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By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
(The Internationalist Fall 2017 Vol. 59)
It's the kind of sunny September school day when every child in the world wants to play outside. Naturally, the courtyard at Nishimachi International School is filled with youthful shrieks and laughter that infiltrates the Matsukata House windows as I interview Gary Tateyama, class of '85. He gazes at the door as though he'd too like to be running around out there. "I'm too young to be 47," he says, with a charming grin. "I'll be 48 soon, and that's way too old. I still feel 20." In fact, I assure him, he looks closer to 20 than his actual age. "That comes from being active, and keeping the mindset of a child," he tells me.
"Active" might be an understatement, I soon determine. "I do gym stuff, like Zumba and cardio kickboxing, about 3 to 4 days a week," Tateyama admits. In addition, he's recently signed up for a Spartan Race, where the goal is "to kill yourself, apparently," he groans. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I've done the Camp Pendleton 10K race through mud, and I've done ridiculous obstacle challenges. But with this one, I'm in for a lot because it's hard upper-body work."
Tateyama spent his comparatively relaxing toddler years in Colorado. His father's job with Beckman Instruments, the medical tools manufacturer, moved the family first to Georgia for 3 years, then California for 4 years, and finally to Tokyo, to help Beckman compete with Hitachi. "At the US going-away party for my dad, there was this big picture of him standing with a samurai sword, saying 'slash Hitachi' or something like that," Tateyama says.
ADR (Ain't Doin' Right)
What for his father was a samurai posting held for Gary the trials of the ronin. "I was not a happy camper to come here," he recalls. "I cried myself to sleep every night before we moved to Japan." Aside from parting with junior high friends, Gary's family also chose to leave behind their pets, fearing the strict quarantine period would be too stressful for them. "We gave one dog to our friends, and had to give away the other one through the Pennysaver, along with my goldfish, Fred," Tateyama says.
For some kids, relocation is a breeze, but for others, it's traumatic. Tateyama is refreshingly honest about the challenges he encountered during his first few months at Nishimachi International School. Though he had amassed "a ton" of good friends in California, Tateyama was a fairly shy teenager. Not so his sister, Tanya ('86). "She made about forty-two friends right away, but it was a lot harder for me to meet new people," he says.
When Tateyama joined Nishimachi International School, the 8th grade had 13 students, a dauntingly tight group in which Tateyama had to find his place. Back in California, where he had pulled straight A's at school, he had studied together with similar high-achievers from his large classes. At Nishimachi International School, he brought his usual game, asking lots of challenging and competitive questions. "That did not go over too well here," Tateyama says. "I even had a teacher pull me aside and say, 'hey, you might want to tamp it down a bit, because other classmates have complained.' "
BAR (Bright, Alert, and Responsive)
Tateyama was smart enough to adjust to circumstances, and by 9th grade, when his class had dwindled to only 4 students, he had learned to fit in. "By then, as a class, we had grown much closer, really enjoying our time together, and I was the only foreigner. My Japanese social studies class was me, that was it. Me and Mr. [John] Engstrom. I had no one to help answer the questions, no one to copy off of," he laughs "Social studies is one of my least favorite subjects, but one-on-one with a teacher, it was less rigid or boring. I had some say in the way the course went."
Among his teachers, Tateyama remembers having tea time with English teacher Robert Zielinski who sometimes let his students get ice cream at Baskin & Robbins, as well as Susan Feringer-Coury, who led the class trip to China. "I ran into Feringer a decade ago, with her husband and two children," Tateyama says, "and I still see her posts on Facebook, too."
Tateyama reserves his teacher superlatives for Jill Damplo and Dan Fujino. "Jill was my most fun teacher, and she made geometry, the Pythagorean theorem and stuff, fun, but honestly, I don't remember it anymore because I don't use it that much," he admits. "Dan Fujino was my favorite, though," Tateyama says, "but it's funny to realize that back then, in computer class we were learning DOS!" Clearly, what was taught is not as important in Tateyama's mind as how it was taught, and how relationships were formed. "I still keep touch with Fujino," he says, and mentions his plans to visit his teacher in Canada soon.
