On Being an "MK"

Being a missionary kid (an MK) in a supportive family has got to be the best way to grow up. -international travel, foreign languages, adventure, etc...


In the Beginning

My father (from Alberta, Canada) and my mother (from LA, California) met in Japan. Dad was a missionary and Mom was a music teacher to MKs at the Christian Academy in Japan. They had a wonderfully romantic whirlwind romance and were engaged to be married in just 13 days. However because Mom had to finish out her teaching contract, the wedding was about a year later. They set up house in a little town in Japan on the opposite coast from Tokyo. I came along shortly.

On the back side of Japan where they lived, most Japanese had never seen a Caucasian before in their lives, so as a blond baby, I was an item of great curiosity and a good ice-breaker.

My memories begin about the time I started school. Since I can't go back to the times and places of my childhood, those memories are very important to me. Therefore I keep my stomping grounds in my mind. My boys found out early that I had lots of stories to tell them if they asked about about when I was a little boy. I was following the lead of my father who had told stories of his childhood that we always loved.

At Kujiranami

Most of my growing up years were spent at the piece of property at Kujiranami where my parent's organization had a Bible School. Also there was the elementary school for the missionary kids. When I started school it was a two room, one teacher facility. Midway through the year, Miss Johann joined Miss Hunter and taught the lower grades.

Like many boys, I would have preferred not being in school. During my 1st grade my family started working in Toyama. Toyama was 4 hours away from school by train, so I had to board away from home. Because of the distance I had to be away up to a month at a time. For this and other reasons I flunked 1st grade. Not to worry! My best friend, Bob, was the only other one in 1st grade with me. We were both held back - so we didn't know the difference until years later!

Kuji was a wonderful place for kids to grow up. It was in a mountainous rural area with rice paddies and woods all around for exploration and play. There was a road through our property that went up the mountains behind us. From the mountains we had beautiful views of the Japan Sea and the surrounding country. We were 20 minutes walk from a fascinating ocean beach. It had volcanic rocks for climbing, tide pools and stretches of sand. Winter storms put lots of shells in the sand and sometimes even glass globe net floats.

The autumn seasons were beautiful with regal sprays of colored leaves. Winter brought us snow and sledding. And spring burst out with bouquets of flowers - some with nectar sweet enough to taste. (Summer was very muggy hot - but more about that later.)

The Hostel

My earliest school years, I stayed with the Bauman family in the Kuji hostel. They had one particular tradition that I really enjoyed. On Sunday after lunch there was a selection of pop in bottles in the fridge. Each person could choose one to enjoy. My parents had limited resources and were very thrifty so this was a great luxury to me.

Sometimes us boys would set up an electric Lionel train set. I have a favorite memory of the train on an open second-story balcony. It was running around in a figure-eight. The afternoon was warm and lazy. There were local quiet sounds and the distant sounds of cars on the highway. The view was clear over the Japan Sea. Sado Island was visible in the North. And as I relaxed, I savored my luxurious bottle of pop!

Japan has a public great train system. After the school week, we would be taken to the train station to catch our ride home. I remember traveling four hours by train even in first grade. Part of the way I rode with friends. The rest of the way I read books or watched out the window. The trains were safe and clean and I enjoyed them. Just recently while riding the waterfront street car in downtown Seattle I caught the sound of railroad crossing bells sliding by outside and the memories flooded back.

In later years my own parents took care of the hostel. The number of kids staying the week at school had greatly increased and it was huge fun to have a family of about 20 at home. Most rooms had a set of bunk beds and were shared by two kids of similar age. This separated most siblings and made things interesting. The hostel was actually two houses that had been built against each other and then later opened up into one. This gave us lots of space for activities inside after homework was finished.

Japan Sea View School

The school was a stone's throw from the hostel. I received a very good education at Japan Sea View School. All through my years there, Arlie Hunter and the other teachers consistently taught, loved and disciplined the kids. Our teachers lived on campus and we often had them over for meals, birthday parties, Christmas and such. "Aunt Arlie" especially, was a part of our family - but in school "Miss Hunter" did not tolerate goofing off!

We had no janitor at our small school. All the cleaning was done by the students, like in the Japanese schools. Each student had a task, and near the end of the day we all worked together. Then we would all bring our chairs into the main room and one of the teachers would read aloud for 15 minutes. That was the most fun part of the school day! Those stories lived in our heads and seemed better than any TV series of today.

When school was out, we ran off to play. (pictures) Every child had to learn a musical instrument and most studied the piano. This put piano time at a premium. So usually the sounds of piano music floated out with the sounds of children playing. With most of us living under on roof, there were always lots of kids at hand to play with --> and we did enjoy our play!

