How to let go of your firstborn before he goes into orbit

This gaze says it all. It’s not too unlike the presence you had when you first arrived on the planet. A new as well as a rather old intelligence. So much so, I could swear at times you’re an alien.

Mikko’s been ready

So Mikko is off to the Himalayan foothills, to Woodstock School, for his next chapter — a few verses early. He’s off — a full two years sooner than what we had in mind. But suppose this isn’t our book to write.

His brother and sister, Luca and Alita are going to sorely miss him, and his parents might have the hardest time but are just going to have to deal with it. The nest is emptying, but this bird’s been ready to fly. So yeah, early but definitely not prematurely — the timing is now, he’s been ready.

How to pack for boarding school. A backpack, duffle, two suitcases, and a military grade trunk.

Erika #akamommy will be traversing half way around the world, via his first home Tokyo and ascending the mountains for his monumental launch.


Why Mikko?

Mikko has been wanting to be in a capsule for years, so much because of the design efficiencies and economy of staying in such sparse quarters, but also because it’s a bit like the sensation Temple Grandin likes with tight quarters. Also it’s not unlike the experience for interstellar travel.

You can ascribe all of what’s happening with Mikko from his early impulses for the odyssey, always eager for journey. Some of it is definitely attributed to his DNA. Might be his Hakka (guest family) tribal heritage, thousands years of migration to become the biggest Chinese diaspora. It certainly connects to his grandparents, both sides leaving their original homes to wander the earth thrice over from Taiwan to Madrid to Brussels to the Midwest (US) to Tokyo and another grandma from the Midwest to Tokyo to Mussoorie to Cairo and back to Dehli and now Iowa. A lot is of course directly shaped by our own shared experience as a nuclear family; we have only strengthened, sharpened, and shaped his love of of the voyage by traversing not only this planet but by truly intersecting with a manifold of people and cultures.

Erika exchanging with her contact about the maguro before the auction bell

Even as I type, we went through through several dense atmospheres of cultures and subcultures from the newest Tokyo capsule hotel experience to a personal, exclusive (courtesy of sous-chef @erikajaneaoki @mtnvenice ) and perhaps the last of the old Tsukiji fish Market to the surreal, architectural spaces of the Roseate New Dehli and finally the 8 hour drive traversing the socio-economic spectrum that is modern India to finally arriving at the charming hill station of Mussoorie — and that’s all just 36 hrs (beat that NYT) of our lives.

Last morning in urban, cosmopolitan, design spaces at teh Roseate New Dehli

But I believe there is something even deeper within Mikko that is guiding him to the far reaches of our worlds. A couple years ago, when they announced an open recruitment for the first future missions to Mars, he told me he would be willing to go, even with the somewhat existential caveat of it being a one way ticket for the first pioneers. I suppose he’s going as fas as he can get now without leaving Earth’s orbit, half-way around the planet at the foothills of some of the tallest points on Earth — so, close to orbit. May this next base station for Mission Mikko launch him into next worlds.


The self-directed kid

Mikko with a view of Mussoorie behind him

Three years ago, when he was 13, Mikko said to me with the hopes of spearheading his wanderlust, “hey Papa, it doesn’t seem you and Mama are making any moves towards relocating to another city or country . . . so if you don’t move, can you move me?” Now it’s actually happening.

The view of dormitories from the path up to the main school building, the central quad where administration, classroom, and cafeteria is.

It was only a couple months ago when Mikko, always self-directed, began to set into motion the process of applying to Woodstock School. On his own, he pretty much gathered and submitted all his ID paperwork, school and medical records, shots, and all logistical details. It was only a month plus ago it became concrete to me when he told me he would be having a four hour Skype interview and exam. The next day he was accepted. Of course, the only thing he didn’t figure out was how to finance it

Library windows

Mikko somehow was urged or had this sense of urgency now, even though we’ve suggested from time to time to consider where his grandma Kaye was principal over ten years ago, and where she tied the knot with not only the late Philip Jacob (who also served for years at Woodstock) but with India, and where his uncle also had significant imprints from when he was also a teacher there almost 20 years ago. But Mikko’s enthusiasm was prompted primarily on what the current proposition is for his future.

Basketball courts below Mikko’s dorm, banners leading to main auditorium, and Indian music dept

Woodstock School

The tallest visible peaks over 20,000 ft from the top of the ridge from Woodstock School, situated in the Himalayan foothills only 70 miles from Tibet

Woodstock School is one of the oldest international schools and perhaps the best in India, but what make it distinct is the unrivaled intersection with people, culture, and nature.

The very mischievous Rhesus monkey, that I’m probably too close for comfort to.
The guards at every station use these simple slingshots to deter the monkeys
One of the guards at MIkko’s dorm
The chiller, at least wiser looking Nepal Gray Langur monkey.

