In twelve years of being in this country, I've become a human bobble head--and not a very authentic Japanese one, Dr. Marcus Samuels thought as he passed colleagues and gave the customary bow of respect at meeting in the hall. In the United States, polite though sincere head inclinations of greeting or acknowledgement were routinely exchanged, but nothing like the humble, deferential form he'd learned to give everyone in an effort to avoid trouble since arriving in Japan. He'd never been particularly good at the custom.
In the relief of an empty hall in front of him, Marc wasn't sure why the practice suddenly made him slightly irritable and all but limp with fatigue. His shift at the hospital had been long, true, and he'd gotten little sleep the night before. In the end, he knew the core of his stress. Since he'd sent that ultimatum last night to Dan, the program coordinator of the Worldwide Medical Ministry Organization, a weight had settled on his chest. The situation had been in the back of his mind every minute of this day. Despite believing he had no other choice, Marc didn't "do" ultimatums often... or particularly well. And now I either return to my apartment and get the answer I demanded, or I face another bout of Dan's endless runaround. The man excels at avoidance. Regrettably, I've been too malleable up to this point. No more. Marc raised his pleading gaze heavenward. Dear Lord, no more.
Abruptly, a colleague turned the corner directly in front of him. His gaze morphed into something between a hasty pulling together of himself and a bow. The nurse gave him an odd look as they passed each other, and Marc glanced back to see her disappearing around the next corner. He couldn't help chuckling to himself. At the rate he was going, the last impression he gave those he worked with at the hospital wouldn't be a good one. Not at all. He was losing his sanity, and he knew that going home and staying where he belonged indefinitely was the only thing that could cure him.
Marc had joined the WMMO at a point in his life when he'd been rebelling against following the pattern set by everyone else in his family. His parents and siblings had given their lives to Christ, settled down to marriage and families, and served God where they were. They were all homebodies, and, unfathomably in retrospect, Marc had convinced himself he could be different. With most of his medical education, certification and training completed, he'd joined WMMO's post-residency program when he was twenty-eight, believing he was ready to see the world and serve the Lord wherever he was sent. His life had looked shiny and new...
He'd stepped off the plane in Nagasaki and instantly had the first of many panic attacks that quickly led to an all-out panic disorder. Talk about worlds colliding. He'd realized at that moment he was even more of a homebody than anyone else in his family. Unfortunately, he couldn't change his mind. He'd committed himself to five years in the program. If not for Haruki Oichi, who'd taken him under his wing when he'd arrived, Marc was certain he wouldn't have survived. Somehow he'd gotten through the time, and Haruki had convinced him to stay on longer than even that. Then Haruki's younger sister, Keiko, had arrived five years ago and Marc had wondered if his supervisor had planned that, too. Keiko had settled Marc in a way he could never have expected, and he'd stayed on long past his initial commitment.
In total, twelve years had passed. A series of family crises--his oldest brother's wife had died, his baby sister had been raped, and, most recently, his youngest brother's wife's miscarriage--along with multiple celebrations that he'd missed almost completely, had brought him to an unwavering decision. He was going home. For good. He'd prayed about it, of course, but he'd made up his mind and nothing would change it.
When he'd announced his resignation to Dan, he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised at how his supervisor had hemmed and hawed, throwing more reasons at him to stay. Eventually, Dan had sent a replacement that Marcus and the rest of the field team had been training for the past month. Because the doctor wasn't fully instructed in a program of this type, Dan had asked Marc to stick around a little longer. Like an idiot, I have, too. But last night I gave my ultimatum. My final word. I'm going home. I'm giving up missionary work. I have every intention of becoming a daily fixture in my family's lives. And maybe I'll finally get married and start a family of my own.
In and of itself, the latter goal was a daunting task. He was forty years old. Any romantic prospects he'd entertained at home were long gone. In truth, he hadn't dated much in the last few years. How could anyone else...anyone but Haruki and Keiko...understand that he'd given his life to the medical missionary field and yet he'd spent twelve years almost completely out of his element in this country? Leaving Japan, he'd accepted, would mean starting his life over from scratch. Daunting? Try exhausting. No wonder I can't sleep lately.
