Having taught English in Japan for two years, I was delighted that a former student came to visit me in Oklahoma. It struck me how brave she was, this seventeen-year-old high school senior who had never left her birth country, to come alone to a foreign place where she barely spoke the language and knew only one person. But Yuri has always been a go-getter. As the English Club President at her school and with the dream of working for an international airline, it was an incredible experience for Yuri, and for me. Having been hosted by numerous Japanese, I enjoyed being on the “the other side,” guiding a Japanese person through my culture and community.
Wednesday, December 14th I picked Yuri up at the airport. With little English, I’d been so afraid she wouldn’t make her connecting flight in the United States. But a Japanese man helped her out in Chicago, so she made it right on time. She said the hardest transfer was in Tokyo. (I can totally relate!) Unfortunately, her cell phone didn’t work as the Japanese Softbank people promised, so we went home to Skype her parents to let them know she was OK. (The Japanese usually assume their phones will work in the U.S. Well, Oklahoma ain’t California or New York!)
Next we went to the zoo. Most things were closed, but she was more interested in the wandering geese and squirrels anyway. She couldn’t imagine rodents running wild through the city. I felt the same about Japan’s native monkeys!
About 6:00 I took her to Tulsa Community College’s Japanese club, where we had a welcome party for her. She actually burst into tears when she found it was for her! She enjoyed a game of Sorry, then we went to a Christmas concert at my church. It was a pretty packed first day, and Yuri collapsed into bed as soon as we got home.
Thursday morning we took a tour of Owasso High School with the vice principal. She kept exclaiming over how huge everything was, especially the new band and choir rooms, not to mention the livestock barn and sports facilities. In between classes, she gawked at the tall boys.
“Only sixteen?” she asked. “Sugoi. Yabai!”
“Why does she keep saying those words?” the vice principal asked.
“Because they mean, “amazing,” and “incredible!” I translated.
We had our picture taken in front of the mascot, Rambo:
Next we toured Oral Roberts University. The guide and I tried to explain how it was founded and it’s purpose, but it was hard for her to understand. She did marvel at the giant praying hands and eternal flame atop the golden prayer tower, but she spent most of the time pointing out squirrels and strange plants, and complaining about the cold. I’d told her to pack warm clothes, but she had nothing but shorts and skirts, not to mention high heels! What the Japanese do for fashion…
Speaking of that, I thought Yuri would love Woodland Hills Mall and Utica Square that evening, all lit up for Christmas, but that didn’t seem to interest her much, since there are all kinds of malls in Japan. But man, the next day, she went totally nuts over Wal-Mart! During the two weeks of her stay, we went there at least five times, once three times in one day! She spent hours going up and down the aisles, gawking at the size and variety of the merchandise, not to mention the price tags, especially in the after Christmas sales. She loaded up on gifts and cosmetics. By the time she left, she almost needed another suitcase.
That first time, though, we were just there for an hour or so to get gifts for the Burmese refugees. Then it was off to the Phillips mansion for an interesting historical tour, then Woolorock nature preserve and museum. Here’s a stately deer at sunset:
This is my favorite statue in the museum, entitled, “pioneer woman.” I like it because it tells a story, but I can see why it didn’t win the pioneer woman contest. It pitted the pioneer woman against the Native Americans, which isn’t really a good thing:
About 6:00, Woolorock’s festival of lights began. So beautiful. We took a hayride around the perimeter to see over 100,000 twinkling, sparkling lights wrapped around every structure, tree and rock. My favorite was the Native American on a horse all lit up, but it was so dark we couldn’t get any good pictures or videos.
Saturday morning we wrapped the gifts for our refugee families and made cheesecake for the evening’s choir party. Then we went to Safari’s animal park in Broken Arrow. Yuri loved it! First, we got to feed the big cats chicken:
Here's a big tiger in a tub:
And the adult kangaroos:
Then we got to hold a lot of cute animals. Skunk:
“That’s what you smelled on the road last night,” I told Yuri. She made a face and shoved the animal into my arms. No skunks in Japan!
And a baby kangaroo!
Yuri in her wildest dreams never imagined getting to do that! “I see Australia in America!” she told me.
Here’s a close up of the kangaroo:
The lady who keeps the kangaroo “mob” used to have her own land and zoo, but some factory poisoned her well water, so she got cancer and most of her animals died. The manager of Safari’s invited her to come out and live with them, so now she keeps the kangaroos and other animals at Safari’s. The kangaroos eat old bread, fruits and vegetables donated by the local grocery store.
