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Letter from Tsuruta: ‘Even if you can’t really talk to someone, you can still open up’


Hood River’s Coordinator for International Relations Lilian Smith at the Hirosaki Train Station. Hirosaki is a neighboring community to Tsuruta, Japan, Hood River’s Sister City.

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Hood River’s Coordinator for International Relations Lilian Smith at the Hirosaki Train Station. Hirosaki is a neighboring community to Tsuruta, Japan, Hood River’s Sister City.



In Japan the train station is an integral part of travel. Even in Aomori prefecture where they can get an average of 58.2 inches of snow every winter, every city and town has a train station and a snowstorm is the only way to throw off its schedule. This is how I too get from town to town.

I have been in Hood River’s sister city, Tsuruta, since August 2015. I am teaching English at the seven preschools and six elementary schools throughout the town and also helping to coordinate exchange trips between Hood River and Tsuruta. It’s a really fun job that can test your ability to adapt to a new lifestyle and how you can interact with others based on limited oral communication. However, even though it’s a nice challenge, I still took advantage of free Japanese classes I got offered in order to make my life a little bit easier.

The train stations in Aomori are very different from what one would probably imagine Japanese train stations to look like. Tsuruta’s station is made from wooden logs, with a slanted green roof. The inside houses a large waiting room with small heaters placed about, and a few historical and interesting pictures and artifacts from Tsuruta to stare at. The other room has the ticket office and a vending machine. The trains in Aomori don’t come as often as they do in Tokyo, only about one an hour, but all Japanese trains share the same punctual schedule no matter where they are.

One night in the beginning of winter, I was waiting for the train to my Japanese class, which was in the next town over. It was beginning to get cold, especially since it was the evening, so I sat close to one of the small heaters waiting for my train to come. There was one other person waiting in the room with me and since there wasn’t much to do, we were both scrolling through our phones.

About 15 minutes before the train arrived, in the back of the room the door slid open and then shut and then someone walked over and sat in the chair behind me. After a few minutes I suddenly heard a sort of frantic clicking of buttons and a woman sighing, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it. This went on for about five minutes and I finally peeked back to see an old lady on a flip phone, clicking away on the keyboard. I turned back around and proceeded to mind my own business again. After a few more minutes of the clicking, I suddenly feel a tap on my shoulder; it was the old lady.

I turn around again and began to get nervous. My Japanese isn’t very good and whenever a stranger speaks to me I always get a little bit anxious, never sure if I can answer them or even understand them. The woman began to speak and I try to listen as carefully as I can. She showed me her pink flip phone that had a small bell tied to the end of it as a charm. The screen is in the menu option and is littered with kanji (the Chinese characters that are a big part of the Japanese writing system). I can read the other two writing systems, hiragana and katakana, but as kanji is literally thousands upon thousands of characters that must all be memorized separately, there is no way a beginner like me can read her phone.

“Can you help me…” I think I hear before the rest gets jumbled up in my ears.

The first thing my brain jumps to is why she would ask me, an obvious foreigner, for help when there is another young Japanese person in the room as well. However, even though I am not 100 percent sure I can help with what she wants, I at least want to try before just denying her.

“Okay,” I said.

She handed me the phone and looked over my shoulder as I try myself to read the phone and make my way through its system.

“... My mail …,” is what I managed to make out from her speech.

Oh, I finally realize she wants to access her text messages. I look through the phone and incredibly manage to find her inbox and get to the message that she wants to read.

“Oh thank you!” She says before I even realize I found it for her.

“No problem.”

I hand the phone back to her.

I watched as she suddenly dug around in her purse a moment and then pulled out a small box of chocolate. She handed the box to me and smiled.

“Here you go, thank you again.”

I took the box and could not believe that she would give me an entire box of chocolates just for helping her with her phone.

The train is now about to come and the old lady stood up and give me a little bow before everyone in the room made their way to the train.

I was amazed. It was such a sweet and kind act for such a small gesture on my part. It made me think how even if you can’t really talk to someone, you can still open up to them and be able to share a moment that is fundamentally understood between both parties. That night after class I enjoyed my chocolate and felt even more at home in Tsuruta.

Lilian Smith serves as Coordinator for International Relations for the Tsuruta-Hood River Sister City Program, in Tsuruta, Japan.



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