"Marc-san," someone called behind him.
Recognizing Haruki's voice, Marc halted and turned around. Like many of the Japanese men he'd met, Haruki Oichi was small--barely five foot six with short, well-trimmed, black hair and dark eyes. From the first, Marc had felt like a giant next to the island natives. At six foot, he was tall but not unduly so by American standards. Here, he was Gulliver--and he'd discovered the shock of that the first time he'd tried to buy clothing and shoes in this country. Now he went home once or twice a year and bought new clothes then, if he needed them.
Marc waited for Haruki to catch up to him, then gave a twenty-degree bow, slightly to the side so as not to bump heads with his friend. Keiko and Haruki were fellow pediatricians at the Children's Christian Mission Hospital and both were also part of WMMO's post-residency program. They'd grown up in the States as foreign exchange students and given their lives to Christ during that time.
"Come, friend, have dinner with Keiko and myself in the cafeteria."
Marc offered a smile. "Not tonight, Haruki. Long day."
"What else is new?" Haruki raised an amused eyebrow.
"New? I've got some calluses I'd like to stop walking on."
Haruki grinned. "Dinner. Then your calluses can call it a night."
"No. Not tonight, friend. Some other time, all right?"
Haruki allowed him to beg off with the common phrase "Otsukaresama deshita" ("You're tired"), and Marc continued out of the hospital and across the campus to the WMMO resident housing dorms. He was about to enter the ground elevator and take the car up to his floor when Keiko Oichi burst through the double-door entrance of the building. At thirty-three, she looked more like a young girl. He'd never met a woman more petite than she was. She was barely five-five and, on appearances alone, Marc didn't believe she could be more than ninety-five pounds. That said, there was nothing child-like about her. Her face was delicately exquisite, exotic, her hair shiny and jet black, worn in a classic chignon during her hours on duty at the hospital. Silken strands framed her tiny face, giving her a look that was both waifish and elegant. Off-duty, she wore her hair loose, down past her shoulders. To Marc, she was impossibly more beautiful that way with her golden skin, exotic black eyes and full, wide mouth set against white teeth and her tiny, China doll face.
Marc smiled warmly as she approached him wearing a sophisticated pencil skirt and a silk top under her open lab coat. "My brother tells me you can't be persuaded to have dinner with us."
Because he couldn't hide anything from her, he admitted, "I'm waiting for an e-mail."
He nodded, and he knew looking into her beautiful eyes that she guessed everything he didn't say.
"Did you give him the ultimatum?" she asked.
"In no uncertain terms."
She giggled, obviously aware that he was teasing when he made it sound like he and their supervisor had duked it out with pistols at dawn. "Good. But you know Dan will wait as long as he possibly can before responding."
That was true. And Marc wasn't so sure he could hold himself together if he checked his e-mail and didn't find a response of any kind from Dan.
"Have dinner with us and then you can check, Marcus-san. I'll come with you so you can have someone there when you open your e-mail."
That would make me feel better. I'm tired, but... In five years, Marc hadn't been able to deny Keiko Oichi a thing. She slipped her arm through his and led him back to the hospital, through the maze of seemingly endless halls to the cafeteria. Before he even fully stepped inside the gymnasium-sized room, he saw a huge sign with the words "Bon Voyage, Dr. Samuels" and the Japanese equivalent below. The cafeteria was filled with everyone he knew at the hospital.
At the front, Haruki grinned at him, shaking his head. "I should have known Keiko could convince you," he explained his amused disbelief.
Marc acknowledged sheepishly that he should have known Keiko would throw him a going-away party... and he understood why she'd done it--done it now--too. Before anyone else, Keiko knew best that he wanted to go home, and this party would make him see that he really was finished here. It would provide closure for him. If she'd waited to throw it for him just before his "ultimatum leave date" at the end of the month, he might have given in to Dan's hedging yet again. Marc had wondered a time or two if Dan guessed that he wasn't exactly sure the Lord was guiding him in this departure. His supervisor knew just what to say to get him waffling in his decisions. But not this time.
Squeezing Keiko in a one-armed hug of gratitude, Marc let her lead him into the circle of colleagues and friends he'd made over the past twelve years.
