This Part of Our Lives Is Over

Sending my daughter to Japan

Emily Bernard
Illustration by Joules Garcia


My daughter giulia is going to Japan. We all get up before the sun rises to take her to the airport—me, my husband John, and her twin (and sparring partner) Isabella. Even our dog Rosie, who is really Giulia’s dog. Giulia had texted me from her bedroom at 3:00 a.m.: Are you awake yet. Yes! I responded. Not: I haven’t been able to sleep! Which was the truth but not a truth that will serve Giulia this morning. “Calm, calm, calm” has been my mantra over the last several days, as the preparations to send Giulia abroad have gathered speed and intensity. My daughters are juniors in high school. They have recently turned seventeen.

We move carefully around one another, gingerly trying out the steps of this new choreography, which we are composing in real time. Giulia has never been on a plane by herself, much less traveled all the way to Japan. What does Giulia need? One thing she always needs is quiet. We use words sparingly, perhaps out of deference to this fact as much as to the general absence of sound and sun at this early hour. The only light is artificial. By the time we drop Giulia off, the sun will not have risen. We will part with her under the same dark cover that accompanies us to the airport.

It is like the world itself is new, when circumstances force you to see it in an unusual light. I look out into the darkness and feel the fullness of the silence in the car; there is no room for words. I try to conjure calming thoughts for Giulia. All I can come up with is: I am here to protect thee. This is what the devil’s handmaiden tells the child antichrist in the 1976 horror classic The Omen. She comes to him from another realm in the guise of a nanny, Mrs. Baylock. Over the years of my motherhood, I have occasionally thought of Mrs. Baylock and her eerie words of promise. Because that is what motherhood feels like, at least to me: a slightly sinister operation, a blood pact between the past and the future to keep this life thing moving forward at all costs—and the costs are great. Unspeakable, sometimes. Otherworldly, treacherous. “Your love is too thick,” Paul D says to Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “Love is or it ain’t,” Sethe returns. “Thin love ain’t love at all.”

It is possible that my love is too thick, I think often, but particu­larly now, as Giulia and I stand together at the ticket counter. I am grateful that Giulia did not contest my desire to stand here with her. I need to stand here as the only mother she knows, one last time before she goes off to live with her host mother in Japan. I see that my quiet, wise, compassionate daughter is giving me a gift: the chance to feel needed, as I used to when she was very young, even though she is no longer that child, and therefore I am no longer that mother. I realize what she must already suspect when she hands me her passport to hand to the ticket agent: this part of our lives is over.

we return home in the darkness and silence, all of us lighter now. We pulled it off, got Giulia on the plane in the middle of the night; we are happy and relieved. I climb back into bed and begin moni­toring Giulia’s flight on my phone app. I study the plane icon mov­ing across the screen as if it were the real thing, as if my daughter can see me from inside some microscopic window. Are you tired? Have you eaten? I think at the plane. Remember what I told you about staying hydrated. It’s just a bunch of pixels, I tell myself, warning my brain away from grotesque imaginings that end with the plane suddenly disappearing from the screen. I cup the phone and say a prayer: Dear sky, Dear pixelated plane, Dear God, Dear iPhone—Please, please take care of my girl.

I was a senior in college when Pan Am Flight 103 went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. I knew someone on that plane; she was a woman my brother loved deeply. The impact of that disaster has never left me. I experience its effects even now, as I write this, experience again that the roaring, hollow void it left in the sky—the vanishing of all those bright lights—has impressed and shaped me even beyond many of my own experi­ences with the world’s violence, pain, and sorrow. Perhaps its last­ing impact has to do as much with the disaster itself as with where I was in my own life. Just a few months away from college grad­uation, I was full of excitement and questions. I had loved being a curious child at school. What did adult life have to offer? The Flight 103 tragedy felt like the grownup answer that no grownup was prepared to give me. The stark truth I learned then has only taken on meaning over time: no matter how still the sky, things will fall out of it without warning. Now, well into middle age, I can say that I have seen this happen often enough to call it a fact of life.

