The rental car cruises at a safe speed down a long and winding road as I sit squished in the backseat, sandwiched a nearly ten-year-old boy next to a car seat carrying my sleeping toddler. In the front, Elvis is blaring his heart out through the CD player, and we are making good time to the fox sanctuary in Shiroishi, a small town in southern Miyagi, Japan. As we push up a hill into denser forest, something occurs to me, and the smile beaming across my face cannot be stifled. We finally did it.
For most of my life, I’ve been noticing these communities of happy families. These parent-friends and child-friends always meet regularly for play-dates and positive social encounters. They all have lots in common— same school, same church, same hobbies, same interests.
And they were never us.
My family was different, and with my mother too busy for church or PTA involvement, the chance for those parent-friend relationships to develop just never happened. The assumption I made and held onto was that we just didn’t fit in. As the weird kid at school, I would of course come from an equally weird family. That social environment I so idolized would never be open to me, for that was just not how my family interacted with the world.
Twenty years later and 6,000 miles away, I would find out how wrong I had been. Here, I am surrounded by a fresh and fantastic supply of wonderful friends— a social environment made richer by the weirdness my peers in Texas avoided and by the fantastic differences between us all as well as the similarities. Most of the friends I have made are from the same continent if not the same country as I am, but we all have different backgrounds and stories. I have learned more about what it is to be American, and Texan, in my time abroad than I ever could have back home.
As the devious, funny, and wicked-smart kid next to me shows no reservations toward playing puppet games with my freshly awoken daughter next to him, I have confirmation that I’ve made it. In front of my sits his mom, one of the best friends I have made in my life, another girl from Texas with a family labeled “other” who didn’t let the small-minded kids destroy what made her special. Both of us have Japanese last names to match the men we fell in love with years ago— more than a decade in her case and a little less in mine.
Motherhood without community support is terribly challenging, and I don’t know how I could have managed the last year without the constant assurance, assistance and support of my friend, a mom-in-the-know.
I had thought as a child that community was like a puzzle, where all those happy families were pieces from the same box with a picture of blue skies and white clouds while my family, if fit perfectly together, made chiaroscuro patches of shadow too dark and bright beyond comprehension, held tight together by sheer will alone.
It turns out community is more like a quilt, with different textures, colors, patterns, shapes, and thicknesses coming together for the mutual benefit of creating something beautiful and warm.
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