Tuesday, April 26, 2005


I have been meaning to write about Ryu for a while now. He's a boy I run with in track and field club after school. This year he's an eighth grader. He's incredibly fast when he runs, and he always makes it look so easy to do. He's also incredibly shy. So many of the boys here combat each other for my attention and make any attempt, at various levels of loudness, to interact with me, making jokes and grabbing my arm or slipping theirs under mine to walk with me for a while down the hallway to chat between classes, or fight over where I'll sit when I eat lunch with their class that day. But from the beginning Ryu was quiet and sat in the back of his classes and only smiled bashfully and looked down at his desk whenever I caught his eye. He's not so good at English. It's difficult for him and in class he's never one of the kids who raises their hand to answer a question posed to everyone.

When I first started running with the track team, he was visibly nervous. Whenever the track coach instructs the kids to do something new, he looks at Ryu and says, "Ryu, setsumei shimasu." Ryu will explain. And Ryu always looks shocked and surprised and turns to me with pleading eyes and without any words at all I can tell he's thinking, please just understand the next exercise! I can't explain it in English! He told me many times over the first couple of weeks that English was difficult, one phrase he'd apparently memorized. I knew that he was embarrassed and offering some form of apology, and I always told him not to worry. I talk in my broken Japanese to him, and when he's hooked into a conversation and likes something I say in Japanese, I tell him how to say it in English. I pick pretty simple stuff so that he doesn't get discouraged. And now while we run I don't have to offer a phrase because he's gotten to the point where he'll ask me how something I've said in Japanese would be said in English. Sometimes he accepts the English, other times, if it's too difficult for him, he'll say so. Most of the time he'll repeat the words for a minute or so as we run until they feel comfortable to him. The last thing I taught him was the word "strange" so he could point to his friend Rikiya and say, "Rikiya is strange." I gave him the option of strange or weird, but he thought weird was too difficult to pronounce, so he stuck with strange.

Last week I told him I was starting to study kanji and I asked him how many he knew. He told me about twelve hundred. Kanji are incredibly complex and also incredibly beautiful. They're difficult for Westerners to learn, and even some Japanese people have trouble. I told Ryu that even though I like kanji a lot, it's very difficult for me. He asked how many I knew. I have a pitiful fifty or so at this point, and sometimes I struggle to recall some of those even. Ryu wanted to know which ones I knew, so I told him some of them, and after we finished jogging he kneeled down in the sandy lot where most of the club activities are held, found a stone, and started to draw kanji in the sand. And draw, I think, is the right word, as the words "draw" and "write" are the same word in Japanese.

He drew the kanji for "person", "woods", "forest", "time", and "heart/mind" (as the heart and mind are the same thing in Japanese, they aren't seperated, and it exists in the center of your torso) then he drew the kanji for "to know". I like the kanji for "to know" because it looks like a person about to walk through a doorway. That makes sense to me on a gut level. Ryu explained how the kanji are made as he drew, saying, "Kou, kou, kou," with each stroke. Like this, and this, and this. Occassionally he'd look up and say, "Wakaru?" Do you understand? I'd nod and he'd go on to another one.

The last kanji he drew before it was time to start running again was "tomo" the root of the word "friend" in Japanese. He added the rest of the word in hiragana to the root and, still looking at it, said, "friend." Then he smiled up at me and pointed back and forth between the kanji and himself and me, making a triangle over and over, as if he were drawing a kanji that encompassed both of us and the one he'd drawn. I patted him on the back of the head and rested my hand on his shoulder and told him in my lame Japanese that he was indeed my good friend. And then we got up and went back to running.

This sort of thing happens to me more than I say. I don't really put everything of my life here in this journal. And there are many moments like this one that I don't write about. I can't explain that impulse except to say there are some moments in life I just want to keep for myself. Which is probably strange, coming from me, because I think I'm probably notoriously open about my life. Except I tend more to tell people about bad things in my life or ridiculously embarrassing moments. I'm fond of self-depricating humor and also I think it's probably a way for me to avoid talking about certain kinds of emotions. I've never been comfortable with publicly embracing sentimental feelings. But one of the things that's changed in me since I've come to live here is that I find it's much nicer to be open to those feelings than not. The land of happiness and togetherness has worked a sort of spell on me, I suppose. And I'm glad that it has.

So...in the spirit of togetherness and happiness, I offer this moment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

absolutely beautiful, chris.


7:55 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

thanks, sweetie.

8:40 AM  
Blogger sdn said...

what a wonderful story. you made my morning happier.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks for sharing that, Chris. What a great kid!

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, you are touching the lives of so many people with your story. What a wonderful son you are! Love you, Mom

10:07 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

It is my mother's dream that I be a guest on Oprah someday. Doing all I can to make that dream come true for you, Mom!


9:49 AM  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Wow, Chris, what a great way to start my morning. Thanks for that.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Chris, Oprah called today. Told her you were working on your guest spot. Her reply, "I'll be waiting". Hugs, Mom

10:13 PM  
Blogger Heather Shaw said...

Wow. This is really lovely, Chris. Thank you for sharing this!

1:50 AM  
Blogger haddayr said...

We're a lot alike. Thanks for writing out of your comfort zone. Beautiful.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a great story, Chris. I could hear the music swelling as Ryu drew 'tomo.'


11:13 PM  

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