Eyes Closed, Breath Held

“You’ve got a match. A handsome little boy from Osaka. He’s eight years old.”

My mobile phone rang in the darkness of 3 o’clock in the morning on July 3, 2013. I was in Tokyo for a few days on a business trip which added to my sense of disorientation as I fumbled around trying to locate the source of the ringing.

I answered the phone. Aki Speed, our Japan adoption coordinator from BAAS, spoke these words which I will never forget: “You’ve got a match. A handsome little boy from Osaka. He’s eight years old.” To this day, I cannot read those words without tears welling up in my eyes.

I don’t remember what I mumbled back to Aki, but it was all I could do to thank him and hang up. After a few minutes, I called my wife, Anne, who was at our home in California. We barely spoke — Anne knew why I had called. All the hope, the frustration, the highs and lows of the past three years of waiting to be matched with a child came welling to the surface as we were both wracked by wordless sobbing. Our son was here, he was real now; the wait was over. The weight of waiting (interesting how wait and weight sound alike) fell off our shoulders immediately and instead our hearts were filled with joy and worry: Now we are parents, with all the responsibility, heartbreak, and happiness that go with that life role. Will he like us, or even love us? Will we like him? How do we even begin to be a family?

Our application process and wait time from the day we started to the day we got “the call” was almost exactly 3 years. We started our application with BAAS on July 5, 2010 — a day after attending an Independence Day barbecue where we met a couple who had adopted their daughter from Japan. We hadn’t even considered adopting from Japan despite my long experience living and working in that country because of assumptions we had already fixed in our own minds: Isn’t Japan a rich country? Don’t they have a declining birth rate? Why on earth would Japan then have “extra” children left over to be adopted? How wrong we were. Also, little did we know what dreadful, dreadful obstacles were awaiting us as we started to complete our application to adopt a child from Japan.

On March 11, 2011, three days after submitting our application to International Social Services Japan (ISSJ) via BAAS containing all of our life details, not to mention all of our hopes, I watched the television with horror as images of a gigantic tsunami swept over northeast Japan in the aftermath of a cataclysmic earthquake. At the moment, I truly believed that any chance of us adopting from Japan was being washed away by the dark waves spreading over the neatly manicured fields. Instead of the usual two week wait to have our application approved by ISSJ, we were in limbo for two months awaiting word that we had been approved as prospective adoptive parents. That word — finally, miraculously — arrived from ISSJ on May 6, 2011. Then began an awful, soul-wrenching, seemingly interminable wait that would last over two years. That wait ended on July 3, 2013 when Aki Speed of BAAS called with the wonderful news that Anne and I had been matched with a boy from Japan.

November 12, 2013: Anne and I found ourselves sitting on a low sofa in a cramped reception room at the orphanage where our son has been living all his life — eight years. We could hear the other children playing outside, their cheerful shouts and laughter in stark contrast to the tension we were both feeling — What would our son be like? How will be react to us? How is he feeling about meeting us? Finally, we saw the blurry outline of a little boy on the other side of the frosted glass let into the reception room door. The door opened — and there he was. None of our lives would ever be the same again from that moment on, for better or for worse. We were a family now. As for initial acceptance, we need not have worried too much about our son, Yoshinori, or “Yotchan” for short. After about 15 minutes of small talk and opening presents from us, one of the orphanage staff asked Yotchan what he thought of us. His matter-of-fact reply: “Oh, I’m used to them already.” The next two weeks were almost idyllic for our new three-person family as we shared meals and the o-furo (Japanese bath) together in the cozy guest house where we were staying near Yotchan’s orphanage. As our time at the orphanage drew to a close, though, the tension rose as Yotchan became increasingly rambunctious and acted out more and more. The day we left to go to Tokyo to finish the final steps for Yotchan’s visa to enter the United States, the entire staff and most of the children crowded around the gate to the building’s main courtyard to send off one of orphanage’s most popular residents. Tears abounded. As we drove down the street in the van that would take us to the train station for our journey back to Tokyo, Yotchan remarked quietly, “I could just jump out of the window now and go back home.” It would not be the only time he would want to jump out of a car.

