For much of my life I have always stood out, but not necessarily for the best of reasons.

In my little league picture I stood out. Our team name was Golden Fish. It’s not a bad name, but it’s not exactly the Pirates or the Rangers. Those are cool names. The Pirates wear black and gray uniforms, the rangers wear blue and white. Those are cool colors especially when you are eight, but they weren’t our colors. We wore white baseball pants and yellow shirts with a big black goldfish on them. But at least we were a team all bunched together looking goofy together…except for the tall guy in back. I couldn’t help it. I was tall for my age. And I wore glasses. And I was kinda skinny. Other kids still had their baby fat — I had never had baby fat. I looked like a toothpick dressed in a butter wrapper wearing glasses. But if that wasn’t enough, my pants didn’t really fit, so I wore yellow suspenders. Yellow suspenders! Needless to say, it is not difficult to notice me in my little league picture.

Perhaps I noticed it then, or perhaps it came later as kids began to pick on me for what was different. I was smart. I wore glasses with lenses the size of frisbees. I was skinny. The girls no longer chased me around the playground like they had when I was four. Being different brought unwanted attention and unwanted feelings. Perhaps it was later when I was trying out for sports teams. I wanted to belong. I wanted to fit in and feel like a part of the group. I wanted to be one of the guys. I wanted to be on the team. Perhaps most of my life has been me trying to be part of the group. It is natural to want to belong. It’s human nature to want to know you fit in somewhere, that you have an important place in the group.

I went to Japan wanting to fit into the community, to be an integral, important part of everyday life. I wanted to be accepted and welcomed for what I could bring to their community.

I was certainly an honored guest the moment I stepped foot in Ato-cho, a town of nine thousand people firmly nestled along a wide valley between two ridges high up in the mountains. Seven people met me at the airport. Seven certainly wasn’t necessary and I doubt they were thinking in terms of lucky numbers. I believe these seven just wanted to be a part of the welcoming committee. I was introduced to each of them in turn and found out that four of them spoke English surprisingly well. We packed into an oversized white van and sped off down the highway. The van was large, the kind that colleges use to bus around some of their smaller sports teams. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been that strange, except for the fact that most cars in Japan are the size of matchbox cars and many of the back roads are single lanes where one car has to pull over for another to pass. We rode twice as high as the cars around us and nearly twice as long as well. As we sped past other cars on our way up the mountain, the other motorists gawked at us and nearly went off the road so impressed were they with the tall foreigner sitting in the middle of the huge van.

One of the occupants was a man named Hayashi-san. He was an older gentleman with black hair quickly graying and feeble looking he was so thin. But he had a huge smile and an unassuming manner that quickly put me at ease. Even though his English wasn’t the best, he kept speaking the few small words he knew as often as he could. “Let’s eat,” he said. “Let’s eat.” Everyone quickly started speaking Japanese trying to determine where we should eat. What should our foreigner’s first meal be they asked each other? They decided and Hayashi-san smiled again, “Let’s eat.” He pulled up to a road-side restaurant that looked like a Japanese version of Howard Johnson. He clapped me on the back as we walked into the restaurant, assuring me they had good food here.

Hayashi-san ordered for everyone and then sat back with a cigarette in his mouth. He watched me with a twinkle in his eye. The first plate they brought was a single fish sliced very neatly into raw thin strips. I was familiar with sushi and had been practicing eating it as I knew it was typical Japanese, but this looked sushi that had just been plucked from a tank and placed on a board. The cuts were merely dividing the still squirming fish into everyone’s portions. I later found out the name for this sort of sushi. It is Sashimi. Sashimi is the more sophisticated and expensive version of sushi. It consists of plain slices of fish as fresh as they can get it. No rice, no seaweed, nothing to make it more palatable for someone unaccustomed to the delicacies of the Japanese tongue. Hayashi-san plucked a piece with his chopsticks and said, “Let’s eat!” Everyone watched me take a piece and then smiled widely as I put it in my mouth. They laughed and took their own pieces, satisfied that this foreigner wasn’t so strange after all. The meal was good and I had passed an unspoken test and greatly satisfied my hosts.

Instead of taking me to my house that first day after lunch, which I preferred — I wanted to relax, to stop and think, to absorb — they took me five miles away to a Japanese hotel where an extravagant meal had been prepared. I sat down with the superintendent of the district and several of the fellow members of the Board of Education, including the seven who had met me at the airport, and had a tasty meal of vegetables and chicken and steak steamed in a sweet light broth of soy sauce and brown sugar. After dinner I spent the night at the hotel, rather than go home and settle in, because in their minds the hotel would be much more refined and luxurious than my house. I even had a complimentary Japanese bathrobe and little slippers that were about six inches long, just long enough for my toes to enjoy them.

The next night was even more extravagant. A local community center had been booked and filled with tables and guests, nearly a hundred in all. It was all the teachers, principals, the mayor, the doctors, and other people of import, the Japanese royalty of the town. I had a general introduction in Japanese prepared which also included some of my ambitions while in Japan. Dinner was served and to my delight it included a mini lobster tail, to which I gave out a small gasp of pleasure, which pleased my Japanese hosts very much. The foreigner likes our food! All throughout dinner people came up to the table introducing themselves and toasting me. Thankfully my glass was small and I didn’t need to finish all the beer every time or I would have been a very drunk American as I tried to give my speech. Sometimes I was pulled away to another table to give a round of toasts to others. Every time I came back to my table to have a few more tidbits to eat to offset all the beer I was drinking, I found another little lobster tail had been slipped onto my plate. Rather than offend the generous gift-givers, I ate every tail and smiled as wide as I could at them all.

The time for speeches came and the mayor gave one, then the superintendent, then one of the principals. It was my turn next and I was nervous. My Japanese skills were two weeks old and I knew everyone in the building was waiting to hear them. I stood at the microphone and introduced myself. I included a joke. “I’m Seth. I’m from America. New York. (that is impressive because it is one of the few places all Japanese have heard of) I’m big. Six feet, three inches. Even my feet are big! (laughter) I like sports like baseball and basketball. I am interested in Japan. I want to learn about its culture and traditions. I want to learn to speak Japanese. Please teach me. Thank you.” Thunderous applause.

They brought out massive drums. Taiko. The town band took the stage and played several songs. And then they let me take the stage and pound away at the drums. It is not like playing regular drums where they give you chopsticks that you rattle against some cymbals and keep a beat. In taiko they give you a stick that resembles a baseball bat and you have to beat the drums like you just saw a massive spider. The other drummers loved my attempts and praised my drum beating ability.

I have a picture of me playing taiko and I have a picture of me with the rest of the band. I have pictures of me with those teachers and principals, with the superintendent and with the mayor. I stand out. A tall American amongst the short Japanese. But I never felt like I stood out. The Japanese rolled out the welcome mat and I walked in. I tried their foods. I spoke their language. I beat their drums. I made them laugh, and I laughed in return, and for a moment we weren’t Japanese, we weren’t American, we were just people connecting and being connected.

© Seth Crossman