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Here's what this high school teacher learned about life as an American in Hiroshima (w/video)

HIROSHIMA, Japan — Reminders come, if she lets them, as Leslie Wier walks to school.

The river by her apartment is lined by cherry blossom trees with November red leaves. There is a playground, a docked oyster restaurant, the slab of rock Leslie lies on to daydream.

Leslie, 31, walks by a park of monuments and crosses a bridge, joining morning commuters along the city's widest street. Peace Memorial Park. Peace Bridge. Peace Boulevard. Bones of infrastructure named in a campaign to avoid repeating history.

Leslie's 15-minute journey ends at Kokutaiji Senior High School. Students in navy uniforms park bicycles and scurry to homeroom. Leslie doesn't blink as she passes three off-white pillars on the way to the English teachers' office, her mind on the day of grammar lessons ahead.

The old gate posts are all that's left of the original school before it collapsed into pieces. Inside the school grounds is a memorial engraved with the names of students and teachers who died.

"That's Hiroshima," Leslie says.

She repeats this phrase, casually, about the traces of Aug. 6, 1945, throughout the city. It's the easy way to explain an uneasy truth.

Work is not the place to dwell on the past. Not Hiroshima's, and not her own.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie Wier on her walk to Kokutaiji Senior High School, the school where she works in Hiroshima, Japan. She walks pasts the Peace Memorial Park on her way to work, a constant reminder of the past.

• • •

Leslie always wanted to go to places that didn't look or sound like home, places where English was not the main language and she'd be forced to grow.

Her romantic side wanted extraordinary adventure, like in the Redwall fantasy series she whipped through in sixth grade.

She wanted different.

When she moved to Japan in August 2013, she was 28, single and sick of Orlando. Florida. The States.

Leslie had spent most of her life in Port Charlotte with her mother, Kathryn Lyden, and her stepdad, Iraqi-born Basim Hiawy, whom she calls Baba, Arabic for dad.

Tall and blond, with blue eyes and Florida-girl freckles, Leslie is an only child. She was the only student in her grade who went to mosque, and there were strict rules in her home.

For three years of marching band, Leslie wore pants under her uniform instead of shorts, like the other Port Charlotte High students did, and she followed a 10 p.m. curfew.

Still, she was happy. She played trumpet alongside her best friend, Jen Swartz. They belly laughed together and joined the tribe of the Dave Matthews Band; Leslie has seen them play close to 20 times.

Leslie took advanced placement classes and nerded out on Japanese media — anime, Mario Kart and Nintendo, and the Final Fantasy role-playing game. But what really pushed her East was band.

When she was a freshman, her school hosted a traveling youth orchestra from Japan, and Leslie volunteered her family to house a couple of students. The lead clarinet players were supposed to be robots, disciplined and unfeeling, or so that was the message she heard in a previsit orientation about Japanese culture.

Leslie tried to dial back her family's Arab-American touchy-feeliness. No hugs and kisses. Language got in the way, but Leslie's mom served the girls a breakfast of eggs, potatoes and rice, though it was Arab-style long-grain basmati and not the sticky white rice suited for chopsticks. The girls showed Leslie how to fold paper cranes.

When the buses pulled up to take them away, the girls stunned Leslie with tears. She wanted to embrace the bawling teens but remembered they weren't supposed to like that. She watched them pull away, feeling helpless.

She told herself for years, I should have hugged them, I should have hugged them.

She wanted to reconcile what she heard about Japan with the truth.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie looks off into the distance from the balcony of Kokutaiji Senior High School in Hiroshima. The balcony overlooks the courtyard which has a memorial to those lost in the atomic bomb.

• • •

Hiroshima sits on six low-lying islands atop a delta, guarded by mountains and criss-crossed by rivers flowing into Hiroshima Bay. Centuries before the city's founding, the region was an important Shinto pilgrimage destination, anchored by an island in the bay called Miyajima, or "shrine island."

The city emerged as an economic power during shogunal rule and the return of the emperor as the central political leader in the 19th century. Hiroshima's reputation as a military city developed during Japan's wars with the Russian empire and China at the turn of the 20th century.

The Imperial Japanese Army used Hiroshima as the country's western capital for warfare throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with an established naval headquarters and an army division based in the old castle.

Residents worked in textile factories or the iron and steel industries, producing military equipment. The city resembled Detroit or Milwaukee. Their homes were packed into city blocks without sidewalks or lawns, next to hospitals, stores and schools. Most residents were patriotic nationalists who supported Japan's imperialism, but some decried the evolution of Hiroshima into a "soldier's city," overrun with green fatigues.