In the afternoon, we saw the huge Tulsa Driller statue:
Then we went to my friend Ching’s house to deliver gifts to the Burmese refugees. Here’s a little girl we bought for opening her gifts:
After that we went to the John Knox church choir party, ate a lot of good food, and sang songs. Yuri had a great time and recorded it all on her camera.
Sunday morning, in lue of church, we visited my friends the Powel’s who had been missionaries in Japan for four years. They had a wonderful turkey lunch for us, then Bethany showed us her spinning, their family band performed some Christian songs, we held 3-day-old puppies, visited a local chicken and sheep farm, and saw a quilting demonstration. In the evening, we visited Boston Ave. Methodist (a giant Cathedral in downtown Tulsa) for the annual Messiah performance. That wasn’t so fun. Apart from the tenor (who I knew in college), the singers were just…not good. Their vibrato was all over the place; you couldn’t even tell what pitch they were singing. The choir was okay, but you couldn’t hear the organ at all. Yuri almost fell asleep. Oh, well, I guess it’s just one of those things, like Noh Theater, that you have to do once to get your cultural points. (Though honestly I’ve seen much better performances of the Messiah that were actually enjoyable.)
Monday morning, Yuri had a chance to speak with one of my Japanese students, Saki-chan (AKA Hadassah Hendrickson). Yuri spoke English, and Hadassah spoke Japanese, for a full hour! It was great practice for both of them. I had an interview with the Broken Arrow Ledger newspaper for their religion position (which I ended up not getting, but they almost picked me and really liked me so that’s good). Then we had lunch at the giant QuickTrip near Broken Arrow. I wanted to show her what an “American combini” (American convenience store) is like. So many drinks, so many choices. Then I showed her she could mix them. That almost blew her mind! Bass pro shop was another big surprise to her.
“All this, just for fishing and hunting?” she asked. The huge racks of rifles freaked her out (guns are illegal in Japan). I took her on a short tour of the University of Tulsa where I went to school, especially the new music building, then we went home.
Tuesday, Dec 20th in the morning I took Yuri around town: library, post office, bank. Then we went to Dry Gulch, Oklahoma (near Adair), an Old West theme village all decorated for Christmas and run by Church on the Move in Tulsa. Boy, did we get lost on the way there! The roads and signs are so confusing, especially in the dark, so it took us about three!
Yuri woke up every twenty minutes or so and asked, “Still Oklahoma?”
“Still Oklahoma,” I’d say. “It’s a big state; we’re not leaving it.” Then she’d sigh and fall asleep again.
Once we got to Dry Gulch, though, it was worth it. We rode the steam engine Christmas train, which took us through a series of giant murals and live scenes that told the whole story of the Bible, highlighting Christmas. Yuri didn’t understand much of it, but she still liked it and the wagon wide. I enjoyed the giant turkey legs most of all!
Wednesday, we visited the famous huge churches downtown: Trinity Episcopal, First Methodist, First Baptist, and First Christian. Yuri marveled at the massive stained glass windows, booming organs, and huge facilities. But more than anything, coming from a largely non-religious society, it surprised her how much people’s faith meant to them, and how that faith resulted in so much love. “You treat people in church like family,” she observed.
Then we went to a concert called Celebrate with Family at Church on The Move. As we stood in line waiting, I asked Yuri what she thought of all the churches we had seen so far. She thought about it for a moment, then said,
“I like church, and I like Christian people, but I don’t like religion.”
“Ah, but Christianity is more than religion,” I told her. “It’s faith.”
“What is faith?” she asked, giving me a puzzled look.
I thought really hard about how to explain it in simple English she could understand, with a few Japanese words thrown in. “Religion is part of culture, bunka, ne? Sometimes people do religion because they think they have to go to church, have to pray— kiyokai ni ikenakya, inorenakya , ne? But faith is ‘I want to go, I want to pray.’ Kiyokai ni ikitai, inoritai. Kamisama wa watashitachi o aimasu to watashitachi wa kamisama o aimasu kara. Because God loves us and we love God.”
Yuri nodded her understanding, but said nothing. The ushers started to file us into the auditorium. We had front row seats, and it was the best Christmas concert either Yuri or I had ever seen! And it was free! Here’s a link:
My favorite was the “Little Drummer Boy,” number. That’s usually one of my least favorite Christmas songs because it’s so sappy. But this rendition was really cool!
