As the sash of an authentic Japanese kimono was carefully being tied around my waist, I reminded myself to appreciate the extreme rarity of the moment. It was approximately four o’clock in the morning, Eastern Standard Time. Only, at this particular moment, Eastern Standard Time did not apply to me.
I was in Hiroshima, Japan, and so it was four o’clock in the afternoon to me. Perhaps it was the severe jetlag I was trying to get over, or maybe it was the fact that I was thousands of miles away from my own home that I felt a bit out of element. I tried to relax my mind and ease myself into a comfort zone.
The soft ivory colored linen with detailed red threading of the ‘sakura’, the Japanese cherry blossom, felt cool against my warm skin. A Japanese woman whom I had not known for half an hour carefully finished tying the wide red linen sash with a large yet somehow delicate bow, and stood back to admire her work. She took my hand and led me past some rice paper screens into the hallway where there was a mirror.
I stared at the somewhat tired looking reflection of myself, but I did not notice the dark circles I had under my eyes from operating in a completely different time zone, nor did I notice the rather untidy and somewhat frizzed ponytail on top of my head which I had acquired for the high August temperatures and balmy Japanese weather. I did see an American girl who was perhaps one baby step closer to bridging a personal gap between her and the Japanese culture.I had traveled to Hiroshima as a member of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. We perform around thirty concerts a year, at various venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to various private functions around Manhattan.
I have been in the chorus for eight years, and every summer we travel to a different choral festival in another part of the world. Our trip to Hiroshima in the summer of 2005 was the most memorable for me. Living in Japan for two weeks was a culture shock, and it opened my eyes in ways that I believe would not have happened had I not spent time with the people of Japan and learning about their way of life.
What is of particular interest to me is that my chorus and I traveled to Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka as well as Hiroshima, yet when I recall my trip to Japan now, my two days in Hiroshima always come to mind first. I believe this is because it was in Hiroshima that I learned the most about Japanese people.I will never forget first walking in to the Hiroshima Community Center along with the other members of my chorus to meet the Hiroshima Children’s Chorus with whom we would be singing. My memory of what did happen is now so strong that I can no longer remember what I was initially expecting when I met the Hiroshima Chorus.
I do remember however, that what I received was far from what I had expected. Upon entering the lobby, a small Japanese girl no more than ten years old with a large grin on her face led me to a table with nametags that had been prepared for my fellow choristers and me. Each nametag had been cut out of light blue oak tag and on each one, our name and Japanese characters of our name had been carefully inscribed in jet-black ink.
Affixed to each nametag was a long string of miniature paper cranes, which acted as a necklace. Upon closer observation of the necklace, I saw that each paper crane had been handmade out of beautiful paper in a vibrant palette of colors ranging from buttercup yellow to summer leaf green to a pink very reminiscent of the Japanese cherry blossom, the ‘Sakura’. As I tried to do the math in order to figure out how long it must have taken to create these nametags (twelve cranes per necklace multiplied by forty necklaces at one minute per paper crane — ), the girl led me into the adjoining room, and I was greeted with the applause of fifty grinning Japanese children.
I am not an overly emotional person, but I really did get tears in my eyes. I had never met these children before. They did not know anything about me apart from that I was from New York and that I sang. I immediately thought back to all the stories I had heard from my grandmother, all the World War II movies I had seen, and the photos in my history textbooks of the atom bomb and Hiroshima after the destruction had taken place. These children must have heard the same stories from their grandparents, only from a very different perspective. Here these children were, applauding someone whose nation had caused so much destruction to their nation. I knew then that I wanted to be like these children in every aspect of my life: forgiving, welcoming, accepting, and optimistic about the future.Later, when my fellow choristers and I each departed with our home stay families, the welcoming and kind attitudes of the Japanese people continued. I was welcomed into my new family’s home quickly, without having to pass any tests or answer any questions. My family and I could not speak more than a few words the entire time I was there, for its members could say only hello, please, thank you, and goodbye in English, and I the same as far as Japanese went. Despite the lack of word exchange between us, we were able to communicate an acceptance and understanding of one another. The first thing my host family did was dress me in an authentic Japanese kimono, perhaps in hoping that this would bring me closer to an understanding of their culture. After all, there are some things that words cannot express nor explain.The next day, when my chorus and I visited the Hiroshima Peace Park, I surveyed the H-Dome; the only remaining structure after the atomic bomb had been dropped. The ruined structure and I stood as a contradiction. My ancestors had once ruined this city. They, at the time, wanted to destroy. I realized then that I wanted to build. I wanted to build a bridge between my culture and the Japanese culture. At this moment I also wanted to forget that my ancestors had ever carried such hate toward the people who so willingly welcomed me into their lives for a short while. As I placed a paper crane on the Hiroshima Memorial, I realized that we could never forget the destruction we had once caused, for it is a part of our culture and our identity. We cannot ignore the negative aspects of a culture and its past, because then we would be ignoring a part of the culture itself. All we can try to do is avoid making the same mistakes. The paper crane I had placed on the memorial was my acceptance. My contribution, however small it was, felt very large to me. By giving a paper crane, a symbol of peace, I was giving my promise to try to make the world a better place. It was on this day that I changed, ever so slightly, and began on the path to recognizing myself as a part of the world around me. I now go forth and live with exuberance, compassion, honesty, and a serious will to contribute what I can to our universe.
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