ow does a Cordova boy end up 6,800 miles from home, writing children’s books and teaching English to young kids?
It’s a long story that starts in California, where R.B. Bailey Jr. was serving in the Navy when Desert Shield/Desert Storm began. He got to see a good portion of the world — but not Japan, a country he was curious about.
After returning home he “bounced around several jobs,” spending eight years at Alabama Moulding (where he came to enjoy woodworking) plus a variety of stints including Cobb Theater, Coca-Cola, Jack’s, and selling Kirby vacuum cleaners.
It was in 1995 that he came across an ad for “pen-friends” in other countries, and began corresponding with a woman in Japan. The relationship got its start on old-fashioned pen and paper. “I didn’t own anything electronic,” R.B. recalls. “I didn’t even have a pager.”
Eventually he flew to Japan for a two-week visit, which was the first time he and his wife-to-be met in person. Then came another visit, even though he “knew zero,” he says, of the Japanese language. “I really knew nothing about the country itself. I wish I had studied up on Japan a little before moving here,” he says. “That would cause problems for me later on.”
The two married in 1999, and she moved to America. But when his wife became homesick he took the big step of moving to Japan to live, despite the language barrier. What was Japan like, to a new visitor? “It was very exotic for a country boy from Walker County,” he says.
“I would say the average person in Japan knows at least some words and phrases in English, like ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘I like.’ Most of them make an honest effort to speak English when approached by a foreigner, even if they have to stumble to find the words.”
Nowadays R.B. works for a major nursery school group in Tokyo, rotating visits among their dozen locations on a bi-weekly basis, and providing child care along with English lessons to some 300 children. He takes the train into the big city each day from his home in Kawagoe (pronounced Kow-wa-go-eh). (The city was once called Kowedo (Kah-wed-o), which translates as “little Tokyo.”)
There was one part of his transition to Japan that he didn’t find difficult at all. “I love all Japanese food, hands down. My favorite is ramen. And Western restaurants aren’t hard to find. A lot of Americans and other Westerners live in Tokyo. There are several chain restaurants, such as Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. There are also a few import stores that sell a variety of Western foods and brands, so there’s a taste of home for everybody.”
What customs would seem the strangest to an Alabamian? “What surprised me was a system where you can pay your bills at most convenience stores. And the health care system here is mandatory, but it’s very affordable.
“Another big difference is the transportation system. It’s second to none. You truly don’t need a car to get around. There are three trains from Kawagoe to Tokyo, which makes going to the city much easier. Overall, there are 148 different lines and 2,200 stations. Trains are the bloodline of Tokyo and surrounding areas, and certainly the most reasonable way of commuting.”
His new children’s book, “A New Neighbor,” is the first in a series. It had its origins between 2002 and 2005 when he worked as a “dispatch English teacher,” traveling to students’ homes each day to give English lessons. “The students would ask all kinds of questions about America, and many of them said they wanted to live there or visit there someday. That was the inspiration.”
An illustrated book, “The New Neighbor” is designed to be a beginning English-as-a-second language reader for students. “It’s about a young Japanese boy and his family who move to America. While there, he learns about American culture and shares his Japanese culture with his new friends.”
The book is available from Amazon, Kindle, Google Play books, and on independent booksellers’ websites. Closer to home, there’s a copy in the Jasper library.
His earlier two books include “The Old School,” set in 1930s Alabama, “about two brothers who plan to build their dream clubhouse during their summer vacation, until things happen.” “Alpine” is about two brothers who build a snowman on Christmas Day.
One of the interests R.B. lists on his Facebook home page is “aspiring voice talent.” “Voice talent is something I got interested in last year,” he says. “I’ve been able to do voices, such as Ronald Reagan, Popeye, and Randy Savage for a while, but I want to get into narration. ”I registered with DAG Music in Tokyo, and went in to record a demo for them. They said I had a good voice, especially for video games. I was thrilled to hear that, so I went out and rented a recording booth for a few hours after work one day to make my own demo tape. So we’ll see what happens.”
The last time R.B. visited home was in 2008. His family no longer lives in Cordova, but he has many schoolmates and friends there.
Does he ever plan to return home and live? “I can’t honestly say at this point, but I haven’t given any thought to it. I spent a lot of my childhood bouncing around from town to town, and I don’t want that for our son Alex, who’ll be five in September. I want him to have roots.”
Dale Short’s email address is email@example.com