My mom, the rockstar!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Me and my mom at the Uno train station
[This post is part of a Mama’s Day Series by The Strong Families Initiative. To follow all of the Mama's Day events, visit us on Facebook and Twitter.]

by Maria Nakae

By pure coincidence, my mom and I were in Japan for the 1-month anniversary of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that devastated Northern Japan. We had bought our tickets back in January; I was joining her for her annual trip to Naoshima, the island where she was born and raised, and where much of her side of the family still lives. To go to Japan so soon after the disaster was quite something…but I’m not writing about that. I’m writing about my mom, who has achieved a new level of rock star status in my eyes.

My family moved to the U.S. when I was almost 3 years old, and while my brother and I quickly assimilated into American culture, my parents never truly did. I appreciate that we held on to our language, traditions, and cultural values, but my parents – especially my mom – have never felt entirely at home. After thirty years her English is still pretty broken, she only reads and watches Japanese news, and, working in a Japanese restaurant, most of her friends are also Japanese. Like many kids in immigrant families, I have always been a cultural ambassador for her.

Still, my mom has always been the anchor of our family and has made so many sacrifices to keep our family strong, so I’ve always been happy to do my part to support her, and proud that she sees me as a solid and trustworthy adult that she can depend on. This feeling of pride hit its peak three years ago when my grandfather, who was 90 years old at the time, came from Japan to visit New York City, which he had always dreamed of doing. So I went with him, my mom and my aunt to be a tour guide, interpreter, direction-asker, ticker buyer and cab-hailer for the whole family. Even though she was my grandfather’s “daughter who lives in American,” my mom relied on me (and my knowledge of New York) to navigate the city and make sure that the trip went smoothly so that my grandfather could enjoy himself to the fullest. At the end of the trip, my mom thanked me, relieved, and said that there was no way she could have done it without me. While it was exhausting, I had a great time and was thrilled to be able to do this one small thing for my family.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when – after a lifetime of supporting my mom in navigating life in the U.S. – I went with her to Japan for the first time as an adult and she takes care of business…like nobody’s business. I’m usually a pretty organized and prepared traveler, but this time all I did was pack and show up at the airport. I printed my boarding pass at home, so I didn’t even bring my confirmation number or write down the time our return flight was supposed to take off or land, because I knew she had it covered. Because we were going to a small island in Setonaikai – the inland sea in the South – we had to take three trains and a ferry after getting off of the plane. She had printed out schedules for each leg of the trip, and when our flight landed at Osaka airport an hour late, she still figured out a way to get us on the necessary trains that would let us catch the ferry to Naoshima at the time she originally planned for, so we wouldn’t have to wait 2 hours for the next one (which involved running with our suitcases through the station to catch the last train when we had only 3 minutes to transfer!).

My uncle, mom, me, great-aunt, grandfather & great-uncle
Once we got to Naoshima, most of our time was spent dealing with family business. My grandfather, who is now 93, has been living on his own for the past eight years but can no longer take care of himself. So my mom, as his eldest daughter, had to take responsibility for figuring how to help take care of him. Various families members traveled from all over the country to Naoshima to help out, and my grandfather’s neighbor also helped out tremendously. But it was really my mom who took charge as the leader of our team, and I served as her loyal assistant. During our 10 days there, we visited the bank, post office and town hall to deal with his finances; met with the island’s nursing home care manager, folks from the welfare office, and staff from the clinic where he’s temporarily staying to lay out the options for possible new living situations; and went to two nearby towns (both via ferry) to look for facilities that might be able to take him in since the only nursing home in Naoshima had a 60-person waiting list (and most others had waiting lists of 100-200 people). My Japanese is at about a 5th-grade level so I didn’t get everything that was being said in these conversations, but I understood clearly that my mom was – in her polite Japanese way – taking control, being assertive, and pushing the boundaries of what she thought was possible to make sure that she did everything she could for her father, and for her family. Thanks to her, everything worked out for the best and we were able to get my grandfather into a great little assisted living facility in the city of Tamano, a quick ferry ride away from Naoshima.

On our trip, I saw my mom in a whole new light. To see her exert her power and confidence in her home country, where she has the comfort and proficiency with the language and culture in ways she never has in America, was awe-inspiring. I’ve always had a lot of respect for my mom and all she’s done for her family, but I have now seen a glimpse of her true potential and of the incredible leader she really is. So this Mama’s Day, I have more reasons than ever to appreciate and honor my truly amazing and wonderful mom.

Okaasan, arigato (Thanks mom)!

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