Variations of tag games were always popular. Bicycle riding was also great fun. We had regular traffic loops around the school with bus stops and "bus" service on the backs of bikes. There were hills to jump and some smooth dirt road for races. There were trees to climb and hollows in the woods where we could make forts. And there were old foot paths that led to terraced hill country rice paddies. Looking back, I don't have any memories of being bored!

Summers at Nojiri

Summer at Kuji was terribly hot and sticky-humid. However we had another option...

Before WWII, foreigners owned a large section of land beside Nojiri, one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in Japan. This lake is near where the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics were held. After the war, control of that land was returned to foreigners and about 300 land parcels were allocated. My father was able to get a piece of property and built a cabin at Nojiri when I was a toddler.

The vacation cabin idea is not unique, but this situation was! For all the expatriates there, Nojiri was a particular place of relaxation. It afforded relief from cross-cultural pressures in the company of others in the same situation. For the kids, it was just a place of care-free fun! Most of the people were missionaries and many of my friend's families had cabins there. It was wonderful to be able to be so close to my friends and to be able to play together all day. There were also new friends to make and friendships to renew from previous summers.

Nojiri lake was very beautiful! It was roughly a mile across and had a significant island. It's snow-fed waters were clear. The land in the area was fertile - some of the best apples and corn in Japan grew there. Nojiri summers were hot, but pleasant. Cicadas sang in the trees during the hot parts of the day. The birds sang during the cool of the day. There were several natural water springs on the combined properties that poured out the best tasting cold water all year-round.

The Nojiri Lake Association had a well-developed waterfront for swimming and boating. It had a number of tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course. A large auditorium was available for church meetings, music, drama and various other presentations. There was a small lending library.

We usually spent our mornings swimming. I wasn't good off the diving board, but loved the rafts out deeper. We were well wrinkled by noon so a picnic lunch on the grass certainly tasted good. Afterward we often would often pick out a stack of books and walk the mile back to our cabin. I remember many times devouring a good read on my bed while the cicada's "fee-fee" cry rose and fell in the sunlight outside.

There were times we had family rowboat outings on the lake. We all took turns at the oars and I enjoyed the feeling of speed when I rowed fast. The lake size made our goal of the island be a satisfying trip. Nojiri's island was a single large tree-covered hill with a Shinto temple at the top. Sight-seeing ferry boats stopped at the island so there usually lots of Japanese tourists. When we landed we would pour our energy of boat confinement into a running exploration of the island. Afterward we leisurely pulled back home.

Kids could run free at Nojiri because they were mostly well-behaved and there were few dangers. We would get together and play all over the place - imagining pretended adventures, climbing trees, doing firecrackers, catching bugs or many other such things. (There were lots fascinating dragonflies there. I caught tons of them!) I loved the freedom of exploring the footpaths through the Association. There were so many neat places to see and fun things to do!

One of the biggest events of the summer was the annual picnic on the golf course. Everybody came. After the meal there were many games and races. The final event was always the tug-of-war. The Association would borrow a gigantic hemp rope from the nearby high school. A couple hundred people could get involved in this event! There was a slight competition between the East and West sides of the Association and this was the major competitive event. The Dads and the older teen-agers took their places and the referees made sure there were no cheaters tying the ends of the rope around trees. At the starting signal the rope slowly moved back and forth. Gradually one side would gain the upper hand, the losers would drop off and the rope would fall and slide smoothly through the grass as if tied to a juggernaut. The winners would whoop and yell and the rope was rolled up for use next year. As the light faded, the there would be a song time - families sitting together. Some of the younger kids still played - running and hiding and blinking their flashlights. Then finally, under protest ("because nobody else is leaving"), Mom and Dad would take us back to the cabin for bed-time.

Visiting North America

The support for our family came from friends in North America. About every five years we returned to the States for a year to renew contact with all our relatives and supporting friends.

There were many differences between the countries that would jar us strongly just after we arrived. Cars drove on the "wrong" side of the road and could drive much faster in America. Houses were built differently. They even smelled different. (In later years after high school I really felt I had returned to N. America when I smelled the inside of the first American house.) We could speak English to people everywhere! I didn't look different from the rest of the population.

As a small island nation Japan has to maximize land use - but the Americans - what extravagance! How could they afford the huge open spaces inside the freeway junction clover leaves?! The streets and cars were so big! And the houses were so large! ... And then after time we became used to North America.

