Over the summer holiday, my son became bilingual.

That’s probably not technically correct, but that’s certainly my experience of what happened. We flew to the United States in August—our first family trip home in three years—and then, after about a week and a half, Boy started speaking English. Fluently.

Anyone observing our son in his current Japanese context would assume him to be a native speaker of English. Old women passing us on the streets in our neighborhood frequently gasp at his Day-Glo pale skin, his somber cuteness. Some lean in close, pat his head, and try out a few phrases, thinking perhaps this will put him at ease: Hello? Name? How old?

These words are gifts. I know the women are trying to be generous—they are being generous—but it is always exactly the wrong thing to say. He clutches at my legs, refuses to speak, his gaze falling to his shoes.

Often, he doesn’t know what is being said or asked of him. After all, Mama and Papa’s English doesn’t sound like that. “He speaks Japanese,” I explain again and again. “He goes to day care here.” The conversation is always a lost cause from that point on, though. Those kindly old women must think it’s very sweet that I think my boy speaks Japanese.

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