Acclimating From Tokyo to New York City

August 10, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

NEW YORK — “Is it dangerous here?” my 12-year-old son asks me as we walk down a street in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, passing the assortment of residents ranging from the fit-looking woman walking a dog to a deranged man shouting profanities. “It stinks,” he says, as we enter a subway station. “Wow,” as he points to a pile of trash on the tracks. .

We recently moved from Tokyo to the United States where my son will attend a boarding school. Both of us have traveled here many times. But this time, because we left behind a place we love as our home, we view our new surroundings with skepticism, while Japan gets the rose-colored glasses. .

Already at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, I realized we were headed to a country of different behavioral standards. In the boarding area, two young American women were talking to each other sprawled on the floor; one on her back and tossing snacks into her mouth and the other propped up on her elbows. They stood out in a country where people don’t want even their bags to touch the ground. .

Manhattan strikes us as a gritty and often dirty city with all sorts of people going about as they please. We remember Tokyo as sparkling and orderly and full of familiar faces, even with the earthquakes, nuclear disasters and typhoons. .

For the first few days, my son walks facing down, nervously avoiding the streaks of dirt and dog droppings on the sidewalk. He stops to look at his watch that he stubbornly keeps on Japan time. .

“Maechin is waking up now,” he says, nostalgically recalling a classmate. I tell him, “Look, we are starting a new life now. So we can’t just keep thinking about Japan, O.K.?” .

But I’m not one to talk. I’m irritated by the garage attendant who greets my request to get a car with a loud yawn. How about the woman at the coffee bar who is absorbed in repeatedly dropping a small plastic tube on the counter? I finally realize what she is doing when the tube lands standing up, and she lets out a gleeful, “I did it!” .

I know that American service workers can often be far more flexible, and in the end offer better service, than their extremely polite but by-the-book-only Japanese counterparts. But presentation still seems to matter to me. .

I also find myself rewriting history as I struggle with empty nest syndrome. .

I decided to send my only child to boarding school, because we had reached a deadlock on the homework front. His refusal to study, resulting in failing subjects, versus my insistence that he at least try to live up to his potential, was overwhelming the already intense ties of a single mother and son. .

But now I can think only about the treasured times: seeing how long we could hold hands while riding bikes in the countryside, underwater rock-paper-scissors contests in the swimming pool and sharing popcorn at the movies. .

Words on a scrap of paper taped to a shelf in my brother’s apartment in New York set me straight. I never thought I’d once again cling to sayings from the poet Khalil Gibran; in my teens I savored his poetry printed in calligraphy on greeting cards. But his wisdom on parenting is hard to beat. .

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth….

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;.

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so he loves also the bow that is stable.”.

So while I rub the charm with my son’s name etched onto it that I have attached to my handbag, and as I get a whiff of solace from the humming of an elderly woman sitting behind me on the bus, I’ll focus on the free spirit of the arrow instead of the misery of the lonely bow. .

My son gradually eased up on the complaining and seemed eager to get on with the next chapter. But when we unpacked his belongings for the summer program in the dormitory at his new school, a one-yen coin in one of his bags sent him back for a moment. “It’s so nice and cool,” he said, pressing the coin to his cheek with his eyes closed to savor deeply the joy of the discovery. “It reminds me of Japan.”