Thursday, Dec 22nd, we went to Tahlequah to see the Cherokee Native American Heritage Center. First, we met with Dr. Salmon, a professor at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, a very intelligent man of Japanese decent who lived in Japan for ten years and married a Japanese woman. He came along because he’d never seen the Cherokee village before, and he wanted to meet Yuri and translate for her. That was really kind of him, because I sure didn’t do a very good job explaining the stories or tribal government! (Japanese word for “matrilineal,” anyone?)
We went through the museum and the two villages, one traditional and the other after “civilization” by the colonists. Rather than marveling at the rich culture, beautiful pottery, or fascinating folk tales, she spent more time chasing ducks and geese than looking inside the houses. At the end, she had to thoroughly examine our Cherokee male guide’s long braided hair. She wanted to touch it, smell it, and do the same with his homespun clothes. Here we are together:
It’s so funny how it was the little things that interested her so much. I guess it was the same for me in Japan, sometimes.
After the tours, we had lunch at a local restaurant to try Tahlequah’s famous “Indian taco”:
Then we went to Dr. Salmon’s house. Yuri was very happy to finally get to speak nothing but Japanese again. We watched a video called God’s Fingerprints in Japan linking ancient Japanese culture to Christianity, then we talked about it. She thought it was interesting. That’s about all she said.
Friday, December 23rd, we went horseback riding at my sister-in-law’s ranch:
Yuri loved it and all the other farm animals! In the evening, we visited Maskogee’s
Garden of Lights. It was too dark to get many good pictures or videos, but here is the tunnel of light near the beginning:
Christmas Castle with Mom. Lots of lights, giant inflatable ornaments, petting zoo, and characters in costume. Here’s mom with the Grinch:
Yuri bought a souvenir there for her boyfriend, custom made matching rings.
Saturday, December 24th, we had a big turkey dinner and opened presents with the family (it was the only time we could all get together). Here’s our tree:
Dad bought the Star of David on top, to symbolize that Jesus is King of the Jews. At 6:00 we went to church for Christmas Eve service. Yuri seemed to find it rather confusing and boring, but she agreed to go again the next morning. Originally I was going to take her to the Japanese church in Oklahoma City, but Yuri didn’t want to drive that far. So we went to John Knox again to be part of the family. That was nice.
In the afternoon, we watched the Jesus film in Japanese, so she could finally understand the whole story of Christ. She sat through the whole thing, then I nervously asked, “So what did you think?”
“Interesting,” she said. “I hungry. Let’s eat pizza.” So much for that conversation.
Monday, December 26th, I asked Yuri where she wanted to go.
“Los Angeles,” she proclaimed.
“Um…chotto toi desu ne…” I muttered. (That’s a little far.)
Yuri thought about it, then said, “Okay. You drive, I sleep. Wake me when arrive.”
I once again explained just how big the States where, and that Oklahoma was right in between California and New York. It would take at least three days driving to get to either one.
Yuri thought some more. “Dallas?”
“Four hours, one way, no stop,” I replied.
Yuri finally decided to spend most of the day packing and playing with our dogs instead. In the evening, we went to the Chinese Super Buffet (where Yuri really chowed down!) and the famous Rema Bible College lights. Some pictures:
Tuesday, Yuri got some last minute shopping in. That was the day we went to Wal-Mart three times! She also got her nails done cheap at a Vietnamese nail salon. That was hilarious! The whole time the lady was trying to talk to her with a thick accent and Yuri couldn’t understand a word. So much for English being the new Lingua Franka of the world!
I almost forgot to mention how much Yuri loved American food. Spaghetti, pizza, hamburgers, meatloaf, barbeque ribs, Brahms ice cream, she devoured it all. Her favorite was probably Mexican. Mom nearly died laughing when she told Yuri we would be having “tacos,” and Yuri exclaimed, “Good, I love octopus!”
By the time I took Yuri to the airport early Wednesday morning, she and I both had a new appreciation for Oklahoma. While it may not be what most internationals think of when they plan a trip to the United States, I’d say we had a lot of fun. She cried as we said goodbye, and promised to come visit me again sometime. Soon she’ll be going to school in Osaka to study English and how to be part of “grand staff” for a hotel or airline. We both hope she gets a chance to study abroad. We still Skype.
More recently, here are some pictures of me with my niece and nephew Hayden and Selene:
This is their great nanny, Jeff:
Prayer Requests: Please pray that Yuri will meet more Christians and come to know Christ well. She’s a sweet girl and I hope our friendship can continue.
Until next time, keep praying and loving,