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Chapel Hill to Japan and back again



Ten months ago I left the charming and familiar environs of Chapel Hill to teach English in a Japanese high school. I landed in Ogaki, a city in name but really just part of the vast suburb stretching from Tokyo to Osaka. To my eyes, which were used to Chapel Hill's shady streets and historic buildings, this megalopolis of ferroconcrete disasters presented a somewhat repugnant spectacle. And although I'm happy in Japan, I can't say that I don't miss Carolina--especially its physical environment.

In early April (the beginning of the Japanese school year), I set about inspecting our new 11th grade textbook, opening it to lesson one, "When the Dogwood Blooms."

"Two dogwoods stand in our garden," states the narrator, a Japanese girl. "Their white or pink flowers bloom in April and invite pretty birds. When they bloom, spring is in full swing in our garden." Indeed, dogwoods flowered in surprising numbers on a recent warm Friday, parading along my city's ordinarily drab blocks and providing a rare physical reminder of home.

Under the text is a drawing of a middle-aged Japanese man, smiling beatifically at the branches of a dogwood tree.

"My father planted the trees. He looks happy when they bloom. Perhaps he remembers the happy days of his studies in America. He studied in Chapel Hill, N.C., when he was young. The dogwood is the state flower of North Carolina."

There, surprisingly, was Chapel Hill in the pages of Apricot English Course 1, among lessons on Cambodian landmines and orphan orangutans. More surprisingly, it was not noted for the usual selling points like its sports culture or famous former residents, but merely for playing host to "happy days."

Now, like the father in Lesson 1, I too smile beatifically as I pass beneath the dogwoods, remembering my own happy days in Chapel Hill. The Japanese natsukashii is a word which translates as "dear" or "missed"; it's used, for example, when reminiscing about childhood or meeting old friends. It's perfect for a feeling that doesn't find easy expression in English. I sigh to myself, "natsukashii," and recall the perfect mood of Carolina's dogwood-laden spring.

The dogwood has a long history as a symbol of Japan-U.S. friendship, starting in 1912 when the two exchanged shipments of dogwood and cherry trees. Hiroshima's mayor resurrected the initiative in 2000, collecting 85,247 dogwood seeds and sending Japanese camphor laurels in return. He wrote, "I have a dream that people everywhere will someday gather under their dogwoods and camphor laurels to celebrate a long-sought achievement--a world free from war."

Recent events indicate that dream is far from realization, and in reality the dogwood flowers receive a lukewarm reception compared to the teeming cherry blossoms, which get pop songs and parties in their honor. But there is nevertheless some comfort to be found in symbols. And it seems appropriate, in an era when it can be difficult to be an American abroad, that the same tree is a reminder of both home and the pursuit of peace.

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