Tateyama's time at Nishimachi International School was full of basketball games, ski trips, and hanging with classmates Taichu J. ('85) and Riko v. S. ('85) as well as with Tom J. ('86), one year below him. The picture he paints of his time on campus is staid, for the most part, except when earthquakes occurred. "Those were really fun," he says, to my surprise. "The whole Matsukata House would move. I remember being in the computer lab on the second floor and all the tables would shake violently. I enjoyed that. I've always liked earthquakes," he says. Sorry to put a damper on things, I inform him that in 2009, the Matsukata House was made earthquake-proof. He nods, sadly.
You might think the kind of kid who likes shaking buildings is the sort who gets into mischief. "Nope," Tateyama says proudly. "I was a goody-two-shoes and actually, I got buzzed my senior skip day on wine coolers. That's how wild and crazy I was." Something in the tilt of my head makes him think back, harder. "Okay, yeah, my sister Tanya and I went to a disco once, and we drank the gin fizzes and the berry fizzes, all that fizzy stuff," he allows, "but then we came home. My mom gave us the lecture about how disappointed she was that we drank anything, and I took that to heart."
It occurs to me, at last, to ask about Tateyama's family, and the role that Japanese language played in his Nishimachi International School studies. Because his father is third-generation Japanese-American, and his mother is "an English-Irish-German-Scotch-Dutch very white blond," Japanese was new to the whole family. Tateyama enjoyed the patient lessons of Toshiko Ohta, but insists that it was entirely possible to get around Tokyo without any Japanese language at all.
When Tateyama talks about a gift from a neighbor that made him feel at home in Japan, his entire demeanor relaxes. "We lived at the Homat Riviera, and one night my parents went to a party, where my parents got a puppy as a souvenir." I allow as to how I go to parties all the time in Japan and I've never received a puppy as a party favor. "Apparently you go to the wrong parties," he quips. "When my parents came home that night, I was sleeping, and they put the puppy, Aki, on my chest. She came with us when we moved back to the states, and lived to be about 16. We got a Samoyed later, named Yuki, to go with her," he recalls.
Tateyama completed high school at ASIJ, and by then had amassed a solid group of friends. Upon graduation, he matriculated at Colorado State University, bringing his peregrinations full-circle. As an undergraduate—during which time the goody-two-shoes thing ended, he notes—he harbored a vague predilection to follow in his mother's footsteps as a teacher. By his junior year, however, it had dawned on him that veterinarians could command a much better salary. "Anyway, I love animals," he says, "so I thought that I could do that. But, it turns out that it's harder to get into vet school than even med school."
In fact, according to recent figures from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, in the U.S., over 7,000 graduates apply for the 3,800 slots available for vet degrees. At med schools, the pool of applicants totals about 53,000, for 21,000 spots. The odds at getting into vet school might appear better, but in addition to pre-med classes, those who hope to matriculate at vet school need to take regular pre-med classes as well as clock in hundreds of hours of hands-on animal work, attend classes in animal biology, animal nutrition, vertebrate embryology, and zoology.
"There was an organic chemistry class required," Tateyama recalls, "which knocked a lot of people out of the running. I was THIS close," he says, his thumb and forefinger a dog's hair apart, "to quitting. I had transfer papers in my hand, to transfer into education. But I'd heard rumors that entrance requirements were about to accept a less difficult organic chem class, so I took the chance. I'm so glad I did. I'm not sure I have the real patience it takes to teach."
By the time Tateyama got accepted to the vet program at Colorado State University, his life began to mature and blossom in crucial ways. "I started going out a lot," he says, "and I also came out about that time, too. I confided in my sister first. My mom knew from when I was about 22, I think." Tateyama then says that he only told his father after his parents decided to dissolve their 38-year marriage.
"My dad has the Tateyama temper. We do have that running through the family, so my dad and I didn't have the closest relationship growing up," Gary says. "But when my parents got divorced, the good thing about it was that my dad came to re-evaluate himself. He and I got closer, and that's when I came out to him as being gay." It's a mark of Tateyama's sensitivity that he confided in his father by email first, providing his dad with time to think things over. "His response was really nice," he says, smiling. "He was very supportive."
Tateyama's life seems one of good timing and cultivated connections. During his college years, he returned to California over summers to work with vet Dr. Steve Dunbar. Tateyama started with kennel duty, then worked his way up to a tech assistant position. When he graduated from vet school, Dunbar called him up and offered him a post at his practice's emergency facilities, working the overnight shift. "I've been working with Dr. Dunbar now for twenty-seven years, with twenty-one as a veterinarian," Tateyama says, now a daytime practitioner.
