This story really starts when I was a kid in Japan. I was 10 years old. My grandma decided to pick me up and go to the United States, to Los Angeles, for two months. She told me it was a two-month vacation, but her plan was to overstay our tourist visas. And once we did that, we were suddenly undocumented immigrants, so I couldn’t go back home to visit.
Because I thought it was a vacation, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends—or my father. It was a tough time for me as it was quickly sinking into me that “Oh, this is my new home.” Kind of like a forced new home. My dad was super busy working and he had two other kids, my brother and sister, back in Japan that he was caring for. So the only way I could see him was if he came to me.
He would write me letters and, initially, I would write to him. But then it got hard to keep up with because things here got really intense. We were living in my uncle’s garage. I developed an eating disorder. I was trying to focus on the chaos immediately in front of me, so I just lost touch with him and I stopped writing back.
Fast forward about a decade: I finally got my green card and was able to leave the United States. So I was really excited to have a reunion with my father. We had drifted so far apart that I didn’t even know he had moved to Bali—he had retired there. I thought I was going to go see him in Japan. So I was like, “OK, I’m going to Bali.”
Some people go to Bali to find themselves. I went to find my father. He met me at the airport with his wife, my stepmom, and it was kind of awkward. I thought: “There’s so much to catch up on—my Japanese sucks now and your English is nonexistent.”
Like me, my dad doesn’t do well with awkward silences or small talk. So once we got to their place, he immediately was like, “Here’s an itinerary.” And he [was like]: Monday, we’re eating dinner here. [Your] favorite convenience store on Tuesday. He’s got me on bicycle rides. He’s got me hiking in a rice field. He’s got me going to see monkeys at the park.
I had come to Bali to connect with him, but at first I was kind of thankful because I was like, “Oh, good. We have stuff to do—we don’t have to just sit here and try to catch up on years immediately.”
Then he gets to Wednesday’s activity: the water park. The only problem? He forgot that I can’t swim. That’s the thing about not seeing someone for a long time. They forget things about you. How could I say no, though? He’s just so excited to see his daughter for the first time in a while. So I go, “OK, yeah, water park, let’s go.”
Wednesday comes around, and we get to the water park. And it turns out that, in Bali, the water park is just the ocean. What happens is a bunch of uncles bring floats and boats and cones and they just start charging people to enter—and that’s a water park. I appreciate the hustle. I live in L.A. Sometimes there are random parking lots where someone has made a sign, using a Sharpie, saying $20 dollars to park, and that’s how they make their hustle. I appreciate it!
Then he gets to Wednesday’s activity: the water park. The only problem? He forgot that I can’t swim.
We enter the park and then I find out that my dad had only bought ride tickets for me—he was just going to stand on the side and take pictures of me paragliding or whatever. I’m still a people pleaser. So I’m like,“OK, yes, I’ll get on the rides by myself—I guess—while you take pictures.”
And then we get to the paraglider.
The paraglider is, basically, a tarp. At least that’s what it looked like to me at first. You are attached to a boat and as the boat starts taking off—going really, really fast—you take off into the air with this tarp and you have to pull on these strings to control the direction. (At a certain point I thought I just want to be on the boat, not be dragged behind it.) I’m also thinking, “OK, usually before bungee jumping I think you’re supposed to sign something? And also a person usually goes with you if you’re going to jump out of an airplane—a coach or something?” But none of that. None of that with me. Of course, I was freaking out a little bit thinking, “This boat is going to drag 50 miles per hour in the ocean, I have no life vest, and I can’t swim!”
But my dad’s still waving at me, taking pictures. He looks so happy. So I’m thinking, “I can’t ruin his day. I’m going to go through with this paragliding experience.” The boat starts taking off. I run and, suddenly, I’m in the air. I’m flying in the air, screaming. That’s how I found out I’m an alto. And now I’m supposed to start figuring out how to glide back down or something!
I look down and I realize I’m too high—the people are so tiny and they just look like little tiny ants shouting at me. La la la la la la la. I think the people on the boat are shouting at me, “Pull on the string, pull that string!” But I don’t speak the language and they don’t have, like, a megaphone, so I don’t know what they’re saying. So I just start pulling on both strings frantically. By that time, I’m already seeing that the ground is getting closer and closer and closer—ground covered in rocks.
I’m flying in the air, screaming. That’s how I found out I’m an alto.
I come crashing down into rocks and I’m bleeding. What feels like all of Indonesia comes and tries to comfort me. My dad’s in this crowd of people and he pushes his way through to find me. He gets me some water to clean the blood off and frantically looks for alcohol to pour on me. Once I realize I’m OK (it was just a few scrapes), I get mad. I say, “We’re not even doing this together. This doesn’t even feel like a good reunion. I came all this way to hang out with you, but you’ve just got me doing extreme sports while you just take pictures on the side.”
Then, to my surprise, he apologizes. He says, “I did all this to tell you that I’ve really missed you. And I love you.” I say, “This was a real roundabout way to tell me that. How about, you know, beer? I like beer, you like beer. We could just catch up over a beer.”
So we found a quieter part of the beach where we just sat down and had beers. It was so cool to finally cut to the chase—suddenly, it felt like we’re beginning to make up for all those lost years.
For the rest of the trip, we did more chill things like karaoke and have dinner on the beach. We took strolls, which historically are better for catching up than, you know, rock climbing. The pacing of the plans changed. As we talked, there were even tears because we were able to open up more emotionally. One day, we cried remembering how hard it was to say goodbye to each other. And he would share good memories that I’d forgotten because I was too young.
Now, I feel closest to my dad out of all my family members. I don’t know if it’s because we both drink, and nobody else in my family does. But I feel like I can be more myself around him. So now Bali is a special place for me because it’s where my father is. It’s also memorable because I went way, way outside of my comfort zone. But the discomfort had a big payoff: I got closer to my dad. —as told to Ninna Gaensler-Debs