A Rip Van Winkle experience across cultures – this time in Japan
In American writer Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle,” a man hears strange thunder in the mountains, has a mystical encounter with little Dutch men who are bowling, falls asleep, then wakes up 20 years later thinking he had just slept one night.
I’ve had a Rip Van Winkle experience, and it taught me about how much people are alike no matter what culture we’re from.
It had been 26 years since either my wife Caroline or I had seen Mayumi Kanemoto.
Mayumi had lived in the same apartment building as Caroline when she lived in Ube City during her six months as an English teacher for the professors at Yamaguchi University Medical School through the Stanford Volunteers in Asia (VIA) program.
Mayumi had been a medical school student who liked to go running with Caroline and who had a great smile and sense of fun.
Once she told me on the phone when I called from Alaska that I wouldn’t recognize Caroline because they were both becoming “frighteningly beautiful” due to their workouts together.
When I visited Mayumi, I went running with her one morning, but didn’t have much more contact with her than that. Caroline, as is her wont, kept up regular contact through letters and Christmas cards, but neither of us had seen her for almost three decades.
Waking up 26 years later
So, now, 26 years later, we sit with Mayumi and Taro, her brother, on the 26th floor of an Okayama, Japan building overlooking the city, enjoying an elegant buffet lunch and talking about old times.
We learn that Mayumi is now a doctor of internal medicine who runs a clinic with her husband who is a pediatrician.
Taro is a high school teacher, and I feel strangely comfortable with him even though I have just met him.
Mayumi shows us a family photo that includes their mother and father; herself and her two boys; her brother Taro, his wife, and his three kids; and her youngest brother (whom Caroline had never met), his wife, and his three kids. 26 years ago a family photo would have only included Mayumi, Taro, and the two parents. Four people have become 15.
Mayumi’s hair is still bobbed as it was the last time we saw her, and her impish smile still flashes, but there is salt mixed in with the pepper, and her brother Taro is quite gray at the temples. Mayumi is still running and has added swimming and biking to her regimen. She regularly wins her age group in triathlons according to Taro.
Taro has taught English at the high school level for 15-20 years and has just recently taken on a new challenge to teach English to deaf high school students.
I am one year Taro’s senior, but it’s strange to think how our lives have mirrored each other. We both had significant people in our lives living at the Green Heights apartments in 1984; we both enjoy running; we both studied Literature and Education and have taught English to high school students for the past 20+ years. We are both going gray and taking on new challenges in our lives in our 50’s. We both have three children.
As we say goodbye, I wonder if we will ever see these people again. It has been that way throughout this fourth visit to Japan. We have enjoyed the tastes and sensations of being in Japan again: the wonderful sensation of sinking into a hot Japanese bath, the tart taste of umeboshi (pickled salted plum) and chiso (a distinctive edible leaf) in an onegiri (triangular-shaped rice ball), the sight of fat, wet snowflakes floating in the Tokyo sky.
And yet there has also been a sense of nostalgia, a sense that many of the people we know are now older, a sense that Japan itself is not quite so energetic and hopeful a place as it used to be.
With China’s rise and the Japanese economy’s struggles, Japan seems to be in a bit of a stagnant phase, the fruits of too many material things too fast, the sense that no matter how many 18 hour days the people put in, they’re not making progress like before.
It will be interesting to see if the massive social problems that simmer beneath the surface in China due to the gap between rich and poor and the migrant worker situation will slow China down the same way that the aging population and economic competition has hindered Japan.
But the thing I think about most is how much people are the same no matter where you go. We are all concerned about making a living, caring for our families, dealing with the struggles and difficulties that life brings.
And we all watch time march by, sometimes slowly and sometimes in remarkably quick leaps where 26 years of life flash by with the speed of thought.
Is that thunder I hear, or are those little Dutch guys playing at ninepins in the mountains again?
Have you ever connected with someone from another culture and seen your life reflected in that person?