What would I have in common with a 50-something American semi-retired construction company director?
A lot, it turned out.
Uncle Kirk was married to my late Aunt Irene, and together they travelled the world and lived in many countries- Belgium, Egypt, Greece, the US, Singapore and Japan. They had been living in Yokohama for 3 years before my aunt contracted cancer and passed away. My uncle then returned to the US with their 3 young kids and remarried, as per my aunt's final request, "so that the kids can grow up with a mother".
I was still in high school then, an awkward teenager who was too young to know anything about the world. And so we didn't keep in touch for more than 10 years, except for the occasional family dinner in Singapore when he was in town for business.
Thanks to Facebook, I found my long-lost cousins and started talking to them again. I found out Uncle Kirk comes to Japan regularly on business trips, and we decided to meet up for dinner.
I thought it would be an awkward dinner filled with pleasantries and shallow talk, but I couldn't be more wrong!
Over a tonkatsu (pork cutlet) dinner that stretched to 3 hours, I learnt a lot about him. He speaks near-fluent Japanese because he lived in Japan on and off for more than 5 years- first as an English teacher in the 70s (back when there was no Narita airport or English signages and iced coffee cost 20 yen a pack), then as a graduate student in Shizuoka Prefecture (where he spent every Wednesday at the onsen and lived at the foot of Mount Fuji), and finally as a married man when he was relocated here for work.
We discussed about life here as a foreigner, and it's funny how he understands perfectly how I feel, having been there, done that.
I shared with him silly things like how I cried when I saw a homeless man on the street that looked like my dad ("Where will he sleep tonight?!" I had asked P in tears), how my first sight of snow was very emotional and how I still don't know what to do in an earthquake...
"Just like Irene," he smiled and told me stories of my fiesty aunt who braved many similar experiences as an expatriate wife.
This is my favourite- they lived on top of a hill in Athens, and they were trying to drive home in heavy snow but had to stop half-way because the road condition was impossible. He gave her two choices- to freeze to death in the car or pick up their shopping bags and walk up the slope home. She gamely picked up a few bags and trudged uphill. Barely 50 metres forward, she sat down on the snow and started to cry. "It's sooooo cold!" she lamented, big fat tears rolling down her face. It was about zero degrees. "Well, do you want to sit here and cry or do you want to get home?"
I was glad that he could share those memories with someone, and that I can be so connected to him despite being so different.
He also talked about his many adventures growing up in different parts of Asia. His dad was a rice scientist and social worker, which brought them to places like the Philippines, India and Nigeria. We talked about his children, his grandchildren, how my sister bears a striking resemblance to Aunt Irene, community work and more.
I walked him back to his hotel.
"Diner tonight was wonderful. I wouldn't have missed this for the world..." he thanked me, before continuing, "I would give you a hug, but I don't know if you are too old for one."
I put my arms out and embraced him. "No, not too old for a hug."