Dan Kang

Maria

The tan girl with a near buzz cut also looked around our yoga class whenever the instructor spoke, so I knew that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand Japanese. I found her after class: Her name was Hayme, she was visiting for a week from the Philippines, and unlike my first visit to Tokyo, she was trying different yoga studios instead of experimenting with how much food a human body can hold before it starts shutting down. Downstairs, I met her mom, a small woman named Maria who sweetly dominated the conversation with questions like what I’m doing in Japan, how long I’ve lived here, and how often I go to yoga. When she found out I was 24, she remarked that I looked 17 and laughed at her own comment. It didn’t really matter what she said; I couldn’t help but laugh along at how she so openly and plainly spoke her mind.

Even though we had just met, she invited me over to have dinner with her, her brother Eddie, and Hayme. As excited as I was about heating up some frozen dumplings (not a joke; I had bought cookware earlier that day and was stoked to cook for the first time in Japan), hanging out with Maria and her family was bound to be more interesting. Together, we took the train one stop, rode the bus for thirty minutes, and walked to Eddie’s apartment.

Eddie had been a sushi chef in Tokyo for 25 years, and the first thing I noticed about his apartment was the aquarium with five large goldfish next to his television. According to Maria, they keep him from feeling lonely in Tokyo by greeting him when he comes home by swimming a little more quickly. I asked Eddie if they had names but he said he hadn’t gotten to it yet. I figured they were safe from being used as filleting practice.

Eddie cooked us okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) and brought out pickled vegetables, and Maria provided endless entertainment by practicing her favorite hobby of talking (her words, not mine). As we ate, Maria's phone rang but stopped before she could pick up. Eddie commented that it was probably Ruriko, and the name was like a shot of adrenaline in Maria's heart. She frantically called back, and when someone picked up from the other side, Maria screamed “Mommy!”

Maria told the person on the phone, presumably Ruriko, how much she missed her and wanted to see her and Daddy. She said that her brother could speak Japanese much better than she could and thrust the phone toward him as she hunted for pen and paper. Eddie introduced himself and translated as Maria faithfully wrote every piece of information he dictated. Ruriko wanted to meet at TMC TV studio at 4:30 PM tomorrow.

Eddie on phone

Eddie hung up, and Maria fell back onto the bed and shrieked with giddiness, complete with feet and fists pumping into the air. At last, I asked: Who is Ruriko?

When Maria was 19, she had left the Philippines and come to Japan as a singer with a group of dancers in search of fame abroad. While in Japan, she wanted to become an actress and received guidance from an actor named Koji Ishizaka and his wife, an actress named Ruriko Asaoka. (My Japanese teachers and coworkers would later tell me that they are considered quite legendary in Japan.) Maria eventually gave up, returned to the Philippines, got married, had kids, and had now finally returned to Japan after more than 35 years. She had persistently called the old number she had for Koji’s house until someone picked up and she was able to get in touch with Ruriko, who had just called her back. Coincidentally, Ruriko and Koji were acting together for the first time since their divorce 16 years ago. Maria said that the reason was because God had brought them together for her visit. I couldn’t tell if she was serious.

Maria insisted that I join them in going to the TV studio to meet Ruriko and Koji the next day, but she didn’t need to convince me: I wasn’t going to miss seeing Maria reunite with her mentors after being apart longer than I’d been alive. Before I left, we agreed to meet up in the morning so I could show them around Yoyogi Park, where street performers and the cool kids of Tokyo show up every Sunday to strut their stuff.

It was too early to see people when we met, so I took them to Meiji Jingu, a famous shrine listed in every Tokyo guidebook. Maria sang as we walked, and she said her husband recently told her to stop because she was too old to sing outside without people thinking she’s a crazy person. But that didn’t stop her from singing in public or singing the praises of her husband, a doctor in the Philippines who is immensely popular due to how well he treats his patients. “I am so blessed. You cannot see a man so good.”