And now here I am staring at my phone, laughing and crying at the simple and unassailable revelation that though I packed my daughter’s suitcase full, I have sent her off with nothing but hope, really. With every movement forward, something is always dying; something is also being born.

almost forty years ago, I boarded a plane to Japan. I, too, was a junior in high school on a trip sponsored by the same organization that sponsored Giulia’s journey. Last spring, I urged (or nagged, depending on your perspective) Giulia to apply to the program because I wanted her to learn what I learned when I was in Japan, which consisted of three simple lessons: First, people are generally the same all over the world, and they want the same things, which are to be seen and to be accepted. Second, a common language is not required to build intimacy. And third, always bring a gift.

My experience in Japan was formative but anomalous. By this I mean that I did not build on the experience, for reasons I am con­sidering only now that Giulia is away. My summer in Japan was occasioned by a competition: two students were chosen to represent each state; the winners would receive a scholarship to live in Japan for the summer. I don’t recall who nominated me for this honor, but I do remember precisely the excitement I felt. Receiving the schol­arship meant something like winning the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I didn’t know any more about Japan than Charlie and the other winners knew about the world that Willy Wonka had created, but just like them, I knew it was good to win.

My host father was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, but I never understood a word he said. He didn’t understand me, either. And we never stopped laughing about it.

Magical is the only word to describe the summer I spent in Shimada, a small city in the Shizuoka Prefecture. Maybe it always feels like magic when you receive gifts you don’t expect. There was something exhilarating in discovering the truth of my utter human smallness. I felt small and large at once, ordinary, and exceptional. That summer, I learned to hold contradictions alive inside myself, and I saw for the first time how everyday decisions make us who we are. I was homesick. As much as my biological father and I fought at home in Nashville, as much as I dreamed of lighting out, I never did. (As an eleven-year-old, I barely made it through a week of Girl Scout camp, in fact.) In Shimada, the glorious feeling of winning a competition was over; now I had to live with my spoils. I was afraid. Nothing was like anything I knew. But I decided to turn toward my ignorance, not against it.

The American cohort that traveled to Japan in the summer of 1984 learned about the Japanese tradition of omiyage long before we got on a plane to spend the summer with our respective host fami­lies. Having grown up in the South, I was familiar with the concept of never arriving at anyone’s home empty-handed. Discovering the Japanese variation of what I had grown up knowing as a black southern tradition was fascinating to me; it was my first indication that the world, though vast, might contain stories that looked like mine, no matter how foreign-seeming the port. My host family and I enjoyed many raucous meals whose ever-hilarious theme was our common failure to understand one other. My host father was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, but I never understood a word he said. He didn’t understand me, either. And we never stopped laughing about it.

In fact, predictably, spending the summer in Japan did not only introduce me to a culture and country I had heretofore known nothing about; it also introduced me to myself in a different way, through a name I had never had much occasion to call myself: American. At the time, having spent my entire young life inside of that experience, I rarely considered what it meant to the rest of the world. My Trinidadian father saw me as an American, absolutely, but he was my father and an oppressive force in my life, so what did he know? By the time I came back from Japan, I had begun to understand what he saw when he looked at me.

when i returned to Nashville at the end of the summer, I got into an argument with a high school friend, a white girl, who insisted that there was essentially no difference between American and Japanese cultures. We were arguing about violence because while I was in Japan a man opened fire in a McDonald’s in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego, murdering twenty-one people and injuring nineteen others before he was killed by a police sniper, an event that the press called “the McDonald’s Massacre.” I remember walking next to my friend, listening to her explain why America and Japan were exactly the same as far as propensity for violence among its citizens. I pushed back but felt embarrassed for her, really, understanding suddenly that pontificating about things you know absolutely nothing about is, as it turns out, quintessentially American behavior.

That’s why I wanted Giulia to go to Japan. Not only to expe­rience a taste of the magical experience I had but also so that she wouldn’t grow up to be that kind of American. You can only know what kind of person you are becoming if you can see it, if you have some distance. Going away from home gives you perspective, a new way of viewing your life, sometimes literally.