The sky was a deep brilliant blue dotted with cottony clouds as we all enjoyed a little picnic in Hibiya Park near the US Embassy in Tokyo to celebrate Yotchan’s freshly stamped US immigrant visa in his Japanese passport. It was a day for happiness. Or so we thought. Later that day, I took Yotchan and Anne to a department store with two underground floors lined with all kinds of delicious food stalls. When we were paying for a purchase, Yotchan suddenly kicked Anne in the foot. We all lost our tempers and I bundled Anne and Yotchan into a taxi cab for the long ride back to the tiny hotel room where we were staying across town. We had only been riding in the cab for a couple of minutes when Yotchan suddenly opened the door while we were stopped at a red light and tried to jump out of the still-moving cab into the throngs of pedestrians surrounding our taxi. Anne only just barely caught the tail of his jacket and pulled him back into the cab, where we wedged him firmly in between us in the center of the back seat to prevent any further escape attempts. In the next few days, while we were in Tokyo wrapping up some final details with ISSJ prior to our return to the US, Yotchan would try to run away from us every single day. We had to barricade the door to our hotel room at night so he wouldn’t try to escape while we asleep, and he ran out of sight during our last day in Japan when we took him sightseeing at the newly built Tokyo Sky Tree. He was missing for 45 minutes as I desperately searched for his head covered in black hair among all the thousands of heads of other Japanese people visiting the Sky Tree that day. I was furious, relieved, and dejected when I finally found him at the top of the sixth floor escalator. Is this how it was always going to be with Yotchan — trying to restrain a child wishing to break free and escape from us?

When we arrived at San Jose International Airport in California on a hot, sunny morning in late November, I was exhausted. Exhausted from traveling, exhausted by the emotion welling up from jumping right into being a family with an active eight year old. As it was flu season and we had flown on an airplane, it was no surprise that I came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized for three days before Christmas, leaving my wife and son to somehow communicate with each other without benefit of a common language. When I returned home on Christmas Day, Yotchan was just bursting with things he wanted to tell me after not being able to converse for three days. I was still quite weak from my illness, but I tried to listen as well as I could. With all of the upheaval and the fact that we were a family that had yet to gel, opening presents on Christmas Day felt forced, unnatural, lacking joy. I worried again that it would always be this way.

Adjustment to life as a family in the US was rocky for the first 9 months or so, despite the fact that our son is, at heart, a good kid from a good institution with good caretakers. I got called to the school two or three times a week after we enrolled Yotchan at our local public elementary school when his frustration at not being able to communicate with his teachers boiled over into anger and he threw his things in the classroom, kicked his classmates, or just laid on the classroom carpet and ignored his teacher. No doubt he was missing “home” which still very much meant his former institution and his former caregivers. Many nights, when we put him to bed (with us, following the Japanese tradition) he would tell Anne, “You’re not my Mama,” in Japanese and it would be my thankless task to translate this for Anne. Slowly, things began to improve. A Japanese mother of another student at Yotchan’s school volunteered to come into his classroom during math lessons to help him understand English-language word problems, we began building Yotchan’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) and had Yotchan evaluated by a panel of committed and caring therapists, and we started sending him to Saturday Japanese school in the East Bay, which was a huge relief for Yotchan as it was the one day a week he could communicate freely at school in his native language. Yotchan started taking taekwondo lessons and earned his yellow belt. He made lots of new friends.

Ironically, almost two years to the day when we first brought Yotchan to California from Osaka, we made the decision to move from California to Tokyo for my work. This was not an easy decision to make, especially because I was concerned about the effect yet another huge change would have on Yotchan and I knew that educational support services in Tokyo were not comparable to what we had enjoyed in California. On the advice of Yotchan’s Japanese teachers in the US who understood the Japanese educational system, I started contacting fifteen different private international schools to see if I could enroll Yotchan. 13 out of the 15 said “no” after I explained Yotchan’s background and needs. I really began to think that I had made a gigantic mistake with regard to Yotchan’s educational options by choosing to move to Tokyo. Fortunately — fortunately — through persistence and networking, we eventually found a small, independent school that provides exactly the kind of individual attention that Yotchan needs to thrive at school.

This year will mark seven years since Yotchan became our son. When we adopted him, he was a rambunctious little boy of 8; now he is in the middle of adolescence. My wife and I think a lot about his future — his education, which culture will he most identify with, which country will ultimately be his home — as we juggle our daily responsibilities. One thing, though, that we are always sure of when the day comes to an end: We are blessed, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

An American living in Tokyo observes life in Japan.