"You must have put that together pretty fast," Marcus commented as Keiko rode the elevator with him up to his floor in the male dormitory. "Today? During your shift?"
Keiko raised an eyebrow mysteriously. "I have friends in high places," she claimed.
Just as she'd hoped, Marcus laughed in the deep baritone that always sent a shiver of pleasure down her spine. She could happily listen to him laugh for the rest of her life. And watch, she decided after a surreptitious peek at him. Whenever Marcus laughed or smiled, deep grooves--dimples--bracketed his full, firm mouth. Without a doubt, she found him almost otherworldly attractive. He was tall in a way she'd rarely experienced in her life, even after growing up, for the most part, in the United States. He also worked out regularly in the gym and he was muscular and well-formed like males in pictures of mythological Greek gods.
Her arm was linked with him, and he pulled her a little closer, hugging her slightly as his hazel eyes gazed into hers. Marcus was always direct. That trait was one of the endless things that had drawn her to him.
"Thank you, Keiko. You always know just what to do and when to do it. It was just the kick in the pants I needed."
She couldn't help giggling, covering her mouth with her hand as she did so. Marcus grinned again, and she felt a familiar tug deep inside her chest. Marcus is leaving. He won't be talked out of it this time--and I made sure of it with the party, which I suspected would solidify his decision prompting that e-mail to Dan last night. I did it to make him happy. I don't regret it. But what will I do when he leaves?
The sensation that flooded her was like a great black hole opening up in front of her and sucking her inside with a tremendous force she couldn't resist. Luckily, the ancient elevator gave a slight lurch and Marcus, ever the protective male, grasped her a little tighter to him to steady her. Shyly, she smiled up at him. "So, you're determined not to let Dan talk you out of leaving this time?" she asked softly.
Yes, she'd sensed the same. Marcus had committed to the WMMO program before he'd truly understood what he was getting into--how he would be affected by living so far from home and for so long. Dan had been a master at finding just the right incentive to ground Marcus--right where he needed him. But after twelve years, those incentives were no longer enough to keep Marcus from his heart's desire. Going home and never leaving again had been driving him relentlessly of late. Nothing beyond a force of nature or the Lord's divine intervention could change his end game now.
Marcus let her go to unlock the door of his apartment. After she'd gone inside before him, murmuring "O-jama shimasu" ("sorry for disturbing"), she quickly stepped out of her comfortable work shoes and into the indoor slippers Marcus provided for her visits. He was already turning her shoes around and putting them together so she could slip into them easily when it was time for her to leave.
She couldn't help thinking about all the things he'd learned since coming here--customs and manners that had been difficult for him to adopt because she understood that they felt unnatural, sometimes even unnecessary, to him. For Marcus, the idea of being forced to wear slippers, especially communal ones, inside the house was foreign. If he wasn't worried about offending someone, she didn't doubt that he'd walk around barefoot all the time. That was only one of many strange rituals he'd conceded to uneasily. He rarely spoke of his feelings, but she'd come to know him well in five years. She believed growing up in the West had given her insights into him that she never would have had if she hadn't become what she very privately considered half Japanese and half American.
Often, she'd wondered if Marcus could comprehend how difficult life was for her in this place, even more so than it'd ever been for her brother, though he'd also grown up in the United States. If her family knew how much of an individual she'd become, they would be horrified and disappointed in her. She'd worked doubly hard to maintain her aisatsu (proper greetings and behaviors). Naturally, she didn't want to come off as foolish, improper or ill-bred, but, even more than that, she didn't want anyone to know how different she was from other Japanese women.
"Tea?" Marcus suggested.
She nodded, thanking him. While he went to the tiny kitchen section of the studio apartment, she immediately strode to his compact iPod speaker system and programmed their current favorite classical music. They always listened to it loud. "You can't listen to classical any other way", they'd often said in unison when there were complaints from fellow dorm-mates.