My host sister was mortified when Japanese people wanted to touch my hair and face, in part because we were teenagers and generally morti­fied about everything.

I sent my daughter to Japan so that, for at least three weeks, I wouldn’t have to worry about her being shot to death in a McDonald’s, or anywhere else. I sent my daughter to Japan because she was growing up in one of the most violent countries on earth—and I wanted her to know that there is a difference between life-threatening violence and the violence of what are often considered microaggressions, at least in the States. When I was a teenage black girl in Japan, people wanted to touch my hair and my skin, and sometimes they wanted me to touch their hair and skin. My host sister was mortified when Japanese people wanted to touch my hair and face, in part because we were teenagers and generally morti­fied about everything. Personally, I was mostly interested—inter­ested in the contrast between the menacing nature of many of my interracial interactions in my own country and the more promising encounters I was having across racial boundaries in Japan. In the American South, where interracial interactions were almost always cloaked in threat, whether spoken or intimated, I knew I had to be careful around white people. In Japan it felt safe to open myself up. I experienced the pleasure of being foreign around people who took pleasure in my foreignness. It was a place where I could sim­ply be, where I had no history, where no one knew me or anyone like me. Even now, when I think of that summer and how safe I felt, it feels more like a dream than reality.

I couldn’t wait for Giulia to see for herself that the history of the United States is not the history of the world; that human vocabulary, naturally limited, cannot capture all that we mean to communicate to one another; that difference ought to inspire only curiosity and joy—not fear; that it is okay, even good, to be alone in the world sometimes. Still, as I imagine my daughter disembark­ing, I am hopeful. Maybe Giulia won’t have to be alone for as long as I was. Maybe she will find a companion, a mirror, a like-minded black girl at this juncture.

Are there any other black kids? I ask her in a text, once she meets up with her American cohort in Tokyo. None, she texts back. We send laughing emojis back and forth. Such is the road we seem to be traveling together, wherever we are. I recall a winter holi­day many years ago when we left Vermont to spend time in New York visiting my brothers and their families. We stopped in at a crowded bookstore, and the girls and I were temporarily separated. I watched my small daughters look up in surprise into the faces of multiple brown women in big puffy black coats until they stum­bled upon the one they were looking for: mine.

In Komaki, the small city in the Aichi Prefecture where Giulia is headed after her orientation in Tokyo, there will be no bespecta­cled middle-aged black women who were born in Nashville, came of age in New England, wearing decades-old black puffers from Lands’ End. How strange to be able to offer only this one certainty for my child as she embarks upon the next leg of her adventures in the world: you will not find me there.

unlike me, giulia, who generally prefers silence, understands Japanese. She has been studying Japanese for three years. She has won an award for her proficiency in the language. Giulia is even president of the Japanese club at her school. She let this news drop very casually one day when we were talking about something else. If I had been president of the Japanese club at my school, everyone would have known. She and I are very different animals. I consider the dramatic differences between us as I move around the house, her absence so strong as to serve as a kind of presence. She is on the ground, undetectable by any app available on my phone. I kept the vigil while her plane was in the air as a way of trying to keep her fixed in place. Now that she is situated in her temporary life, I don’t want my gaze, or anyone else’s, to trap her. With all my heart, I hope she will roam. The fourteen-hour time difference makes it difficult for us to connect in real time anyway, which we both know is for the best. As I fold laundry and imagine Giulia’s current life, I wonder if this is what pregnancy feels like: whatever you are doing, your baby is growing.

We are all different animals, of course, everyone in any kind of parent-child relationship. Being an adoptive parent makes it possible for you to keep this fact front and center; every time you look at your child you are confronted by how wholly themselves they actually are. When I decided to stop pursuing motherhood via pregnancy, I chose a different route to motherhood with the con­viction of a religious renunciate. Once I arrived at my new coun­try—the country of adoption—I pledged full-throated allegiance. Even though I delight in discussions with my brothers, aunts, and cousins about which of my nephews looks like which ancestor, we do not entertain these conversations in my country. As an adoptive mother, I did not seek to approximate the bond between biological parents and children.

