When he found out fourteen years ago that I was going to work with children in Japan, my grandfather had some advice for me:
Always make sure you have chocolate in your pocket. Those Japanese kids love chocolate, and you sure don’t want to disappoint them.
At the time, I was pretty sure they had chocolate in Japan (I’d received plenty of Pocky from exchange students,) and I didn’t put too much stock into what my grandpa had said. He’d been in Japan for several years during the American occupation after World War II. Some of his advice was spot on, like “When in doubt, apologize.” Some of it no longer applied: “Be sure to look for Mt. Fuji when you’re in Yokohama!” (After the war when most of the buildings were flattened, the view was beautiful. These days you have to be in a high spot at a good angle on a clear winter’s day to see it. But when you do, it’s amazing.)
None of my students ever asked me for chocolate (though I did get asked my bra size pretty often, ) and as time passed I forgot the advice about always carrying chocolate.
Eventually, I met and married my husband. Slowly, I got to know his family. His father was born in Yokohama in 1943, and spent his early years in a Japan occupied by American soldiers, in the city they almost all got off the boat.
Sometimes he talks about the lean years after the war, of his father and uncle bicycling fifty miles under a moonless sky to bring back a sack of sweet potatoes from a relative’s farm to their starving children, at risk of being shot if they were discovered.
Then one day, out of the blue, he turns to me and says in just as Yankee doodle an accent as you can imagine, “Hey! Gimme chocolate! Chewing gum!”
Needless to say, I was surprised.
His English is awful at best. But those phrases he had down pat. I asked him where he learned it, and he said he and his friends used to follow the American soldiers around, asking them for sweets.
I already knew from my grandpa that the soldiers always made sure to stock their pockets so they would have something for them.
My father in law remembers those nameless young men very fondly. But I know at least one name, and I can’t help but feel proud. It may not have felt like much at the time, but those small gestures of good will have not been forgotten.
Across different languages and cultures and values and times, it still remains: the chocolate connection.