skirt and hat. Then the two of us, weighed down with bags, slip on our shoes and head outside.

Tamiko-san does not own a car. Instead, like many older Japanese, she rides a motorbike. Despite her small frame, she confidently and gracefully maneuvers the bike out of the tight space and through the tiny gate. Having just met her, and unsure what is expected of me, I stand by awkwardly as she loads the bags onto the bike, puts on her helmet, and starts the engine. Glancing at Tamiko-san and looking at “my” bicycle, I almost laugh; here is this tiny woman, dressed to attend a formal dinner, mounting this motorbike as if it were the most natural thing in the world, revving the engine and looking back at me expectantly. I hop on my bicycle and shake my head in resignation, prepared to follow.

And we are off. I think I am going to die. Never in my life have I felt this insecure. My brakes do not quite work, and as we ride through the town, Tamiko-san is speeding ahead around corners and up hills. I keep to the sidewalk believing I will survive this ordeal and will soon be enjoying lunch. However, once we make it out onto the highway with traffic speeding by, my bravery wanes slightly and it takes all of my will to not laugh hysterically. I distract myself with the surroundings slowly materializing before me. I am on the open road, the wind in my hair, bicycling beside breathtaking scenery and having a near-death experience. Taking my eyes off the tiny figure ahead of me on a motorbike, I behold the wilderness. Japan is a beautiful country. Amidst fields of swaying green grass and rice, mountains in the distance, there is a quiet spirituality about the landscape. An awesome majesty, with the expanse of skies overhead feeling so close.

Twenty minutes later, I slide off my bike bedraggled, windblown, and sweaty, my hands shaking slightly as I lock the bike beside Tamiko-san’s. Giving her a quick hug, and gathering the bundles, we hobble together, Tamiko-san with her arthritis and me with my wobbly knees, towards the field behind the school. There I am greeted warmly and enthusiastically by the rest of the family. Smiling, feeling quite safe and contented, I know from this moment on that my stay with Tamiko-san will be special.

—Stephanie Merritt

From Aleph 3

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