Tateyama currently works at the Yorba Regional Animal Hospital in Anaheim. "We're in 16,000 square feet of space, have 13-14 doctors on staff fulltime, and I see an average of 20-25 cases a day," Tateyama tells me. Recently acquired by the VCA Animal Hospitals corporation, joining over 700 practices in the US and Canada, the hospital is big and busy."
"People come in and say, 'oh, this place is just like a REAL hospital,' or 'you're like a REAL doctor.' We are, and we do the exact same thing as your doctor does," Tateyama says, adding that many vets find their clients don't 100% respect them. "It's not an easy time to be in the service industry. On Yelp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, people bash us and are rude, and post how, heaven forbid, we actually charge for our services. That takes its toll on us. Our profession has one of the highest suicide rates of all professions, even above dentists. People just assume, because we love animals, we should do everything for free, which we can't. Staff, equipment, facilities, and insurance all cost money," he adds.
Having been on the receiving end of vet bills before, I mention experiencing the sticker shock of animal care. "But," Tateyama says, "We vets didn't devote 8 years of our lives to make money. We work 10-14 hour days, and one of the things I teach my students is communication, to understand what clients can afford and explore options."
Beauty and the Beast
While most clients have gratitude for Tateyama's services, occasionally he stimulates other emotions too. "I had a lady come in with a hamster, about 2-inches long, listless, dehydrated, hardly moving," he says, "so I gave it some sugar, made an oxygen tent for it out of tongue-depressors and a canister, and gave him fluids under his skin. The next morning that thing was running around like crazy. Apparently I did something right." Tateyama then made the routine follow-up call. "The daughter picks up the phone and yells out 'Mom, it's the hamster doctor!' The mom gets on, then she proceeds to ask me out." Tateyama was, at the time, surrounded by his vet techs who were listening in on his half of the conversation. "They busted out laughing," he says, listening to him worm out of the situation. "I hadn't come out to my co-workers yet," he explains. Once he hung up, he let everyone know the score: "I told them, (1) the woman already had a daughter, (2) she has hamsters, and (3) she's a woman. My co-worker, Lisa, said 'Oooooh.'"
Luckily for Tateyama, not all of his clients are hamster women. "This man came in with his mom and their dog Buttercup, who had an abscess on the knee," he recalls. "I saw the guy, and thought 'attractive,' and then one of my staff said, 'Hey Gary, I think that guy likes you, because he was asking about your license plate with the rainbow paw prints on it.' When he came back in to pick up Buttercup, I made sure I was on duty. But I ended up busy with a dog that was seizuring and one that was severely bleeding, so I couldn't talk to him much." Nonetheless, on that all-important follow-up call, Tateyama said he was heading to a club with friends, and invited Kyle to come along. Tateyama's friends all bailed on him that night, so he and Kyle were alone. "By the end of the night, I knew it was a date," Tateyama says, "and 13 years later here we are."
Of those years, Gary and Kyle have been married for eight. Tateyama's own father helped pay for the wedding, and the three often get together for dinner.
Between the Bark and the Bite
Gazing at Tateyama's hands, I see a map of injuries, including one salient scar. "That's from a suitcase," he says, laughing. But others come from animals, of course—it's part of the job. "I'm usually faster than the animals are, and I can handle aggressive animals really well," Tateyama says reassuringly.
When I ask for a few exciting highlights, Tateyama comes up with two doozies. "I had to perform an owner-present euthanasia on a red-tailed catfish," he says, adding "I've heard catfish are delicious, but I don't cook my patients." Then there was the sick six-foot water monitor lizard. "I was on the other side of the room, cause the owner had a hard time handling it, and it has very large teeth," Tateyama says. He tossed over antibiotics from a safe distance.
Listening to his wonderful stories, I ask Tateyama if Nishimachi International School helped him carve out a successful career in any specific way. "I didn't like it here in Japan," he admits, "but as it turns out, I couldn't wait to come back. Coming [to Nishimachi International School] helped me appreciate other cultures. I now have friends from Sweden, Norway, China, India, Pakistan. Looking back, I realize you can understand conceptually that there are other cultures in the world, but you become more accepting if you tangibly feel other cultures and their ways of life." Given that it's often a zoo out there, his sentiments strike me as well-vetted indeed.