Rio Masui barreled around the corner, his new grandfather jumping out to surprise the preschooler into a fit of giggles that left him rolling on the ground.
Rio, 5, first met his unofficial American grandparents, Jack and Klaire Pirtle, last week.
Hours after getting off the plane from Japan with his mother, Yuko Masui, Rio took to them like the grandparents back home he’s known all his life.
He would run from room to room, looking for “Obaachan,” or Grandma, to play with a new butterfly-catching game.
Jack Pirtle soon became not only “Ojichan”, or Grandfather, but “okina same,” big shark, to Rio’s “chisana same,” little shark.
Rio and “Ojichan” sat side by side; Rio rattling on in Japanese while Grandpa listened intently, not understanding a word but responding gently and politely in English to let his grandson know he was listening.
Two weeks ago, Rio had never met his chosen American family. But what began as a chance encounter 35 years ago between the Pirtles and Yuko Masui’s parents, Hiroyuki and Megumi Masui, has unfurled a family exchange that spans generations.
On an afternoon San Diego harbor cruise in 1977, Klaire and Megumi found themselves absorbed in conversation about their two daughters and their experience as teachers. Megumi spoke English, but her husband, Hiroyuki, knew none. So the men did a lot of bowing and smiling.
With so much in common, the two mothers exchanged addresses and kept up correspondence from then on, as did their four daughters.
Christmas cards were shared over the years. Klaire sought advice for the Japanese treatment of the “terrible twos” and Megumi asked about relief for “50-year-old shoulders.”
“It was just wonderful because I learned so much,” said Klaire.
But besides talking about their husbands, children and teaching, deep topics were also explored. They discussed differences, such as the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. The exchanges got political, but they were always peaceful.
But letters could form only so much of a cultural connection.
One night, after the Pirtle’s daughter Jill left for college, Klaire had a dream.
“I had just dreamed I had had another baby, and Megumi called that morning to ask, ‘Would you like another daughter for a year?’ Of course, I said, ‘Yes!’ And it was Yuko,” said Klaire.
At 16, Yuko spent her junior year living in the U.S. with the Pirtles.
“I had wanted to go to foreign countries, and this dream came true,” said Yuko. “And they were very nice to me. I felt loved.”
Although the couple hadn’t met Yuko before she arrived, “she felt like a real daughter,” Klaire said.
“Everything was a culture shock,” said Yuko. She was often stressed about language barriers and making herself understood. She attended high school with her American “brother,” James Pirtle, who would tease and scare her just like one of his older sisters. She played clarinet in the school band and saw various parts of the U.S. accompanying the Pirtles for family weddings and visits.
The family bonds got stronger when Yuko returned five years later as a bridesmaid in Jill’s wedding. When it was Yuko’s turn to get married, Klaire and daughter Linde traveled to Kyoto.
“Usually with pen pals, after a while you stop writing and forget,” Klaire said. “We have to give ourselves credit for keeping up all of these years.
“Megumi and I are very much on the same spiritual, political and educational level. It’s amazing to find someone who truly thinks the same. The two of us ended up having a sister from another culture.”
“I appreciate our long friendship,” Megumi recently wrote to Klaire.
It’s also been wonderful for Klaire and Jack to see their once-shy Japanese daughter, Yuko, as a mother, eager to show her son a new culture and have him spend some time in an American school.
“I just want him to have this new experience – new friends, new teachers, new songs,” Yuko said. “Even though he doesn’t speak English, he will know what’s going on in school.”
Rio attended St. Alban’s Preschool & Kindergarten for three weeks and lit up with delight to come home to Grandma and Grandpa and spend the rest of the afternoon playing.
“Family is the same; we all have love. He knows when he loves them, he doesn’t need to know what they are saying. They do things exactly like his real grandparents back in Japan, because to him, they are his real grandparents.”
“He has grandparents in Kyoto, grandmother in Yokohama, and also grandparents in U.S. He is very lucky!” wrote Megumi to Klaire.
When Yuko and Rio leave at the end of the month, the families will say goodbye with hopes for a future encounter.
“We’ll meet halfway, in Hawaii,” said Klaire. And it will be the entire family: both set of grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, everyone, she said.
“I had a good experience here 20 years ago and I want my son to have the same dream,” said Yuko. “And at some point he will come as an exchange student.”
Klaire is already looking forward to that day.
“He knows he has a home here,” she said. “Some day he can come back and close the circle.”