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The Snowflake

by Crystal Xiao, 15, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

When I was 8 years-old, I used to live with my family in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. There people never had to pack away their winter clothing for too long since spring, summer, and fall together make up only less than a quarter of the year. I loved snow. Every day on my way to school, I would stretch out my gloves to catch the flakes. As I examined each one closely, I marveled at its unique structure. The flakes were generous as they fell silently into the puddles, or disappeared instantly upon touching the heated redness of our cheeks. Sometimes I wondered if it was worthwhile for the flakes to give up their individual identities, but I didn't worry about it too much. Hokkaido organized the world's biggest and most exciting winter carnival every year, which attracted tourists from all over the world to celebrate. This was fun and excitement that we would never get from one single uncombined unique flake.

One day, my dad came home with an interesting piece of news. A teacher who specialized in Chinese language had asked him to be her teaching assistant. Since his university did not permit its professors to take part-time jobs, Dad suggested that my mom take the job. The teacher told Dad that she would be glad to have me come along.

I was thrilled to hear the news. I always imagined myself as a teacher, standing in front of the class writing with chalk on the newly-washed blackboard. I would print my characters fairly big, since I knew how frustrated some students became with the teacher's small handwriting, but not too large. I wanted to selflessly distribute my knowledge to my students, like the snowflakes, but at the same time share original ideas with them. I dreamed of making learning rewarding and fun.

The teacher, according to my dad, communicated with him in perfect Chinese. Her name was Ms. Hizukia. No matter how much she talked like a Chinese person, she told him that she was Japanese. Her father had been a Japanese soldier who surrendered to China during the Japanese Invasion of China. After the war, her family remained there working for the government and moved back to Japan when she was 16.

Mom took me to visit Ms. Hizukia one day after school. We waited outside for the class to finish. Finally we went in and Ms. Hizukia greeted us. She looked to be in her 50s, with her thick black hair pulled back in a short ponytail. Her skin was fairly smooth with a few wrinkles over her forehead. Her most attractive facial feature was two lovely dimples, which were visible even when she wasn't smiling.

"Hello, you must be Mrs. Yang," she said to Mom in Chinese with a bit of a Beijing accent, "and you must be Yang Guo." She looked down to smile at me.

"Sure, nice to meet you," I mumbled almost without moving my lips. My ears were wide open, concentrating to catch some incorrect pronunciation. But I couldn't. Her Chinese was absolutely perfect.

As the adults chatted, I examined Ms. Hizukia's desk and spotted two identical pens lying on top of her notebook, with the name "LongYu" neatly inscribed in Chinese characters.

"Who is 'LongYu'?" I held the pen up to Ms. Hizukia.

"Oh, that's what I used to go by in China," she answered.

"Can I call you 'Ms. LongYu'?" I asked.

"Well," Ms. Hizukia hesitated a moment, then she shook her head, "No, just call me Ms. Hizukia, okay?"

"I see," I answered reluctantly, kind of disappointed.

The Chinese class took place every Tuesday. We always had so much fun. After giving the lesson, Ms. Hizukia would let me go around to tutor the students. It was exciting to be called "Ms. Yang" by students who were almost older than my parents. My job was to help with pronunciation and listening skills. The students liked me very much and they respected me as their teacher. On holidays, we usually went out to party and bought each other presents.

As we got more acquainted, Mom would sometimes drop me off in Ms. Hizukia's apartment on weekends, especially during the winter. Ms. Hizukia was happy to have me around since I always added new excitement to her apartment, where she lived alone. We frequently went to visit winter carnival or skate on the river. When I got tired and hungry, Ms. Hizukia would buy me hot chocolate drinks and marshmallows.

Ms. Hizukia kept an old family photo on her bedroom wall. She was only 8, she explained to me, when the photo was taken. Although she never said this to me in words, I could tell how much the photo meant to her. I could sometimes see her sitting on the sofa, caressing it with emotion. She would close her eyes thoughtfully as she immersed herself in past memories.