Maria said she was glad I brought them to the shrine because it was nice to be surrounded by nature. She preferred this to the art galleries that she had gone to with Hayme. At Mori Art Museum, Maria had stayed in the lobby and prayed while Hayme browsed the exhibits. When Hayme had finished looking around, Maria had told her that she was not yet done praying. Maria's love of talking didn't exclude her conversations with God.

Maria and Hayme at shrine

After the shrine, we strolled around Yoyogi Park where we spotted some teenagers practicing dance choreography and Hayme ran off to pet cute dogs. We stopped by a stall selling small morsels of sweet bread, where Maria tried to persuade an old Japanese man who barely spoke English to hook her up with more than his sign indicated. I didn’t think it would work, but he dumped in much more than he should have and packed the bag full. As we left, Maria yelled, “I love you, papi!” and his face broke into a smile.

Maria said she needed to leave for Mass, and we agreed to meet back at Eddie’s place later in the afternoon and go to the TV studio where Ruriko and Koji would be. Hayme and I spent the next few hours grabbing ice cream from a trendy shop in Harajuku and climbing at a nearby bouldering gym before hurrying over to meet with Maria and Eddie. Since I was the only one who had cellular data, I navigated us to the TV studio.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a woman waiting outside. Maria asked if we would get a chance to see Ruriko and Koji act and our guide said yes, they were on set right now, but first we would have to turn off our cell phones to avoid disturbing the set. We quietly entered the studio and it was completely silent except for a Japanese woman’s voice coming through the speakers. We joined a group of people watching a small screen showing the live filming, and we realized we were looking at Koji and Ruriko.

TV studio

We stood there for a while, watching them go through several iterations of the same scene. Finally they decided that they had gotten good enough footage, and our guide escorted us to Ruriko and Koji as they stepped off the set. Maria ran ahead and hugged them, yelling, “Daddy! Mommy!” The whole crew stood and watched the reunion with grins; it was impossible not to be infected by Maria’s excitement. After chatting and laughing with Koji and Ruriko for a while, Maria brought them over and introduced us: Hayme, her daughter; Eddie, her brother; and me, a friend.

We spent the rest of our time in the studio with all of us taking a bunch of photos, Maria proudly telling them about Hayme and her artwork, Koji sharing one his drawings that he had in the studio, and Maria collecting their autographs. Despite the language barrier of Maria not being able to speak Japanese and Koji and Ruriko speaking limited English, Maria’s enthusiasm collapsed the distance created by 35 years of separation with her Mommy and Daddy. They exchanged addresses and contact information so that they wouldn’t fall out of touch again. When we left, Maria practically skipped to the bus stop with joy. It was incredible that a simple conversation after yoga class led to being able to witness such a meaningful moment in Maria’s life.

Maria with Ruriko and Koji

I went back to Eddie’s apartment a few days later to catch Maria and Hayme before their flight back to the Philippines. Hayme was out biking around Tokyo and hadn’t come home yet, so I hung out with Eddie and Maria as Eddie prepared delicious food for us and Maria showed me the souvenirs she had bought. She had purchased a bunch of battery-powered stuffed cats that either danced to music or rolled around making laughing noises. I didn’t know what was funnier: how ridiculous these toys were or how much delight they brought Maria. She told me she wanted me to have one and put a cat as well as a ceramic teapot into my backpack.

Maria with toy cat

“You are my fourth son,” she told me. The first two were her real sons, the third was the boyfriend of one of her daughters, and I was the fourth. She had puzzled over why she had missed me so much when I left the first night given that we had just met, and she had finally come to a realization. Maria had given up her childhood dream of being a famous actress because having famous parents in Koji and Ruriko satisfied her desire for fame. Still, she had never understood the love she felt from them and how they could love her as their own daughter. Now it was clear to her that God had sent me into her life and nurtured that motherly love within her so that she could finally understand. However it happened, I'm glad it did. Koji and Ruriko were to Maria what Maria, Eddie, and Hayme became for me: By so openly inviting me into their lives, they granted me the experience of finding family far away from home.

Maria, Eddie, and me