I recently re-watched the movie, “Spirited Away”, a Japanese animation film created by Hayao Miyazaki. The main character is a sullen ten-year-old girl named Chihiro. In the middle of her family’s move to the suburbs, they wind up in a mystical town where gods, spirits, and monsters get together for a retreat at a bathhouse. At some point, Chihiro got separated from her parents and had to rely on her inner strength to survive there and to find her way home. In the DVD, there was a bonus feature which explained how Miyazaki came up with this basic plot. He revealed that Chihiro had a model – a daughter of a friend of Miyazaki’s. Chihiro was described “typical, apathetic and lazy” 10-year-old before winding up in this mystical town. After going through a phase of denial, Chihiro accepted her fate and started tapping into her inner strength. She managed to find the support and resources she needed to rescue her parents and get back home. At the very end of this movie when she came back to the real world with her parents, there was a conversation in the background as their car drives away, and her mother mentioned Chihiro’s new school. She replied with “I think I can handle that”. This line illustrated the clear contrast between “before” and “after”, and how much she has grown. Her experience and adventure inspired her and brought out confidence in herself. After her right of passage through her ordeal in this magical land, the movie portrays her as growing into a young woman ready to tackle the unknown optimistically. As a parent, this is what I wish for my kids to have; being positive and optimistic in the face of unknown challenges and to have the inner strength and confidence in themselves that they can handle the challenge. I believe that children can not achieve self confidence in themselves if adults around them are constantly restricting their physical space to explore and try things out on their own. There is a Japanese saying “If you love your children, let them go on a travel on their own”(可愛い子には旅をさせよ Kawaii ko niwa tabi wo saseyo). It means that you should let them have harsh experiences so they can grow. If you love your children, you shouldn’t shield them from tough situation, but let them experience and learn from life.
When I look back my own childhood, I had a blast in my elementary school. After I got accepted by a private middle & high school, my life had changed completely. All of sudden, I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class, and I was under a tremendous pressure to study all the time just to keep up. I had a couple of great friends and it was not all that bad, but my memory of 7th through 9th grade consists of staying home and studying hours even on the weekend. In high school, I have decided that I want to be an exchange student and go abroad, so I took the exam to be an AFS exchange student and went to Germany. I went there with very limited English and virtually zero German, so it was really hard especially at the beginning. It was also the first time that I lived away from my parents (it was the first time that I had ever been on an airplane!). It was strange to say this, but the part of the reasons why I wanted to participate in that program was because I was feeling bored. I liked my high school, and the feeling of boredom was definitely not because of lack of challenge -I was challenged enough in terms of school studies and the pressure to perform academically, especially with the college entrance exam approaching in less than 3 years. But I felt like there should be more to life than just studying all the time so we can go to a college, so I jumped at the opportunity to live and study abroad for one year, not fully realizing what I was getting myself into. That one year in Germany really was a survival experience, and there were plenty of times that I was miserable, missing my family and friends back home. The weather was depressing, food wasn’t as good, people were different and I felt really alone. I didn’t get along with my host mother either, so it was not at all what I had envisioned before I went there. But I had been playing piano since I was 4, and also I had played viola in my middle school, so I joined a school orchestra and gradually I made some friends. My German got better with time, and I started enjoying myself probably after 6 months or so. In the end, I was glad to come home and see my family after one year. But the fact that I somehow survived and made it through that year gave me tremendous confidence. In that sense, it was my own “Spirited Away” experience, in a more protected way (as I lived with a host family), for sure, but in a longer time frame. That year in Germany is a distant memory now, and I am no longer fluent in German and I lost touch with most of my friends I had made there, but what I had experienced there helped me to become the person that I am today. We tend to think that children forget about the times when they were young, but I believe that what they “cellularly” experience will stay with them forever and shape their personalities. They might forget the events, but they will remember the feelings or what they have gained as a result of those events. Having realized this, I would like to thank my parents for letting me to have that experience. People tell me that I was brave for going abroad on my own, but it was really them who were brave.