Hiroshima dodged American air raids all spring and summer of 1945. Residents had grown used to seeing the B-29 Superfortresses passing over them to drop bombs on more than 60 other cities. The firebombing of Tokyo in March alone resulted in the deaths of about 100,000 civilians.

Part of Hiroshima's population evacuated to the prefecture's outskirts, hoping to escape the kind of firestorms that had enflamed the capital.

People still in the city tore down wooden structures and created wide breaks to prevent the spread of fire. On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, more than 2,500 students were helping with the demolition effort when the bomb finally came.

Some of the students attended one of the oldest schools in the prefecture, one that has been around under different names since 1874. The school is about a mile from the bustling city center, in an area later called Kokutaiji-machi. At the school entrance was a gate and sturdy posts.

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie and her students bow to each other at the beginning and ending of every class period. In Japanese culture, students and teachers bow to each other to show mutual respect and gratitude.

Class is in. When Leslie is ready to begin, she looks at the 35 students from her lectern in front of the chalkboard. One student starts the traditional greeting for each class: kiritsu, for stand up; shisei, straight; rei, bow. Leslie and the students bow to each other. Both say onegaishimasu, or, roughly, "Please do your best, and I will as well."

They sit, and Leslie passes out a worksheet.

"Luther Vandross is a very, very old singer," she says. "Well, actually, he's dead. But you're going to listen to this song because it has a lot of infinitives."

Students hunt through The Impossible Dream, chock-full of examples of the infinitive verb form in English.

"We are going to practice this today!" Leslie shouts.

She wants to be clear, and she wants to wake them up. Her students at Kokutaiji Senior High are shy about using English incorrectly, offering answers to her questions under their breath, if at all. When she catches them nodding off, she asks them to put down their pencils, remove face masks if they have them and smack their cheeks.

They're less reserved than adults. They do hug.

Leslie dislikes generalizations about Japanese students being supersmart, just as she dislikes generalizations about Muslims. But Leslie admits her kids fit the stereotype. Kokutaiji has an international focus on advanced science and math. Unlike the United States, where the teacher owns the classroom, the classroom in Japan belongs to the students. They keep the room key and clean the school after the last bell, raking leaves, sweeping floors, collecting trash, wiping the chalkboard and emptying its dust tray.

Leslie's job as an assistant language teacher means she co-teaches with a full-time Japanese teacher. Leslie has made herself indispensable as the only American on staff. Some days, she edits college-level papers on physics and engineering for worldwide competition. Others, she warns her kids about using the American slang they know.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie laughs as she teaches an English lesson during one of her classes. She engages the students often with games to help teach them learn English.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie helps a student clean a chalkboard at the end of the day. The students take responsibility of cleaning the school seriously, and there is no need for janitors.

On paper, she was a natural fit for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. She focused on international studies at the University of South Florida as an undergraduate and then found a job as an international admissions specialist at the University of Central Florida. As she worked, she earned a master's in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

In reality, she was afraid. She considered studying abroad in Japan but instead chose one- and two-month stints learning Arabic in Beirut, Lebanon. She was scared of losing her college boyfriend in Tampa if she stayed away any longer. He broke her heart anyway, and she decided she was done with opening up to love and only getting hurt.

Then her mom and stepfather relocated to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for his engineering career. Leslie was as ready for Japan in 2012 as she would ever be, so she applied.

The school is where her move makes the most sense. She is confident and speaks so loudly you can hear her from several classes down. Leslie's principal, Atushi Kawata, embarrasses her when reporters visit her school, calling her one of the best assistant teachers he's worked with. It's the first time Kawata, a graduate of Kokutaiji, has complimented her.

Leslie started to see herself staying the program's maximum of five years, a feat only 5 percent of American teachers reached in 2015. The time would allow her to breathe the culture, travel around Asia, find some answers.

• • •

Gray clouds drag below the mountains on hazy Hiroshima mornings.

The American military's Target Committee strategists pointed to these hills as a positive trait for Hiroshima on its list of potential nuclear bombing sites. The hills "are likely to produce a focussing effect, which would considerably increase the blast damage."

When the 9,000-pound uranium bomb Little Boy fell 43 seconds from the bomber Enola Gay, the nuclear reaction snapped above a hospital in the thick of town.

The searing flash and fire killed as many as 80,000 people in the immediate aftermath. Among the dead were civilians, soldiers, the mayor, and at least a dozen American prisoners of war. At the school where Leslie later would teach, 366 students and 15 teachers perished.

Largely unhurt were the military factories on the city's edge.

The bomb ruptured the city's foundation, centuries in the making.

