This #bekindr story was submitted by Osamu Toki
My “kind strangers” story happened when I first came to the US in the summer of 1980. Actually, on my very first day in the US. I was a high school exchange student from Japan, on the first foreign trip of my life.
As a matter of fact, it was the first foreign trip in my immediate family. Not unusual for the time, as my family never traveled much even within Japan when I was growing up. The focus was always on schools for the children and work for the adults. Anything else was considered frivolous, at best.
Not that it was a difficult childhood, though. We weren’t well off (far from it), but still financially secure, thanks to Japan’s lifetime employment system. And both my older brother and I attended one of the top boys’ prep schools, with a well-established history of sending all its graduates to the top universities. In education-focused Japan, this school’s name carried weight (and probably still does even today).
So, we lived a comfortable, sheltered life, knowing we were well on our way to joining the ranks of the country’s elites. But, unlike my brother, I was staring to feel constrained by the complicated ways of the Japanese society. To me, so much of that seemed unnecessary, and even irrational…particularly in comparison to how things worked in the US, at least as I understood it from the newspapers, books, films, and TV.
That nagging feeling only grew, eventually leading me to participate in a one-year exchange student program, to see the US for myself and, if it was what I expected, try to emigrate to the US. The stakes were real. I understood, without a doubt, that opting out of the Japanese education system this way, even temporarily, would put a permanent question mark on my record. If I ended up coming back to Japan, I wouldn’t be able to simply get back on the “elite” path l was on.
But I was willing to risk it. And, to their credit, my parents supported me, though they never understood why anyone would want to do such a thing. (They still don’t.)
All the exchange students arrived on a chartered flight to LAX. Then we were put on different connecting flights. My final destination was Virginia Beach, so I had to make multiple connections with fewer and fewer fellow exchange students with me. On the final leg, I was the only one from the program, seated next to a middle-aged man traveling with two sons in early teens.
The man was clearly curious about me – I looked totally out of place on the flight – and proceeded to engage me in a friendly chat. He was patient with my limited English, then was genuinely delighted that I was spending a year in the US. He made sure I was well taken care of for the entire flight – helping me talk to the flight attendants, making sure I understood the seat belt sign, and so on.
Now, for most Americans (including me now), this is nothing. We do these thing routinely, without even thinking about it. And even the 16-year-old me knew this was “kindness” with a lower-case “k.” All the same, his open, casual kindness – which you’d rarely see in Japan – was one of the first signs for me that the US was indeed what I expected, and maybe someday I would be welcomed to be part of it.
That was 35 years ago. After the exchange student program, I came back to the US as soon as I could to attend a college. As far as anyone at my Japanese prep school could remember, with the exception of the two brothers who decided to become potters some years ago, I was their first graduate who didn’t go to a Japanese university. I’ve lived in the US ever since, and consider it my one and only home, though I maintain Japanese citizenship, mostly to avoid further heartache for my mother.
And I still think of that perfectly ordinary, good-hearted American on that flight those many years ago every time I come home from an overseas trip.