At a rest stop several kilometers away from Karuizawa, Ruthanna Taylor stood under a pavilion in the cold night air. She was contemplating which ice cream bar in the vending machine would taste the best. While she tried to decipher the Japanese names of the ice cream bars, Ruthanna started to daydream.
She thought about a memory of her little-girlhood in Japan. Once, at the supermarket with her father, she had eagerly pointed to hand-dipped green ice cream.
“I want mint chocolate chip, Papa!” small Ruthanna had said. “Please?”
“Sure thing, Punkindoodle. Midori no aisu kurimu kudasai. [Green ice cream, please,]” Papa said.
The server dipped out the ice cream, and Ruthanna eagerly took a lick. She started in disgust, because the ice cream tasted nothing like mint!
“Papa, this ice cream cone is yucky! You eat it!” she cried.
When Papa tasted it, he said, “Oh, Ruthie, this isn’t mint chocolate chip. This is green tea ice cream! I’m sorry, but I can’t buy you another one. Let’s be more careful next time, OK?”
“But it has chocolate chips! Can I eat them?” Ruthanna wailed.
“No, Sweetheart, these are azuki beans,” explained Papa. “I don’t care for them myself, but we can’t waste food. I’ll finish it for you.”
“I don’t like Japanese ice cream,” his little girl declared.
Yeah, I was a little girl back then, Ruthanna thought. I guess I was only four years old when that happened. I’m going to read the ice cream names before I buy any. I don’t want to be surprised. I’d like to get mint chocolate chip right now, in fact. Hey, that looks like it! “Minto Choko Chippu,” she read, sounding out the Japanese letters. That clue, coupled with a drawing of a mint leaf and a chocolate bar convinced Ruthanna that she had the right choice.
Ruthanna stuck a silver hundred-yen coin and a copper ten-yen coin into the slot and pressed the button. Her treat thudded down to the bottom of the machine. She reached in and picked it up, then peeled away the wrapper. The ice cream was mounted on a white plastic stick. She licked around the edges with her tongue. She made sure to drop the wrapper in the trash can marked for paper, not the one for aluminum cans.
Then she skipped back to the white car. She tapped on the window until her mama reached across and unlocked the car door. Ruthanna slid into the seat and buckled her seat belt. “I came to the right side of the car this time!”
“You mean the left side,” Mrs. Taylor corrected her.
“Yeah. The left side is the right side to get in on, since I’m the passenger and not the driver,” Ruthanna laughed.
“I have a hard time keeping things straight,” said Mrs. Taylor. “I have to sit in the right seat to drive, and drive on the left side of the road. At least one thing is the same. The driver’s side is towards the middle of the road in both countries—America and Japan.”
“I guess you’re right, I mean, correct!”
Mrs. Taylor started the car, and drove back onto the highway. She made certain that she was on the left side of the road, and then relaxed. Up ahead were her husband Ralph and his friend Bill Elston, driving a huge truck.
Ruthanna said, “You know, Mama, it’s hard to believe we’re finally in Japan again! I’m not sure which things I remember from the three years we lived in Japan, and which things I remember just because you and Papa told the stories so many times.”
“You had only turned six when we left Japan, so it would be hard for you to remember. Of course, we meant to come back as soon as possible, but that turned out to be four years later.” Mrs. Taylor sighed. “I know the Lord has a plan in all of this, but I honestly don’t know how we’re going to learn Japanese at our age. Your Papa will be forty soon, and I’m not far behind. Japanese was hard enough to learn when we were younger. I wonder how we’ll do this time.”
“Karuizawa Language School is probably a good place to learn Japanese,” said Ruthanna. “I hope I can get better at Japanese.”
“You will, but you need to try hard. People say that kids pick up languages easily, but Japanese doesn’t follow that rule. You weren’t a baby when we came, and so the ladies in church didn’t pick you up and talk to you. You just ran around and giggled with the Japanese children. None of you talked!”
Ruthanna laughed, and said, “If you had sent me to Japanese school, maybe I would have ‘picked it up.’ ”
“Would you like to attend Japanese school sometime while we’re here?”
“Oh, no! I was just kidding. I’d much rather be homeschooled. Besides, I forgot most of the Japanese I did know while we lived in America, so it wouldn’t have made much difference.”
“Are you sure, Ruthanna? One of the reasons I let you start kindergarten early was the hope that you could attend Japanese school for one year, and then go back to studying in English in the usual grade for your age.”
“Mama, please don’t make me go to school with the Japanese kids! It wouldn’t be any fun to play with them, and I wouldn’t understand what the teachers told me to do. Besides, I can’t stand Japanese food, other than curry rice, and they would serve seaweed and yucky stuff like that in the cafeteria.”
“All right, Ruthanna. I won’t force you to go to Japanese school. I’ll be contented with your being excellent in your English studies, and so-so in Japanese. But I want you to try to improve your Japanese speaking skills.”