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie visits The Children's Peace Monument in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. The memorial is in honor of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes, a Japanese legend that says if a sick person folds 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will make her well again.

Peace Memorial Museum is about a five-minute walk from Leslie's apartment on the south side of Peace Memorial Park, a 30-acre tract at the bomb's hypocenter. The park feels a bit like Washington's National Mall, with stone monuments, grassy lawns and a reflecting pool, though the array of monuments mourn a single event.

The main building hits visitors with a scene of stunned mannequins with melted skin and ripped clothing wandering out of a blasted brick building. There are remains of student uniforms and the shadow of a man who was sitting on bank steps.

The exhibits left Leslie with guilt, which went against her patriotism. She remembers learning about the bomb in school, but none of the details were like this. Ideally, she wants to believe the widespread destruction and civilian deaths were unwarranted. Realistically, she doesn't know. She thinks of it as a never-ending argument that no one can do much about.

Early in Leslie's stay, the people of Hiroshima would ask if she had been to the museum. She'd respond with something she knew in Japanese, like "sad but moving," and they thanked her for coming.

"I think a lot of Americans, they anticipate that the reaction after the bombing would be this desire or need for vengeance, because that's how we reacted after 9/11," Leslie says. "And that really is just not the case."

Leslie remembers seeing the concrete and steel skeleton of the A-bomb Dome while running one night across the Motoyasu, one of the rivers to where victims flocked for refuge. A historical marker explains how the neighborhood was "erased," in the language of the victors. People were vaporized here, she thought. She jogged home on the verge of tears.

A year after her move, Leslie paid $30 for a black paper crane tattoo. It covers a surgical scar on her left knee. She already had a tattoo in Arabic on her back with the same meaning: peace.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie walks past the three pillars that remained of Kokutaiji Senior High School after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. The school was rebuilt.

The people of Hiroshima, she says, have been welcoming, and she has soaked in the culture. She takes lessons on the tea ceremony with a fellow teacher, enjoying sweets as they move through the intricate ritual. She tries as much new food as she can, the good (manju, a confection with a sweet red bean paste in many flavors) and the bad (natto, sticky fermented soybeans).

Leslie knows just enough Japanese to greet her students and get through the grocery store line. She can chit-chat with the downstairs neighbor she calls Obaasan, a Japanese word for grandmother, who plies her with fresh sashimi.

But the gaps in language and behavior make it hard to bond. The people she meets generally don't like to talk about their feelings or show as much affection in public. Leslie has adjusted her default greeting. She doesn't go in for a hug without permission.

"In the past, I would not even think about asking. I would just go for it," Leslie says. "When I find a Japanese person here who hugs, I lose my s---."

Leslie is respected at school, but she is a step removed from the formality given to other teachers, choosing to go by Leslie or Ms. Leslie or Leslie-sensei instead of her family name. She also has hit her work ceiling as an assistant teacher.

She is as much an outsider in school as she is in the city.

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie waits in line at the grocery store in Hiroshima. She knows enough Japanese to help get her around and do basic activities like grocery shopping.

Leslie turns to displaced Westerners for happy hour, to mark the Fourth of July, to pig out on Thanksgiving, to play Cards Against Humanity.

They grin as they dare each other at the crosswalk — when the crowd isn't moving because the traffic sign says not to — to "gaijin smash" and cross anyway, pretending not to know the rules.

One Saturday in October, Leslie threw a "chilogy" day at her house: a combination of the original Star Wars trilogy and a favorite food from home, chili. Expatriate friends arranged wine and corn bread on top of Leslie's square kotatsu, a wooden coffee table that in winter doubles as a snug, heated table-topped comforter.

Nights like the chilogy are easy. They feel like home. But most nights are not like that.

The circle of expats is ever-changing. People get close, then leave. Repeat. For them, homesickness is easier to handle because it has an imminent expiration date. Leslie has learned not to hold it against them.

"They know that they're going to go home soon, or a lot of people have relationships back home already," she says. "And then for me, someone who's planning on staying a little bit longer … I'm also kind of getting up there, so I'd like to meet somebody."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie sleeps on the train ride to Miyajima island.

She lives alone in an apartment that is not bad space-wise for Japan. Though there's so little storage, she keeps her bananas in a crockpot and stacks her microwave on top of a convection oven on top of a small fridge-freezer. A dry erase board reminds her to keep in touch with friends Jen, Jess and Jordan, and her mom — people she was most afraid to lose, thousands of miles away.