She sat down on her knees in front of the kotatsu table, glancing around the room with a sense of nostalgia. Marcus had done very little to decorate his room and hadn't seen the point of partitioning off spaces for rooms, which, to him, would have made the apartment even smaller than it already was. She also realized anew how few possessions he had. Even after twelve years in the same place, he insisted on not collecting more than he needed to be comfortable. Keiko had understood from the first time she'd met him that that was part of his panic disorder. He wanted to be able to leave this place at a moment's notice. He kept no more than what could fill two suitcases and a small carryon. Instead of books, which he loved, he'd bought an electronic reader that held all the reading material he needed. His music was in the company iPod system. One of the first times she and Marcus had gotten together after she'd arrived at the hospital, he'd told her that, until he'd moved to Japan, he'd had little if any skill with electronics or technology. He'd learned because it was a way to live sparingly that would allow him to pack up and flee in mere minutes.
Marcus was different, as different as Keiko felt herself to be. She'd often noticed that Haruki considered Marcus-san one of his closest friends, but even he couldn't quite understand him. Her brother didn't understand Marcus's desire to make everyone part of his family--and to create a family for himself in the process. He didn't understand Marcus's underlying nervousness about being in a foreign country that included none of the comforts he was used to--rich food, conveniences, the ability to relax and accept everyone as they were. To be able to put cream and sugar in his tea if he wants to and not offend someone for doing so.
With a rush of unusually tender emotion, she watched him prepare the tea. I'm so foreign, too. Maybe I wouldn't have been if Haruki hadn't begged our parents to let me join the foreign exchange program when I was a young girl. Maybe I would have accepted my life for what it was without thought or consideration for what I truly wanted for myself. I would have mindlessly become what my family expected me to be because it's not the Japanese way to question how things are, to question the group-mind. I would have done my duty out of a sense of giri, the burden of obligation every single Japanese child is instilled with from birth, and to keep the harmony. But now, in part because I've accepted Christ and I have no other gods before Him, and in part because, when I met Marcus, I wanted to live my life so I could leave anything behind at any time--easily, like he does--I've woken from that slumber.
Keiko smiled when Marcus came to the table with the tray of tea. After he sat on the opposite side of the table, he poured them each a cup properly and they exchanged a customary "Itadakimasu" ("I will receive") before drinking. They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the music, drinking their tea, and Keiko became aware that Marcus shared the silence with her companionably. He'd confided to her that this wasn't something he was able to do easily with others in Japan. Like most Americans, he was largely uncomfortable with lulls in conversations and felt compelled to fill them. But he's relaxed with me. I sense this as well as I sense that his mind is somewhere else tonight. He's wondering if Dan has responded to his ultimatum, but he's not eager to find out our supervisor's response.
During his distraction, she glanced across the table at Marcus, noting that he needed a shave. Haruki could go weeks without shaving, but Marcus needed to shave more than once a day. She wasn't sure why she'd always found his facial hair--along with his strangely abundant chest hair--so compelling, but she did. There was something in-your-face masculine about Marcus, and, though that first day of being with him she'd considered him imposing, she'd come to realize his size and sheer maleness also made her feel safe and protected...even made her feel more feminine than any man ever had.
That most of all she couldn't explain. In truth, the whole evaluating-her-own-feelings process was still strange to her. For most of her life, she hadn't considered her own emotions in most situations. She'd grown up in a fairly standard, rigid Japanese home. She did what she was told, what was expected of her, and she didn't question anything. Her first glimpse of the opposite extreme had been in Jordan Palunachek, the daughter of the couple who'd hosted her and Haruki in the foreign exchange program. Jordan had been their age, but she was fiercely independent with a mind of her own and she spoke it at any and every opportunity. Keiko had been stunned by this young woman.
Eventually, the Palunacheks' witness had changed everything for Keiko, as it had for Haruki before her. She knew she'd been transformed from the inside out, but sometimes the radical shift of her viewpoint still left her floundering for guidance. She couldn't discuss the sensation of being lost with her own family--in fact, neither she nor her brother were willing to tell their parents that their Uchi-Soto ("we Japanese") mindset had changed. Additionally, they hadn't admitted they'd become Christians--because admitting the truth would be inviting a confrontation that could upset the lives they'd built for themselves. I would be forced to go home and stay there until the omiai is complete. Then I would all but become the possession of my husband in my long-ago-arranged marriage. To avoid the situation altogether, Keiko hadn't gone home for more than thirteen years. Luckily, her parents considered education second only to familial duty. They never contacted her or Haruki--were never pushy or demanding. They accepted their obligation to the WMMO program and the children's hospital because familial duties had either been fulfilled or could currently wait.
