MY 2016: A LOVE STORY
2016 has been an interesting year so far, especially coming off an equally interesting and rewarding 2015 that saw two projects I wrote premiere to critical acclaim just as the year was rounding up – the feature film “Road to Yesterday” and the GBV documentary “Silent Tears”. 2015 was a whirlwind of multiple projects month after month, so understandably by year’s end I was exhausted. I thought it was high time I took a break and attend to some much needed personal affairs. So, I packed my bags, told everyone I was leaving and took off to Japan for a couple of months.
Why Japan? Well, that’s where the love of my life resides…
Her name is Eri. She’s Japanese. We met nineteen years ago while in college in the US, and not up until May of 2016 could I officially call her my wife. I say officially because we already got married in 2006 – it was a quick courtroom affair with two friends as witnesses. We kissed, the court clerk handed us our marriage certificate and we went home to celebrate. But I always felt it wasn’t done right, especially since I didn’t get to formally ask her parents’ permission and best believe any family member I told back in Nigeria wouldn’t accept a marriage they didn’t attend. I mean how dare I deny them the opportunity for owambe tins – aso ebi, party rice and overflowing jugs of palm wine… you know, the whole traditional nine yards and whatnot. All made worse on my return to Nigeria six years ago and my prompt rejection of every fine girl “concerned” family members had brought for me to toast/shag/marry. Add to that, the nice young boy who left a Catholic over twenty years ago was now a Buddhist. The horror! Besides all that, the long distance thing was taking its toll on Eri and me and we questioned the credibility of what we’d gotten ourselves into and if it was worth the trouble in the long run. We were living apart on separate continents. We were very independent people before we met and have remained so despite the love we shared. Now was the sink or swim moment; now was the true test of our commitment. So in January I made the arduous 21-hour journey from Abuja to Tokyo to do the needful.
The last time I was in Tokyo was in the summer of 2012 and I spent a whole month; this time I was going to stay for four, which I felt was more than enough time to sort out our relationship wahala once and for all. Fortuitously, my arrival came at the perfect time – it was a few days to Eri’s birthday and Valentine’s Day was just two days afterwards, creating the perfect romantic atmosphere. We visited the famous Yomiuriland Amusement Park in Tokyo where we talked, celebrated and reaffirmed our commitment to each other. Now I had to meet the parents, who I’d only met over the phone with my limited Japanese and their limited English. But first I had to return to Nigeria for a few weeks to attend the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA) where Road to Yesterday got a number of nominations – including one for Best Writer (moi) – and then premiere Silent Tears on International Women’s Day in March. No sweat.
I told Eri’s parents they’d have to wait a little while longer. They understood of course and would later confess to me that they were equally impressed and concerned about how Eri and I had maintained a relationship this long and what it would be like moving forward.
I returned to Japan in mid-March with an AMVCA win for Road to Yesterday as Best West African film (didn’t snag the Best Writer award though *tsk-tsk*) and scheduled the best time to go visit Eri’s parents in her hometown of Okayama, which is west of Tokyo. But before that, I had some other things to take care of – my birthday was in April and I upon a lot of reflection I decided to reaffirm the tenets of my Buddhist belief by spending a month in a Buddhist monastery as part of a yearly lay practitioner training program organized by my sect. It’s considered a time of deep personal introspection; I lived in the temple for four weeks and for the first two all practitioners took a vow of silence. Why? I remember one of the monks telling me, “We listen to respond when we should be listening to understand.” Fair enough. We spent mornings and evenings in deep meditation, helped the monks farm and harvest the food we ate, and spent the following weeks discussing our role in the world. This by far was the most challenging thing I’d ever done in my life and I’m happy to say I’m all the better for it.
In May came Golden Week, so-called for the number of consecutive Japanese national holidays occurring in one week among which was Children’s Day. This was the best time to visit Okayama so we took the bullet train from Tokyo, which was about 3 hours away. It was my first time on a bullet train so I was understandably geeking out. In between, I found the time to finally read and edit a manuscript for a friend. I hardly read novels (weird for a writer I know) but I thought this would be the perfect way to get into it and expand my horizons. Brilliant writing. I read, edited, and wrote a review. By the way, the novel has since been published under the title Sea Shells by my friend Patience Lawal aka Tiencepay. It’s on Amazon.com. Check it out if you have a chance.
Back to our regular scheduled program… We made it to the small rural setting that was Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture and I got to meet Eri’s parents at the terminal. They welcomed me with open arms. I brought a few gifts from Nigeria for my in-laws, which included some native attire and knick-knacks. They were impressed with how colorful and similar Nigerian textile prints were to Japanese ones. After formally welcoming me into their family home I made the bold effort of formally asking them for their daughter’s hand in marriage. I’d been practicing my Japanese and that particular statement for months now. My father in-law teared-up and hugged me saying in English, “No need; we already consider you our son.”
The rest of the week was spent sightseeing, meeting the rest of Eri’s family and eating the most delicious organic meals from the family farm. My mother in-law thought I was a little on the chunky side after months indulging my sweet tooth in Tokyo and promptly put me on a diet. Safe to say by the time I returned to Tokyo I’d lost some considerable weight.
Next came the moment we’d all been waiting for – the formal declaration of marriage. It’s a bit tricky getting married to a foreigner in Japan; there are all these forms to fill out and sign. There’s this one called the konin todoke, which puts our names on the official Japanese family registry. And since I’m the foreigner I had to be added to Eri’s family as an in-law. So I had to take her family name. We’d already discussed this years earlier when I decided we should start something new with our union as husband and wife and have our names joined. Eri didn’t object; she said it was a great idea and about damn time a man changed his name for his wife.
Next, we had to go over to the US embassy to turn in the konin todoke and get Uncle Sam’s stamp of approval for Eri marrying a US citizen. It all took about ten minutes after which we were declared husband and wife according to the laws of Japan and America. That’s two down and two more to go. There has to be a traditional Japanese and Nigerian wedding in Japan and Nigeria at some point. Eri laughed when she said, “So we’ll be married a total of five times!!!”
Before I knew it my time in Japan had come to a close. June crept up faster than expected but I wasn’t worried; I’m planning a return next year for a longer indefinite stay. I’d already made up my mind that I’d found a new place to call home with people and a culture that opened me up to so many possibilities personally and professionally. It is my hope to set down roots in Japan and usher in a new wave of cross-cultural exchange in my capacity as a filmmaker. That or consider taking a position at the Buddhist temple teaching English. I’d be content either way.
Since my return to Nigeria I’ve already taken steps to create that bridge between our countries and I’m just happy there are so many people who are willing to help. Friends and family are still getting used to the name change; my father really finds it hilarious but respects my decision. “It’s your life,” he says, “As long as you’re happy. Now how about you give me some grandchildren?” Gbam!
Yes, 2016 has been an interesting year so far and looks like things are shaping up for a more interesting year ahead. I’ve been listening and hopefully understanding.
Emil B. Hirai-Garuba