My second and eighth grade school years were taken in California at a private school. Even though the school was good and the other kids were good classmates, I struggled because I was out of my element. Oh, the course work was not hard - I was usually ahead in my subjects; but I was in a "foreign country". What I was familiar with was a close-knit group of friends all living in Japan that were more like family. The American kids were mostly nice, but I didn't identify with them - the things they usually did, the shows they watched, the way they thought, etc. I probably needed to be more out-going (but that is easy to say now and was hard to do then). I finally made a close friend in eighth grade the last week of school.

I made much of my identity in my distinctives. -My foreign experience and adopted customs - as in eating chopstick lunches (grin). -Playing the cello and performing music with my family. -My interest in electronics and other such technical things. Since I stood out from the others in these things, I was OK.

The real enjoyment of these State-side years were in the family travels we made up and down the west coast. Dad was from a farm in Canada and Mom from the city in California, so we had friends all across this range. We would show pictures and tell them what was happening in our lives and visit with them. Since we were guests, our hosts were friendly and had lots of questions (although toward the end we longed for the deeper conversations of familiar friends).

Every place (house, church, farm) was new and exciting. In California some of the people had private pools we could use! At some farms milking the cows, feeding the calves, playing in the barn loft, riding on tractors and other such things were real adventures for me. It was cool to see the places Dad played when he was a kid!

Finally the year would come to a close and we would be caught up in plans to return overseas.

On to Brazil

After my eighth school year, we made a huge change. Instead of returning to Japan, we went to Brazil (to work with Japanese immigrants). Instead of living in rural Japan, we lived in Sao Paulo, one of the world's largest cities! We would have to learn a new language - Portuguese. Instead of the reserved Japanese culture, we entered the exuberance of Brazil.

I had one great advantage. My friend Bob that had done first grade with me was already living in Sao Paulo. We flew down, arrived late in the day and I started high school the next day. Again the culture shock was fascinating - rooms in the house, that though occupied, echoed like empty houses because of tile floors and sometimes tile walls; -store-front shops that looked like rows of gaily painted extra-storage units with the garage doors all rolled up; -buying fresh bread and a daily bag of milk at the neighborhood bar; -no running hot water, but hot showers with instant-heat electric shower heads, etc.

For me the transition was not hard. The Brazilian people were warm and friendly. Even though the other MKs at Pan American Christian Academy (PACA) lived a globe apart from Japan, we had a common thread of mixed culture experience.

I completed my high school years in Sao Paulo. My class of about 25 was small by some American standards, but it was great! We all enjoyed singing, being together and doing things together. We were proud of our school and of our collective class accomplishments. Tales of our class spirit antics and camaraderie remain intense in my mind, but translate weakly to the written page.

For all the time I spent there, my family hardly ever played the tourist. So I have seen very little of the huge country of Brazil. Although I have explored much in Sao Paulo, I have never seen the Amazon river. I have never been to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Years later some of this was remedied...

Return to Brazil with my own family

As my boys grew up, I told them my stories. But they did not have any context of foreign experience. My wife Melanie had briefly visited Europe, but she as well couldn't identify with my experiences. So the year before my folks retired from Brazil (1994) we visited them for about a month during the year-end holiday season.

Most of the time was spent visiting friends and familiar places. It had been 15 years since I had lived there and it was fascinating to see subtle changes. And yet much was the same. My Portuguese refreshed quickly so we had no problems getting around as a family. We explored a bit of Sao Paulo. We played at the camping facility developed by my Dad. We swam in warm ocean water at the coast.

Our trip highlight was seeing Iguacu Falls. The waterfalls are at the border of Argentina and Brazil and are phenomenally spectacular. The power and volume of the water and the lush beauty of the surroundings is awe inspiring. Getting there and back was also an adventure - 15 hours each way in a bouncy VW bus!

Return to Japan

In 2005, I was able to return to Japan along with my Mom, siblings and my wife for a period of two weeks. We visited Karuizawa (where my folks met), Kujiranami (where I went to school) and Nojiri (where our summer cabin was). Mom arranged a fantastic itinerary and although time was short, the experience was rich.

Kujiranami had changed a bit, but I had been told about the changes, so they were not a surprise. Many of the rice paddies were no longer in use. A toll roadway passed nearby and was constantly audible. The house I had lived in had become decrepit because it was only a summer camp facility. There had been some growth in the nearby town, but I still knew my way around. I walked all over and reveled in being there again.

Nojiri had changed the least. I went to the waterfront, walked the paths and visited our old cabin. (A storage barrel with my Dad's name on it was still upstairs!)

Afterthought

And so, have I closed the book on being an "MK"? --> No.

-My experiences are still alive in me. -My international perspective is invaluable in interacting with people. (For example, half the people in my department at work are international). But it is true that I am no longer a "Kid" - so the book of my life has only turned to new pages.

2006-02-26 updated 2021-08-12   © 2021 Larry Grove