A freedom flashback

June 1986

Independence Day 2020 finds us captive to both a lethal virus and a shameful history that has denied many citizens a fair shot at the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness promised at our nation’s founding.

So today, instead of feeling festive, I am reflecting on the idea of freedom, thanks to a flashback from my youth.

The year was 1986. I was sixteen years old and in Japan for the first time, spending eight weeks with the people I now consider my Japanese family. Living in their three-generation household, I went to school and various gatherings with my host sisters, learned to do laundry with my host grandma, and toured castles and temples with my host mom and dad.

As far as I know, I was the first exchange student to spend time in their seaside town, so wherever we went, I ended up fielding questions and observations. Because few people there spoke much English, these were usually delivered without a lot of nuance. And because I spoke only the most basic Japanese, so were my answers.

I remember one visit with a couple of students about my age in which they observed, “In America, you have so much freedom. It must be nice.”

Their comment stopped me. Really? I have so much freedom?

I mean, yes, that was the Cold War era, and I knew full well that unlike kids in some other parts of the world, I had the opportunity to choose my future occupation, who I spent time with, where I would go and when, and how I would live out my faith. (And of course I would later learn that those “kids in some other parts of the world” included many in my own country.)

But I remember thinking at the time, No, my life is not full of freedom. At home, in Minnesota, I needed to ask permission to go out with my friends, to have friends over or to use the family car. And my parents always had veto power. I needed to behave politely, do well in school, be disciplined with my piano practice and return home at whatever time my parents set. That was how our household functioned and, in general, it worked pretty well.

I asked my acquaintances to elaborate on their idea of freedom, and listened as they described how hard they had to study and how they always needed to obey their parents and teachers.

It did not sound much different from my life back home, and I wondered if they had gotten their impressions of American teen freedom from the movies.

“In America, you can do whatever you want, right?” my acquaintances asked wistfully.

I didn’t have the Japanese language skills to go very deep, but I recall having clarity about how to respond:

“Freedom is complicated,” I told them. “It only works if my freedom ends where yours begins.”

I do not know where exactly my sixteen-year-old self’s definition of freedom came from, but I stand by it today.

As we debate how to respond to soaring Covid-19 infection rates and how to make things right for every citizen of these United States, it seems this would be a helpful starting point: to identify where we knowingly and unknowingly inflict our own overly entitled sense of freedom on others.


Sarah Coomber is the author of The Same Moon, a memoir about what happened when she abandoned her wrecked Minnesota life to spend two years teaching English in Yamaguchi, Japan.

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