The day my son Abebe left home in September 2009 marked the end of our unconventional family. Abebe was 18 years old and he was going to university in Japan, the first step towards achieving his dream of becoming a videogame director. Ever since he was a little kid, he had been an aficionado of Japanese games and manga (comics). Now, armed with only two years of high school Japanese, he would be immersed in a totally different culture and language, far away from home.
I admired his focus and his courage. He had saved money since he was nine years old, doing hilly paper routes and cooking fries at Pajos; he had excelled at school to earn some scholarship money; and Paul and I could help him out with an RESP.
Abebe’s Japanese improved rapidly because of two things: first, he was going to a special university where foreign students were heavily immersed in Japanese language and culture courses. Secondly, he started dating a Japanese girl named Chihiro. Soon he was meeting all of her family members, some of whom couldn’t speak any English. It was important for him to impress them. I guess he did, because contrary to what usually happens, they accepted a white Canadian as their daughter’s boyfriend—and future husband. Abebe and Chihiro were married in 2018.
While going to university full-time, Abebe taught young children English two or three days a week and also worked as a translator for newspapers. In addition, he wrote articles for gaming magazines and blogs, showing his profound understanding of gaming psychology and his passion for games.
Achieving the dream
Abebe did achieve his dream of becoming a videogame director. After graduation he got a job with a small company that produced high-quality games. (For privacy reasons, I won’t name the company here.) He had a lot of respect for their key players and was excited about working with them. Initially, he was a localizer (translator). This involved not only the literal translation of the text of a game, but also doing rewrites to make games culturally appropriate for foreign markets (for example, adapting humour and idiomatic language).
After a year or so, Abebe was promoted to a position as part of the design team working on a couple of games. Now, he has a lead role in the company as the director of a team developing a new game.
I am proud of Abebe’s success but for both him and for me there is a price to be paid. I haven’t seen my son for almost three years. His work responsibilities mean he is living in a state of almost perpetual pressure, with deadlines always looming. Any long period of vacation time keeps getting postponed.
I didn’t even have a wedding to attend! Although Abebe and Chihiro hoped to have ceremonies in both Canada and Japan, their busy work schedules meant they settled for a simple civil service. If they have children, how often will I see my grandchildren?
I worry about Abebe’s work-dominated life, and I hope he will find a way to have a better work/life balance soon. He has completely given up the sports that he excelled in as a child and a teenager: gymnastics, Tae Kwon Do, cheerleading, and 400m hurdles. Occasionally he works out in the gym at his workplace, but the time crunch is always there.
I talk to Abebe on Skype (though not very often!). It is wonderful to see him. Sometimes he’s depressed—hardly surprising considering the constant work demands and sleep deprivation. He and Chihiro scarcely have a normal social life. Yet he reassures me by telling me about books he’s reading. He has time to read every day during his train commutes, and he reads challenging books by authors from many different cultures and times. In that way, I hope, his perspective won’t be reduced to the all-encompassing artificial world of his current game.
My family of 18 years is gone
For over 18 years, my “nuclear” family consisted of me, Paul, my coach George, and Abebe. We usually had at least one other person living with us: sometimes SFU students, for a couple of years Paul’s daughter from a previous relationship, and for many years our running friend Dave Reed. Abebe’s best friend Jung Dae lived with us during the boys’ Grade 12 year. I got up early every morning to cook them oatmeal and drive them to school. Jung Dae sang in the shower downstairs—it was a good sound to wake up to!
The house seemed very empty after Jung Dae went home to Seoul in July 2009 and Abebe left for Japan a couple of months later. Paul and I were already estranged by that time. I didn’t leave Paul until March 2012, though, because George was dealing with a severely arthritic hip, and later, congestive heart failure. I was his caregiver. After George moved to a seniors’ residence in 2012, I moved out too. George passed away later that year.
I rarely see Paul or talk to him now, though we are on amicable terms. When I think about Paul I feel sad. Maybe I’m not grieving just the end of a marriage, but the loss of the two idealistic people we once were. I have a somewhat similar emotional reaction about Abebe. It is a feeling of being disoriented, perplexed. How could two people who for such a long time were the centre of my world now be almost entirely absent?
In the case of Paul, I know I made the right choice. I loved him passionately, but our relationship was over a long time ago, and I need to keep myself separated from him. He disappointed me deeply. He made me question what love is and think about its illusions. I understand something now that I didn’t know when I was younger: the way love proves itself over time.
As for Abebe, he will always be my son and I will always love him. Our former family is gone, but maybe Abebe will return to Canada, with Chihiro, and a new family will begin.
In Part 2 of this story about Abebe’s experiences in Japan, I will explore differences between Japanese and Canadian culture, and the ways in which Abebe has “become” Japanese.