Looking at Marcus, Keiko experienced the troubling sensation that her own grief might overwhelm her. It was true that Dan had asked her to come here, in some part, to "settle Dr. Samuels". The reality was that Marcus had settled her. She couldn't imagine staying in this place if he wasn't here with her physically, on a daily basis. What would it be like to have him become nothing more than a voice at the other end of the phone, or a disembodied presence in an e-mail?
She took a deep breath to loosen the tightness in her chest, but her frustration grew. She felt at a loss to explain her own feelings beyond that Marcus was her best friend. She'd never known anyone like him. Jordan had been a revelation, but something about Marcus was so much wider and deeper and higher than anything else she'd ever experienced. He was kind, thoughtful, generous, equally in the moment as he was in looking to the future. He had the biggest heart she'd ever known. He saw her as a real person, her own person...a woman with feelings, a free will, choices, and freedom. No one else, not even Haruki, gave her that kind of respect.
Respect is the right word. Growing up in the West, I see that the Japanese way of respecting is selfish. Others are expected to fulfill required duty and manners to the point of being uncomfortable themselves. That's not respecting someone; it's forcing them to abide by your ideas of right and wrong and giving no thought to anyone else's. Marcus saw who she was as a person, and he liked her that way--yet he continually encouraged her to be everything she was meant to be, whatever she needed to be. Nothing about this philosophy was the Japanese way. I'm "me" with Marcus. Letting him go...after all this time? Getting used to living without him? How?
When he sighed, she came out of her own thoughts to realize that he remained lost in his own, and the tension he was experiencing was palpable. She wondered if her own was to him.
"Sumimasen ("excuse me")," she murmured, aware that she was interrupting his thoughts. "Will you miss working and living here, Marcus?"
He looked directly into her eyes--another thing a Japanese person would never do, as it was considered rude. She knew that in the States, the opposite was true. Not meeting someone's eyes when he was talking to you there was disrespectful and shifty. It hadn't been easy for Keiko to re-learn this custom, but she had and she'd marveled frequently at all she would have missed if she hadn't. Gazing into Marcus's eyes equated looking into her own soul in a way she couldn't begin to understand or explain to herself after all this time.
Marcus grinned at her. "I won't miss being called 'san' anything, that's for sure."
His tone was light and kind, teasing, and she smiled freely. "You think all the etiquette and aisatsu traditions here are silly, don't you?"
Even the way he relaxed slightly at her question told her that he trusted her and felt comfortable enough to be honest with her. "Do I think it's silly that, because I prefer cream and sugar in my tea, I'm somehow offending someone? Yeah. I admit it. Why can't I have tea the way I enjoy it? How is that offensive? How does it hurt anyone? Isn't it more offensive to tell someone he has to learn to like bitter, black tea just so he doesn't offend anyone?"
Keiko smiled. His quiet confession was for her ears alone. Warmth spread through her at the certainty. "Yes, but the Japanese won't understand that mentality."
"No. I've seen that. But I haven't relaxed for twelve years for fear of offending someone, even when I can't imagine how I'm doing anything wrong, especially when I'm alone. I would never tell someone else what he or she had to do to be proper. This whole practice feels unnatural and wrong to me. So much of the etiquette stuff I've learned here is the opposite of what I was taught to be polite, proper, respectful behavior. It reminds me of a kind of control kick. If everyone follows it, everyone is under control. But whose control? There's no freedom, no uniqueness, no individuality in a system like that."
"Exactly." The sense of betrayal to her country and family faded almost too quickly for her to wince.
Marcus offered her a ghost of a smile, sharing this understanding privately.
"Tell me about your family's etiquette and traditions," she encouraged. He'd spoken of his parents and siblings so often, she did feel she knew them, especially his mother, but she wanted to hear more anyway. She wasn't sure she'd ever get enough of hearing him talk about his loved ones.