Leslie remembers feeling like a family afterthought in her earliest years, before her mom regained custody. Her father and stepmother raised her and two stepsisters in Tennessee and Connecticut. When Leslie moved back with her mom at age 8, she and her dad were supposed to visit each other once a month. He stopped visiting over time, so she gradually stopped going to see him, too. Then he stopped calling and sending birthday cards. Then nothing for 15 years, she says. She didn't talk on the phone with him until her grandfather died in 2011, and she didn't see him until one stepsister invited her to visit their family in Pennsylvania two months before her move.

She says she still doesn't know why he pulled away.

A year ago, she was going out more on weeknights and drinking a lot of Johnnie Walker. Over time, it drained her.

Some friends at home will text her asking to hear about the latest crazy adventure. They mean well, but she's annoyed because, over the past year, she has never felt more isolated. She gets to do a lot of cool things, but "it's at a very heavy emotional expense. The s--- that I do to be able to do that stuff is so f------ hard. It's not a walk in the park. Most of the time it's not an adventure."

The hardest part about living in Hiroshima isn't meeting people. It is meeting people with time to be vulnerable.

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie walks around Shukkei-en, a historic Japanese garden, on Culture Day when classes are canceled.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

While at Shukkei-en, Leslie participates in a traditional tea ceremony as part of the Culture Day festivities.

Leslie's favorite escape is Miyajima, the forest-coated spiritual island just a streetcar and ferry ride away from the city.

She walks to the end of a dock and looks out at the ancient deep-orange-lacquered torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine in the bay. Tourists walk under it during low tide, but on this evening it is floating.

At a souvenir stand, she fingers a rainbowed assortment of silky protective amulets called omamori. The pouches contain a special prayer inside, and each is meant for a specific purpose. Leslie picks up one for finding your life partner.

"I should probably get that one," she says. "But whatever."

Leslie shelves the love amulet and begins the waterside walk back to the ferry, wrapping herself in a Middle Eastern kaffiyeh.

Leslie didn't want a long-term boyfriend after her college breakup 10 years ago. She feared being left again, cheated on. But after two years in Japan, she missed intimacy with more than just her closest friends.

The foreigner population is already slim pickings for friends, and the dating pool is even more limited. With Japanese men, there's a language barrier unless they've studied abroad.

"I have a very strong personality, as do a lot of Western women, I think," Leslie says. "We're perceived as being quite aggressive, and we expect men to pursue us aggressively. And that's kind of rare for Japanese men."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Praying to be happy with herself and her life, Leslie participates in a firewalking ceremony at Daiganji Temple on Miyajima Island. Firewalking was on the list of things she wanted to do in Japan.

Miyajima's Daiganji Temple is hosting an afternoon Buddhist fire-walking ceremony, one of the feats on Leslie's Japan to-do list. She is an hour late as she rushes to the back of a long but fast-moving line of adults, obaasans and some children. A man greets her with "Ganbatte," do your best, and hands her a bag for shoes and a red and white holy stick inscribed with prayer.

She pulls out her phone. Googles "fire walking." She can't see the people walking across the coal pit, and she doesn't know if she should walk fast or slowly. When she gets to the front of the bed of coals, she matches the easy pace of the woman beside her. She is surprised by how lukewarm the bed feels beneath her toes. Just as she relaxes, more pine hits the fire, sending a whoosh of smoke across her eyes.

She fights to remember the deeper reason for her walk. She prays to be happy with herself and her life. To find and maintain good relationships, and for patience. For peace.

A couple of weeks later, she meets a Marine on Tinder. He's a little taller than she is. Darker skin. Buzz-cut hair. Built. She swipes right and waits.

• • •

He contacts her. He's stationed in Iwakuni, an hour and a half away. She learns from his texts that he isn't just attractive, he's intelligent and open. They talk about mentoring and video games, what they're reading, how they both enjoyed Redwall as kids.

He comes into town one night for a first date. She takes him to Ippudo, her favorite place for warm ramen. They walk through the gardens at Shukkeien, designed nearly 400 years ago and lush with bamboo, maple and other trees, a large koi pond spliced by bridges and a tea house. It's twilight, and the gardens are illuminated. They walk among the downtown Christmas lights and buy plain roasted sweet potatoes from the back of a truck for dessert.

They kiss goodnight. He goes back to his base.

Leslie may have left Miyajima without the amulet for love. But it's starting to look like she didn't need it.

• • •

As the temperature falls, Leslie lowers her guard.

She and the Marine continue to text and talk on the messaging app Line. He makes her laugh, but more than that, he understands the emotional toll of living abroad.

She is nervous about getting close.

She says she won't date someone unless she can see herself marrying him. He agrees. She feels free to fall hard, so she does. He comes back to Hiroshima for a weekend.

It's the last time she sees him.

