Natsuko Shibata, a Tokyo native, and Piyasena Perera, a Sri Lankan-American born in Los Angeles, met two decades ago in New York when they were both studying at Columbia University.
Natsuko was studying for a master’s degree in Japanese-language pedagogy, while Piya (short for Piyasena) was a law student. They met through a mutual friend at a Christmas party, and started dating after Natsuko moved to Washington to write her Ph.D. dissertation at Georgetown University while Piya began working at a law firm in New York. Piya’s sister happened to live in Washington at the time so he had a good excuse to see Natsuko whenever he visited his sister.
Their long-distance relationship continued more than four years until they were married in 1995. The couple moved to San Francisco, where Natsuko gave birth to two children — Fernanda Michiko, now 11, and Frederic Sho, 8. In 2002, when Frederic was 3 months old, they decided to come to Japan to live in Tokyo’s Shibuya area, so that they would be close to Natsuko’s parents. Today, Natsuko is a university lecturer and Piya is an American attorney.
What language do you use with each other?
Natsuko: We spoke in English when we first met in the U.S.
Piya: After we moved to Japan, the main language became Japanese.
What language do you speak to your children?
Piya: I’ve been talking to the children in English, more so lately, after we decided to put them into international school starting this fall. (The children earlier attended a local Japanese school.)
Natsuko: I talk to the children in Japanese. It’s my mother tongue, and I also feel that as a Japanese language teacher, it’s important to teach them Japanese. I want them to become bilingual, though.
Do you experience any cultural differences in everyday life?
Piya: I had difficulty getting used to the Japanese notion of “family bath.” I was a little confused when my wife told me to take a bath with our children, as this type of bonding with children doesn’t exist in the U.S.
Natsuko: I told Piya that fathers usually bathe children in Japan! (To Piya) You enjoyed it in the end, though, didn’t you?
I also felt that the way in which we make decisions is different. Whenever I need to decide something, I always ask Piya for his opinion first. I also ask for his consent once the decision is made. I feel that I’m “Japanese” in this way. On the other hand, Piya always has his own, concrete views from the beginning. It’s not that he doesn’t ask me what I think, but he normally already has his mind made up when he asks me for my opinion. Piya once said to me: “I’m independent, you’re dependent. Both of us must be codependent.” I feel that this kind of thinking is the key to a successful international marriage.
What were your parents’ reaction to the marriage?
Piya: My parents had already passed away, so Natsuko did not meet my parents. When my relatives met Natsuko, they commented what a kind person Natsuko was. On the other hand, Natsuko’s parents were a little surprised about us getting married.
Natsuko: They weren’t against the marriage, though. I was thinking that my dad would be against it, but he said that he believed in my judgment, as he was confident that they (her parents) raised me up properly. He also said that if my partner is a good man, then there’s no problem. However, my mom was worried about my getting married and living in a foreign country.
What was the wedding like?
Natsuko: We had a wedding at the small chapel of Georgetown University, an old chapel with beautiful stained glass. My parents and my younger sister came from Japan to celebrate the day.
Piya: My family and friends were also there.
Natsuko: We didn’t have a wedding in Japan, so we gave a 10th anniversary party in 2005 at the Chinzan-so (wedding ceremony hall) in Mejiro Ward. My parents had their wedding there, too. My sister recited a Shakespearean sonnet, my cousin played the piano, while there was also a presentation of a sword dance. I wore a kimono and Piya wore a “hakama.” Family, friends and relatives all told us that it’s great to celebrate a decade’s marriage in this way.
What are your plans/dreams for the future?
Natsuko: We might go and live in the U.S. or one of the Asian countries in the future. Also, I really want to go to Sri Lanka and look into Piya’s family roots.
Piya: I want to build our own house. (Piya was an architect before becoming an attorney.)
Natsuko: I also have dreams for the children. It would be great if our daughter played the violin in an orchestra, and if our son became strong in kendo.
Piya: I want them to go to a good university (in the U.S.), and to experience and learn many, many things there.