When I first came to Japan in the 1980’s I had two ways of communicating with my family and friends. The first way was by “snail mail.” Aerograms were popular at the time for international mail. I would often write very tiny to get as much news as I could squeezed into one page. I would then carefully fold and seal the thin paper and bring the pre-stamped letter to a local post office. A week to 10 days later my family would receive it, take turns reading and then my parents would commit to writing me back. Allowing some time for both of them to write me back and sometimes coaxing my brother or one of my sisters to add a short note, they would then proceed to the post office to have the letter (and often a package) weighed, stamped, marked “Airmail” and thrown into the postage bin; beginning it’s long journey across the ocean to that far away foreign land. Although Japan seems like my second home now, it was about as foreign a place as my wide-eyed up-bringing could have imagined.
The other way to communicate with my family was a well-planned-out, expensive phone-call. There was a pink rotary-dial 10-yen-payphone on the first floor of the dormitory. Some of my co-worker’s brave family members often tried calling there, risking loosing a lot of time (and money) trying to ask whoever answered, to get the person one was calling. If they were lucky, the answerer would climb four flights find the right foreigner and then after stumbling down the stairs and around fifty dollars later, a connection was made.
My family would give me a time to be at the hotel (usually around midnight) and we would conduct an operator-to-operator phone call. Usually there were two or three operators involved before the front desk staff handed me the phone and I could hear my Dad’s voice saying, “Ah, there she is, Hi Honey.” We quickly covered the basics; weather, health, ‘are you eating and sleeping enough,’ and few short bits of news from back home and the call was over before we knew it. The cost was the biggest motivating factor for the brevity; however, we just didn’t cover as many topics in those days as I’ve noticed that I do with the next generation, my children.
Communication within Japan was equally time consuming. If our employers at the resort hotel we performed at, had an issue, they would have to wait until business hours and call our agents office in Tokyo. The agents would then have to wait for a decent hour to call the late-sleeping foreign entertainers. After one of us stumbled down the four flights to the pink payphone, we would trudge back up and wait for the others to wake up, discuss the matter, gather our ten-yen coins, and call the agency back and they would then call the hotel. This is all pre-fax, pre-cell phone, and pre-active Internet era. This frustrating process pushed me to learn Japanese to eliminate the middleman.
Fast forward to the present, three short decades later. I was apprehensive about moving back to Japan this time. While I sensed it was the best move for my husband and I, it meant leaving the vicinity of my 80-year-old mother and our two adult daughters. While all three of these powerful women are very self-sufficient, I was hoping to be more present in the new stages of their lives. Our daughters are now experiencing living on their own for the first time (self-supporting through their own contributions). My mother is entering a retirement stage, after working most her life in paid and un-paid venues. This will allow her more time to spend with loved ones, more time to contemplate things and more time to see things from a slower pace. Both of these phases, I desire to be a part of sharing my experience with my daughters (only when asked for, of course), and learning and listening from the wisdom and joy of my mother’s wonderful life. My dilemma was that I now live with my husband in Japan and they are in Nevada and California.
What a path technology for communication has taken in 31 years. In the late 80’s I owned a clunky, brick-like cell phone that construction workers typically used, much to the amusement of my cell-less family. When I got my first answering machine I would often come home to messages from my mother or father exclaiming to the other as they hung up, “…she’s got that darn machine on again, (click).” They were hesitant when I bought them their first answering machine, however, years later I witnessed my Dad returning home from shopping, heading straight to the machine with anticipation of messages from his children. Last June, I noticed at my nephews wedding that my Mom, all her children, their spouses and children, all (20 in total) had cell phones and most were texting. It certainly made making plans with a large group and changes in those plans, much easier. In addition, my siblings and I pulled off an incredible surprise party for Mom, this year, primarily through e-mail communication and very few phone calls.
The technology that I have fallen in love with and has certainly eased my transition this time, widened my world and helped me feel as present and available in Emi and Miki’s lives as well as my mothers life, has been Skype.
The first time I demonstrated for my Mom, we skyped my daughter Miki, who was spending the summer in Tokyo with my Canadian friend, JoAnn. After my mom, my sister and I had adjusted ourselves so that Miki could see all of us; she turned her laptop toward JoAnn’s laptop. JoAnn was skyping with her brother and French-speaking nephew in Quebec. They were enjoying a language exchange and we got to be a part of it. We all giggled with amazement.
Later when I suggested connecting with Miki again, saying, “Let’s skype her,” my mom was reluctant, saying it sounds too much like “sniper.” However, she would return home from her work at the senior center telling how she told her friends there about our California-Tokyo-Quebec experience. Before leaving for Japan, mom agreed to let me set her up and we did a few practice runs with my friends and siblings.
I skype with my children, as often as we can. We can do quick calls that cover things like mail forwarding, the health of our aging dog, Lucky and quick advice on banking or utility bills. Or we can have longer discussions like adjusting to new jobs, relationships and financial directions. Cyber-hugs, when needed do not always do the trick, however, it does feel as if I am there.
Other activities are also possible with skype. I have had guided tutorials with my Webmaster, Steve, who helped me set-up my websites and blogs. I have met the girls dance team members, roommates and friends, although sometimes in the wee hours of the morning when I have barely awakened from my futon. I have also had the pleasure of even having my regular book club ladies do our enjoyable get-togethers by skype.
But the experience that takes the cake was watching and listening to my Mom read the inscription on the crystal statue that she received from her work place, thanking her for her years of hard work. I wanted to be there, with her at the retirement party they threw for her, but this was the next best thing.
It’s been a long road from aerograms to skype, but it feels like a flash in time.