Not long after, he breaks up with her. He gives his reasons. People hurt each other. I'm not going to be open. That's just the way it is.

She feels like he is keeping a lot back. All she knows is she wasn't enough. Again.

Exactly what she had feared.

"He was the person I had decided to take a risk on," she says. "And he told me that I wasn't worth the risk for him."

Jen, her best friend since third grade, knows something is wrong when she gets a text from Leslie around 3 a.m. in Port Charlotte. "She was telling me what they were doing, where they were going," Jen says. "Then all of a sudden, it was no more."

• • •

December is hard enough for a Floridian in Japan without a breakup. Sunlight is scarce, and snow is not.

Leslie binges on chocolate, white rice, pasta. She tries to keep up her workout routine because that's what Xena the Warrior Princess would do.

And Leslie has had an escape in the works: Bali, by herself, over Christmas.

She stays in a beach villa in Amed, swimming during the day, eating spicy rice, seafood and curry. But she can't outrun her grief, not even in paradise.

The breakup hits her Christmas Eve. She cries and cries after dinner, frantic about what's wrong with her, why she isn't good enough, all alone inside a storm of self-hatred as intense as it is familiar.

She spends the rest of her trip steeped in reflection. She is the doctor and the patient, surveying each source of pain from her past for clues about what really has been wrong. It's not just the abrupt breakup. It's her loneliness since the move to Japan, the intense fear of losing her most precious friendships.

When she's not in her head, she's in her notebook. She uses a label, "fear of abandonment." For the first time, she starts to own it.

She traces the fear, from her father to her college ex to the Marine.

"It was that relationship that made me realize that everything I had done up until then was based on fear," Leslie says. "I went into the relationship with fear. I was just afraid the entire time. It needed to happen."

She dries her eyes and goes home.

• • •

When you get to Hiroshima, you expect only scars.

After the war, it was hard for some residents to see that the city would ever be anything other than desolate. But soon, oleanders pushed through the rubble, and willow, gingko and camphor trees regrew branches. Trains came back on line. Students at what would be Kokutaiji's school resumed class the next April inside an army hospital, and they opened a new building at the old location in November 1946.

Hiroshima, with two-thirds of its urban landscape in shambles, wasn't the only Japanese city that needed to rebuild. But it was the only one to pivot so hard from its past.

Hiroshima has proved more willing to move from victimhood to acknowledging a fuller story about the country's militarism in Korea and China, including the six-week massacre known as the Rape of Nanking. On the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Mayor Takashi Hiraoka offered a direct apology for "the unbearable suffering that Japan's colonial domination and war inflicted on so many people."

President Barack Obama lamented the city's suffering in somber remarks from Peace Memorial Park last month, but he did not apologize. "We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently."

More obvious than scars today are flashes of Hiroshima moving forward. You see it as you leave the bullet train at Hiroshima Station, where a construction sign with artistic renderings explains the work under way. The details are in Japanese, but the point is in English: "The Future." Painted sidewalk tiles of doves and flowers on the sidewalk remind you to look up.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Leslie stands across the river in front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. The dome is one of the only things that survived the bomb.

• • •

Leslie comes back to Florida for two weeks in March, the gap between Kokutaiji's school years. She wears a periwinkle bridesmaid dress for her friend Jess's wedding. Leslie beamswith a new haircut and news: She has moved up her date to leave Japan.

She will stop after the current school year, her fourth, and move back home to Port Charlotte. She will spend her last 14 months in Japan focused on an online graduate certificate program in positive psychology and she will cross off items on her to-do list such as hiking Mount Fuji and visiting Nagasaki.

But Leslie is more excited about her return. She will be able to read signs and understand conversations again. Jen will be five minutes away. Leslie's parents will come back to the house across the street and start building their retirement home in the country.

More than Florida's beaches, more than shake-your-bones thunderstorms, more than her cats, Zeus and Lady, more than Publix Cajun turkey subs, Leslie has missed her people.

They don't bow. They touch.

Times photographer Eve Edelheit and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Katie Sanders at ksanders@tampabay.com. Follow @KatieLSanders. This story was made possible with the support of a program facilitated by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the United States-Japan Foundation.

Leslie Wier looks out on the view at a shrine at Miyajima island in Hiroshima, Japan, this past November. The former University of South Florida student teaches English at a high school in the city. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]


Leslie Wier looks out on the view at a shrine at Miyajima island in Hiroshima, Japan, this past November. The former University of South Florida student teaches English at a high school in the city. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

Here's what this high school teacher learned about life as an American in Hiroshima (w/video) 06/01/16 [Last modified: Thursday, June 2, 2016 2:12pm]
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