This is Mr. Tomimatsu Ishikawa (2/28/1918 – 7/17/2013), WW2 veteran, fighter for soldier’s rights, and scuba diver. He served on a fleet oiler, the Irō, during the war and was one of the few survivors when she was sunk by an American air raid as part of Operation Desecrate One. In his later life, he advocated for the Japanese government to properly recognize and inter the remains of his comrades who had died aboard the Irō. On March 30, 2004, at the age of 86 years old, Mr. Ishikawa dove 90 feet to the ship’s wreck and performed a memorial ceremony for his friends. Partly, the reason for this dive was personal. He wanted to pay respect to his friends. The other reason for the dive was to generate media attention and broader awareness about the situation of the Irō.
The guide who helped him complete his mission was my friend Yoko Higashide. She was very close to Mr. Ishikawa and regarded him as a grandfather. Before her meeting Mr. Ishikawa, Yoko had limited knowledge about the shipwrecks of Palau. She had worked there as a dive guide for two years without knowing that there were any shipwrecks. It was only when she started working at Fish ‘n’ Fins, an international dive shop, that Yoko started to know about the WW2 history of Palau. Even as she would lead dives to the wrecks, she always felt bad to be diving on them. In her words, “It’s like we are playing at a graveyard”.
In the summer of 2007, I had the privilege to go diving in Palau. One of the dives I went on was the Irō. It was not the first time I had been there, but this time was different because my guide was Yoko. She explained to me about the ship’s history and told me Mr. Ishikawa’s story. I was inspired by his determination to return to the Irō, even though it was deep and he was 86 years old. I asked Yoko if she could help me write a letter in Japanese to Mr. Ishikawa. I wanted to let him know that I was an American who was moved by his mission to pay respect to his fallen comrades. You can see my letter to him at the bottom of this blog post. To my surprise, he wrote me back a long letter. Although I mailed him again in 2009, that was the end of our correspondence. For me, though, the one letter was enough. Our lives were connected from then on.
Now, when I dive on war wrecks I am reflective of the human suffering that led the ships to be where they are. So I do not consider wreck diving to be a leisurely activity like diving on a reef. It is a somber activity like visiting a graveyard or the site of an old battle. It is important to go there to remember our history. Regarding my experience of writing a letter to Mr. Ishikawa, I think it is a truly great thing that even though Japan and the USA fought bitterly within his lifetime, he still lived to see the day when Yoko and I could be friends and enjoy scuba diving together. I hope that I can always be a peaceful person and make him smile down from heaven.
Please read Mr. Ishikawa’s story by Yoko. It is the second link in the Related Media below.
I try to use words to encompass meaning. To better describe, I use more words. Sometimes I try to find the one word that would encompass all meaning. What would that word be? OM? Maybe, if I was a Hindu. So here we are again, describing the same uncertainty that a relativist view will always but unfortunately lead to. Yet here in the hopelessness of the problem, perhaps there is an answer. Not so much a “truth” that I can know is right. This answer is a different, more euphoric answer. I know it not. But as I reflect on it, I smile and I write. The moment will be fleeting. For as each blog post begins, surely it ends. My euphoria just like my pain; only temporary. But if I really knew this, I would know a “truth”. And as I said, I bear no truths… only an answer.
In the summer of 2006, I went on a Study Abroad Program in China which changed the course of my life. The first Friday night of my stay at Ren Min University, I was casually walking the school grounds when I came across a square where many people noisily conversed. As I approached, I realized everyone was speaking English. It turned out to be a weekly event called English Corner, a time when people would come and practice speaking English with each other. Naturally a laowai like myself drew a big crowd. I felt like a celebrity with all the students gathered around me asking me questions. After several minutes, I noticed a beautiful girl in the back who was listening and not asking many questions. I felt bold so I started talking to her. Our conversation went something to the effect of, “Hi, what’s your name?”
“My name is Sea Eagle. My English teacher suggested Heidi but I thought that was too old fashioned so I translated my name by myself.”
“Oh… Sea Eagle… That is an interesting name.”
We kept talking for another hour and exchanged email addresses. Then she left and I scolded myself for not offering to walk her home or asking for her phone number. Fate was on my side because she returned to tell me that she could not read my handwriting. Having been given the second chance, I then offered to walk her home. And the rest is history.
The real purpose of this blog post actually is to describe my thoughts and lessons learned on international relationships. This post is based on my own experiences married to a Chinese woman. It in no way reflects every international relationship.
Firstly I think that I was predisposed to seek love in a foreign land. I am attracted to difference. Different appearance, different culture, different language, all of these aspects intrigue and excite me. I also think that such a kind of love is a positive and important influence on humanity because it brings communities closer.
While differences can be exciting and provide a great impulse during the formation of an international relationship, they become challenging as you grow more accustomed to each other. As an example, in China serving food to guests is simply good manners. With my own family, however, this is never done. I don’t know if other American families do this but we don’t. It’s not that we don’t care about guests. We just trust that they will serve themselves whatever food they want to eat. So when I am eating food with my family in China, I am uncomfortable being served. Sometimes I will try to tell people I don’t want any more, “bu yao xie xie,”. I do it even when I am not full because I prefer to serve myself. This is just one example where cultural differences can be uncomfortable or lead to disagreements. Other examples include what is acceptable humor, gift giving customs, and child rearing.
Another aspect of international relationships that is difficult is the distance. You spend months only able to communicate on the computer or over the phone. When your unhappy, you can’t feel each other which makes comforting each other especially hard. My wife equated it to tending a fire. When you are close, the fire burns very hot. When you are apart, it cools down and only the glowing embers remain.
My advice on surviving the dangerous long distance phase of the relationship is to always have a plan about the next time you are going to see each other as well as how you eventually be together. Having a plan can reduce the inevitable feelings of worry, hopelessness and loneliness which shake your resolve. My wife and I endured more than five years living in different countries. Having plans was what kept us going.
A more subtle problem with the long distance is that you never really get to experience what life with the other person is like. You grow comfortable in having autonomy while also having that warm feeling that someone in the world cares about you. When you finally are living together, married life can be an abrupt end to that autonomy.
Finally, there are a lot of negative stereotypes that can impact an international relationship. In my case, I am a white man and my wife is an Asian woman. There is a bias that white men seek Asian women for exotic pleasure (the dragon lady) or because they are submissive (the china doll). Sadly I have met many such men in my travels. At the same time, Asian women are seen as seeking nothing more than wealth from their relationships with foreigners. My wife was accused of as much by a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agent during her first interview for a visa to come to the United States.
International relationships have their up’s and down’s just like any other relationship. If you can navigate the cultural differences and the hard logistics questions, international relationships can be immensely rewarding and will expand your horizons. My wife and I have known each other for seven years now and been married for three. One year ago, our lives were blessed with a little baby boy. I hope our little family can be healthy and strong for the rest of our lives. I wish the same thing for everyone.