One day as I was watching TV, Ms. Hizukia came over with two cups of hot tea for us. She chatted with me about school and was pleased to hear that my Japanese had improved so much that I could understand most of my classes now, with the exception of Japanese class. She then asked me why it was so hard and I explained.

"It's not because I don't understand what they are saying. I just can't understand their reasoning behind it."

"I know," Ms. Hizukia nodded, "even if two things look the same from one glance, they are still different. Although China and Japan are close neighbors, they have their different cultures and customs and some of these differences are contradictory. If it wasn't for these contradictions there wouldn't be the Japanese Invasion of China." She looked at me and said, "Are you familiar with that war?"

I was more than just familiar with that war. In history classes in China, the teachers were always in tears whenever they told us those true stories about how the Japanese brutally slaughtered millions of Chinese soldiers, planted bombs in the villages, and buried civilians alive just for pleasure. However, I did not want to let Ms. Hizukia know so I merely nodded.

"You know, the best time in my life was spent in China," Ms. Hizukia said wistfully. "Sometimes I wish so hard to go back to that memorable time."

"After Dad surrendered, the Chinese government praised him for his cooperation. We were given a gigantic house and were taken good care of by the government. My sisters, brothers, and I all received the best education possible in China. They didn't treat us like captives at all. I remember that I had a teacher whose husband was killed by the Japanese army. For a long time I could not tell her that I was Japanese. When she finally found out, I stared at her with sympathy, took a deep breath and was ready to take on any blame she was going to put on me, but she stood there numbly for a moment, then she clenched my arms in tears and told me how grateful she was to my dad for his surrender. In school my friends treated us like one of them and we were never singled out for anything. We were frequently invited to go to their houses. Nevertheless, my dad never let us go, nor did he permit us to bring friends to our house. Life was good for us, but not for my parents. They were constantly fighting. Sometimes I would see Mom kneeling down before my dad, begging him not to be stupid, but Dad would just shake his head and sigh."

"My dad wanted to bring us back to Japan. At first the government didn't let us go, then after several pleadings, his request was finally granted."

"Your dad didn't want you to forget who you are, isn't it so?" I asked.

Ms. Hizukia nodded, "I know, but I could never understand why he would want to do so. He immediately reported to the army after he got back. I remember how the General, with a stern look on his face, said to him slowly, 'Hizukia, you know the penalty for treason.' 'Yes, I do, sir. I have ashamed myself and my country and I am ready to take my penalty. You have promised to grant my only plea. You shall keep your words?' The General nodded. Dad looked relieved as he took one last glance at us before he knelt down. Then the General gave him a sharp sword. I realized suddenly what he was going to do, but it was too late. The blood splashed all over the sword and Dad fell down, never stood up again."

I could not say a word.

Ms. Hizukia looked out of the window. Then she paced back and forth for a few times. She finally sat down on a sofa and resumed her story.

"The General offered to take care of us but Mom refused. He said something like it was Dad's will but Mom said, 'We don't blame you, sir. You were only doing your job. We are going to be fine.' However we weren't fine. Life was excruciating for us and we no longer had the pleasant life we had back in China. Mom was out seven days a week doing heavy labour to keep us in school. We all missed China extremely with the exception of Mom. She told us that Dad came back for the right reasons. Dad wanted us to remember who we are."

Ms. Hizukia paused for a second to drink her tea. "I couldn't understand why she would say that. How could I be loyal to the country that killed my father? How could I not love the country that treated us like its own people?"

"Ms. Hizukia," I said, "the Chinese are always nice to their enemies. They want to turn their enemies into friends even at their own expense."

"I know," Ms. Hizukia replied. "The Japanese would not abandon their country for anything in the world."

"Then," I asked her something that I wanted to know for a long time, so I carefully chose my words, "do you think you are Chinese or Japanese?"

Ms. Hizukia pondered for a long time. Her wrinkles were beginning to show and I could tell that she was thinking really hard. As I looked through the window, I saw the familiar scene of a single snowflake falling from the sky.

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