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The Long Road Home: Two unlikely friends, one inevitable road trip

Writer Kristin Henderson takes Yoko Kuchiishi, a friend she met while living in Japan, on an all-American road trip.
By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, March 7, 2010

I'm wrong way up. I'm hanging by my feet, which are hooked in a small window over a bathtub in a Victorian mansion on Key West. My head is dangling inches from the bottom of the tub. I realize I'm still gripping the shower curtain rod, but it's not in the same place it was a second ago.

A voice whispers, "Kristin?" It's my Japanese friend Yoko, outside under the window. "You are okay?"

Have I mentioned we've had a few drinks? It's midnight. We're normally responsible adults, the middle-aged wives of upstanding, dependable men. That Yoko and I should have landed in this upside-down situation is a little unexpected, but I can see now that we've been on our way here for two years. And it is good.

We never would have gotten here alone.


Two years ago, I left Washington for a U.S. Navy base in Sasebo, Japan. That's where I met Yoko Kuchiishi, at a tempura restaurant.

She had married for the first time at age 53 -- walked away from a career as head nurse of a hospital neurology department in Fukuoka, a city of more than a million people, and moved two hours away to quiet little Sasebo to start a new life as a housewife. Among Japanese women of her generation, her long years of career-minded, unmarried freedom had made her extremely unusual. Now she had three adult stepchildren, four stepgrandchildren, a house to clean and a husband to cook for every night.

Three years into it, she was combating restlessness by serving as docent at the local concert hall, studying English and volunteering to help newly arrived, culture-shocked American sailors and their families learn the fundamentals of Japanese language, courtesies and food.

I was one of them. I had followed my Navy chaplain husband to Sasebo, and Yoko offered me a ride home after a group outing to sample tempura. Despite the language barrier, we discovered we had a lot in common. I'd been married 20 years longer, but like her, I came from a big city where I'd had a professional life and no children. I was jobless and restless.

For the next two years, Yoko took me along to temples, public baths and fish markets. When we weren't shopping for fish, we were eating it. One day over a lunch of raw fish, grilled fish and tiny dried fish with beady black eyes, Yoko attempted to ask if she could go with me on my next visit home to America.

In her native Japanese, Yoko is quick, funny and eloquent; I know this from hanging out with her and the rest of our Japanese friends. But in English, she's reduced to sounding like a child. Still, her English is way beyond my Japanese. In Japanese, I sound like my niece at age 2, repeatedly shouting the one word she knew -- "Hi! Hi? Hi!" -- as if it could communicate something different each time.

Yoko said, "Next time you go home America visit, I want go with you." She dealt with the complexities of English prepositions and articles by denying their existence.

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