He poured her another cup of tea and she thanked him before he said, "We don't hold to traditions to the point that we can't forgive each other with barely a word if some custom is forgotten or ignored. I guess we're very forgiving and relaxed. We're just happy to be together--we don't care to control each other. You can enjoy a person a lot more if you're not trying to get him or her to fit into the hole you've decided they belong in." He shook his head abruptly. "I'm sorry, Keiko. I don't seem to have a filter tonight. I love you and Haruki. I don't have any problems with either of you. Honestly, I don't have trouble with most of the people here. I hope you don't have with me. I guess all this stuff is just building up inside of me."
"Because you're unhappy here," she murmured sympathetically. "It's understandable. You feel you were forced to stay in this country far longer than you ever wanted to."
"Forced, maybe, but mostly I made the choice myself. It's my own fault. And that's not to say I haven't enjoyed so much of my time here. I've gained the kind of fulfillment I could never have known by hiding at home where it's safe and comfortable."
Keiko smiled, and he seemed relieved by her easy acceptance of his words. "What else? Tell me more about your family."
"I think what I miss the most is that every Sunday, after church, my family gets together for a potluck. That's been important to us since my older sister moved out and started her own family. Though we all have separate lives, we're in constant contact with each other..."
He trailed off, and Keiko saw what she could almost believe were tears in his eyes. She reached across the table for his hand, and he gripped hers tightly between both of his, as if he needed her comfort. The instinct to do so much more...put my arms around him and hold him close... was so strong, she almost couldn't fight the urge. "Your family is so close, I can't even imagine. Even when my family all lived in the same house, we had separate lives. I don't talk to my family more than a few times a year. We all accept that. We don't...miss each other, I guess... the way your family does if you don't see or talk to each other often."
He nodded. "Our lives are intertwined. I've missed all that for so long. I've missed so much. My family means everything to me. I feel like I have a hole in my life, inside of me. I only hope I can fill it once I'm home."
"You will," she assured him.
He gently let her hands go even when she wouldn't have chosen to separate from him in this way. He inclined his head, agreeing with her assessment, but then he glanced at her again. "Your family... It must get so lonely."
For most of her life, the concept of loneliness had been completely foreign to her. She hadn't grasped that sensation at all until after she'd met Marcus and he'd gone home for a short vacation the first time. She'd already grown attached to their daily interactions and not having him beside her in a physical sense of the word had been excruciating. Since then, she'd arranged all her vacations to coincide with his.
"The Japanese have a very strange idea that never seemed strange to me until I lived in the United States. We're raised with amae--dependence. Especially women. Individualism isn't encouraged. Yet we're also raised to be independent to the extreme. Osekkai!"
"Mind your own business," Marcus said softly.
"Right. Protect your privacy, follow your dreams, do things your own way at your own pace. In Japan, these two ideas aren't in conflict. They're the ultimate harmony. My parents wanted me to go to a different host family in the exchange program than Haruki because they wanted me to get the maximum experience--a different one, a different education. Get the most out of the learning situation that I could. But if they found out how much I did get out of it..." She shook her head. "...well, that wouldn't be allowed. I would have betrayed everything I am, everything we stand for, even our ie--the family system."
Marcus gaped at her in disbelief. "If you can't be free with your own family..."
She quickly squeezed his hand not far from hers on the table, then left off. "You'll be glad to go home, and then you'll have all the things you missed. You'll no longer have a hole in your heart or your life."
"I might have another one," he murmured, running his fingers through impossibly thick, reddish brown hair.
Keiko didn't get a chance to ask him what he meant. He gave a great sigh. "I guess I'd better check my e-mail."
She knew through and through that Marcus had "waffled" according to Dan's wishes because he was open to the idea of God guiding this path He'd put him on. Marcus had spent twelve years serving Christ even when it'd caused him great discomfort and trauma. Yet she understood that Marcus felt he was being disobedient by following his heart now in going home.
When he rose and went to the organization-loaned laptop on the desk, she immediately put her arms around herself, feeling like she might fly apart if she didn't have something to hold her together. If possible, she was as nervous as Marcus obviously was.