My children did not emerge from my body—that’s a fact. The love that has grown between us was born of another kind of mys­tery. Never at any point have I expected them to grow up into me, or to want what I want, or to like what I like. Nothing is handed down in this country, not height, not eye color, not handedness itself, nor any other ways of being or doing. So it was with genu­ine surprise that I read Giulia’s application essays for the program that would take her to Japan, in which she referred to her language award and discussed the Japanese club, and learned that she began taking Japanese because of the stories I had told her about my sum­mer in Shimada.

The last name of Giulia’s host family is Suzuki. We smiled when we first read it; Giulia has been taking Suzuki violin since she was eight years old, which is how old I was when I began taking violin lessons. I confess to pushing the violin thing, but I did not tell Giulia stories about my summer in Japan so that she would take Japanese in high school, travel to Japan, and then.…Whatever happens will be the product of her own design. Biology be damned—Giulia has turned toward my life and decided which elements might work for her. She has utilized her father’s life in the same way; she is like a chef deciding on the spices that will serve as her own signature in a dish. The dish being her life, her father and I being sometimes very different flavors.

Of course, her path has always been her choice, and her choices have shaped me. I mean it when I tell my daughters they have made me into a mother; they keep making me into the mother they need. All I must do is let them. In whimsical moments I say that Giulia and Isabella invented me. In solemn moments I know that this is true. Mothers: we are all called from another realm to do work that simply needs to get done.

when giulia was in Japan, I met my friend Esther, a writer whose relationship to language I respect very much, in New York. Esther did not grow up with her biological mother; the woman Esther knows as her mother adopted her. Esther has a biological child, but the country of adoption is the one to which we will both belong for the rest of our lives. Esther loved her mother and father, the people who raised her. They were much older than her biological mother, with whom she maintained contact. Esther took care of her parents in their declining years, a dutiful daughter to the end. After her parents died, Esther’s biological mother said to her, “Well, that part of our lives is over.”

“Don’t bother missing us,” I told Giulia before she left. “Everyone at home will be doing the same thing. It will all be here for you when you return.”

The words chilled us as we recalled them over the streaky pork we ate in her upper Manhattan kitchen. The first time she told me of this exchange, the words stung me in the same place they stung her. But today, with Giulia safely at the beginning of what I believe will be a new chapter in her life—maybe the first chapter in her adult life—I recall the words spoken by her biological mother and feel a need to consider their meaning from this new vantage point.

What if there is such a thing as destiny? And what if, in my case, it was Giulia who had a date with fate in Japan and not I? What if I am only a way station and my role comes down to this, my own bright light existing purely to illuminate her own, my life as a spice whose purpose is to enliven her own dish? If so, well, I can’t think of a role I’d rather play.

Three weeks in Japan. I think of my host family all the time, every single time an occasion calls for omiyage, or turning toward my fellow humans and not away from them, or listening to what’s being said beneath language. Losing touch with them is easily the greatest regret of my life. But at least I am alive to enable both of my daughters to bear full witness to my life, the wins as well as the losses.

“don’t bother missing us,” I told Giulia before she left. “Everyone at home will be doing the same thing. It will all be here for you when you return.” You’re the one who’s going to change, is what I meant.

Three weeks end as neatly as they began. It is night again when the three of us go to the airport to fetch her. I spot her at baggage claim, her back to us, and feel instant relief that it is the same back I remember. At least this, I think. When she turns around, I see it’s the same front too. But different. This is clear. She notices me and her sister and smiles, opening her arms wide. I dive right in.

As a toddler, Giulia pulled me close, yanked my head down to meet her in her own country, the inches of space that she occupied at full height. At seventeen, she still makes the same adjustments in me, right-sizes me, now with laughing confidence born of an experience well lived. She’s got me in a loving chokehold. I don’t know where she is going any more than I know who she is, but this small human with her arm around my neck has for sure got the horizon around her shoulders. Whoever you are, I love you, thickly, I think.

Emily Bernard is the Julian Lindsay Green and Gold Professor of English at the University of Vermont and the author of five books, including Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023


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