Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Inspirational Ibuki

Ibuki Makes his First Ever Trip to Singapore

You might say that my good friend Ibuki started it all. Fourteen years ago, in a university located in the small Oregon town of Corvallis, two 18-year old strangers from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds would meet for the first time. One was American and one was Japanese. One spoke English as his native tongue while the other was just learning as fast as he could. Both were alone and on their own for the first time, living in a college dormitory filled with unknowns. One was 100 miles from home, while the other was more than 5,000 from the place he called home. The differences in these two were striking, yet it was the commonalities that brought them together. As I reflect upon my long friendship with Ibuki that has lasted over the years, I realized that he was my very first international friend. I can honestly say that having had the opportunity to meet and befriend Ibuki inspired me to know more not only about his own Japanese history and customs, but also about those from other countries and regions as well. Today I look back and can count several friends from around the globe, yet it all started with Ibuki and our lasting friendship over the years brings me great pride.

What makes Ibuki great is that he is a risk-taker. Back when we were entering university, it would have been much easier for Ibuki to stay in the comfort and familiarity of his small Japanese exchange student group. But he realized that his English skills would eventually far out pace the others if he was to reach out and take the giant step of making friends with Americans. He was right.

I helped Ibuki with his English grammar, but we had more fun ordering classic American 60's music CD compilations over the phone. Ibuki had worked for a while back in Japan at an American themed 50s/60s diner and he was hooked on the music of that era since it was played repeatedly over the jukebox at his workplace. I was astounded by his knowledge of the songs and when he asked me to help him place an order over the phone with Time Life Music for their 50s/60s collection, I couldn't let him down.

Ibuki also seemed to get wrapped up into trouble, which seemingly endeared him to most American college-age males at the time. Some other rowdy residents at our dorm would launch ice cream cones out of Ibuki's 6th floor window towards unsuspecting pedestrians outside on the sidewalk. It didn't take too many of these icy episodes before Ibuki was met with a knock on his dorm room door by and Oregon State Trooper (Police Officer) asking him for an explanation.

Ibuki was also naturally curious about seemingly everything American. Whether it was music, style of dress, or the slang we all used; he just soaked it up like a sponge and we were all too ready to indulge him. But Ibuki gave back just as much as he took in and shared with me candid conversations about Japanese history, food, and culture. While visiting my family's home one Christmas time, he even prepared a traditional Japanese meal over at our neighbor's house so that we could all experience the unique tastes from his homeland.

After I graduated from university, Ibuki invited me to visit Japan. It was that trip in February of 1995 which marked my first ever visit to Asia. Ibuki drove me all over the country in the two weeks that I was there. We visited the ancient city of Nara with Japan's biggest Buddha statue, we saw the golden temple of Kyoto which had just been layered with a fresh coat of snow, we toured the famous castle at Jimeiji, the ground zero museum at Hiroshima, and hiked around Mt. Fuji and sampled fresh strawberries that were growing nearby. We rode the lightning fast Express "bullet" train and then, in a much slower experience, Ibuki let me drive his car which represented the first time I had ever driven a right-hand-drive car on what to me was the wrong side of the road. Everything was backwards to me as I slinked behind the wheel. As I pulled out into traffic I went to turn on the turn signal and instead engaged the windshield wipers because in Japan these two items are in reverse location on the steering wheel from where they normally reside for me in the States.

Another first was when Ibuki introduced me to sushi while I was in Japan. All of his friends watched with excited frenzy to see if my head would explode upon the first taste of raw fish. Needless to say, I loved it and have not looked back since. Lastly, Ibuki arranged for me to stay with a host family that were friends of his while we stayed in his hometown of Shizuoka. Even though these kind folks could speak little English, we had a great time together. Ibuki would come over in the evenings and help translate as the father of the house and I would talk about World War II history over a glass of sake. The mother was so kind and would make the nicest dishes, yet she had no western utensils for me, so I was forced to learn how to use chopsticks. I am so thankful for that lady because having to master the fine art of chopsticks kept me from starving that week and also proved to be a valuable skill I still utilize to this day.

Fast forward 14 years to the present and Ibuki and I are still close friends. We have each visited each other in our respective home countries a few times since university and the phone and email has allowed us to stay in touch. Always the non-conformist and risk-taker, Ibuki never did things the easy way. He was always sensitive to the fact that he was not able to finish his degree while we were together at university in the States. Ibuki was forced to return home to Japan before graduating and immediately entered the workforce. But true to his passion for knowledge and continuous learning, Ibuki applied and gained entry to an undergraduate university in Japan where he majored in business. He began to find economics very interesting and the prospects of continuing his education became extremely appealing. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he applied and was accepted to one of Japan's best private universities and is currently a PhD student in economics. He recently received acceptance from a university in Denmark for a 6-month economic research project that will help him complete his thesis. It was Ibuki's trip to Denmark that help re-unite us face to face in Singapore.

Ibuki was able to route his travel to Denmark through Singapore and extended his stay a few days to see me. It was great to see my close friend again and I tried my best to show him the highlights of Singapore and indulge his interest in trying as much of the local cuisine as possible.

He dug right into a spicy bowl of Laksa with beads of sweat pouring from his brow. "This is great", he would utter in between noisily slurping the noodles, which is a Japanese custom.

In my continuous self-imposed burden to be the perfect tour guide, I consistently gave Ibuki options on what to do and see in Singapore. He was very cordial in his response, but explained that all that he really wanted to do was hang out with me and catch up and that all the rest was nice, but that it really wasn't the focus of his trip.

What began over a decade and a half ago as two unsure 18 year olds embarking on a new chapter in their respective lives, continues to this day as a lasting friendship that has spanned oceans, continents, cultures, ethnicity, and obviously the passage of time. Ibuki opened that very first door and ushered me through to a larger world I might not have come to appreciate without his help. I am sure our own friendship will continue to last and in each new acquaintance and friend that I make around the world, a little credit goes to that kid from Japan who loved 60s music and American clothes.