Academically it’s an exceptional experience in terms of not only caliber and range but with paradigms, approaches to learning. One course that will provide new flow for Mikko is the traditional Indian music course, starting with the tabla and perhaps sitar to follow. In terms of topography, he’ll be able to hoop hopefully for the school team — at over a mile above sea level. Every day he’ll ascend and descend hundreds of feet to and fro between dorm and school. The school campus spans an altitude range of 1200 ft, encompassing over 250 acres of pine, rhododendron, and oak. From the top of the ridge, one can take in the staggering eternal snows that peak over 20,000 ft. Tibet is only 70 miles away as the crow flies.

In terms of people and culture, it’s what the world should look and feel like today, a microcosm of how human beings could gather to learn, grow, and share life together in community. It’s like the UN school but just situated in a diametrically opposite space, instead of Manhattan, it’s situated in the Himalayas. Chris Anderson, the curator and creator of what the TED Conference platform is today describes his experience at Woodstock:

“I spent seven years of my school in Mussoorie in a boarding school (Woodstock School). It was amidst the Himalayas and it was a beautiful place to grow up. You are amid nature all the time, playing in the mountains, collecting beetles, and being in an international school with kids from 30 countries also opens you up to the world. Those are the years that shaped me into the ‘global citizen’ I call myself today. In fact, India was so engrained in me that even when I shifted to England I was supporting the Indian cricket team in India-England matches for a very long time. My English friends were aghast!”

As third culture kids ourselves, @erikajaneaoki and I are very happy Mikko’s in the hotbed that is fostering tomorrow’s people. To be at a place designing for what lies ahead by building young leaders grounded with a new consciousness, truly open mindsets, a primal connection to nature, a strong sensibility for a diversity of cultural forms, and a depth of empathy and social justice that will transform humanity. That is the hope (now get to work Mikko).


Mussoorie

workers at the side of the road. two people operate the shovel, one at the handle to dig and another with a rope to pull the load of gravel as it is thrown.

Woodstock is situated in Landour, a small hill station contiguous with the town of Mussoorie. The old hill stations once served a multitude of colonials, expats as a respite from the heat of summer in the basin. Indeed, it still does. When temperatures are over 100 degrees in Dehli, here it can be can be in the 70s. But more than temperature, it is the pure flow of air through mountains and trees that provide a completely different atmosphere than the haze and pollution of megacity industry, traffic, etc.

View of Mussoorie from the school
man surveying the view of the Mussoorie village
Golden’s, where my brother and Mark continued to feast despite warnings (from others) and signs (from the body) | the bar at The Savoy

We passed through some old haunts (not because they were frequented, at least by me, but because they were actually haunting). The infamous Golden’s that haunted my brother’s bowels for a solid year with their butter chicken. We had lunch at The Savoy, now completely restored, nearly returned to its past glory. The last time we visited was with my brother and Mark Bradby. It was like some deleted scene from The Shining where we entered an empty ballroom-like dining hall with trophies of deer and other creatures hung around us with such eroded pelt that mostly their skeletons looked down upon us. And a single butler-like server appeared out of nowhere to dust off a table, cutlery, and dishware, and somehow food was served from some kitchen. We were completely alone. This time lunch was welcoming, comfy and yummy. Up on the ridge at Char Dukan (Four Shops), we met Anil again after so many years. 18 years ago he fed my brother almost nightly with chips and bun omelet. Before departing we even got a few seconds connection to have him FaceTime with Sam. There was something almost Interstellar (like the film)-like where time and distance collapse in a moment.

Anil. Haven’t changed much in 18 years. He fed my brother and Mark almost nightly from his little stall. The dish was bun omlet and chips

Happy Valley

One of the most wondrous corners of the hill station is Happy Valley, where the Dalai Lama first settled in his first year after being exiled from Tibet in April 1959 before he moved to Dharamsala. It is still home to 5000 Tibetan refugees. There are Tibetan-style homes, a school, and Tibetan Monastery there to serve the community. The location of the valley seems to have an almost magical warmth and brightness from the sun, all illuminating the vast scapes of green hills that rise towards the greater Himalayas. In particular, the climb up a path guided by prayer flags brings one to a precipice where you feel you are surrounded by both heaven and earth, a true sacred space. #

Sisters in Happy Valley
girl with box of water delivered to stand on ridge path. behind me is the climb up with prayer flags.
the light always seems magical here

Mikko’s room

After we set up Mikko’s new room

Mikko is at Clifton Hostel, his first dormitory life. He shares a room with two other 11th graders, one who seems to have lived in every continent and country. And another one who shares the name with one of our best friends, Nalin who I shared house with in college. In an old-world kind of way, every student brings trunks beside suitcases, and they even have tuck boxes for storing delicacies from home (which Erika has just read to us about from “Going Solo”, one from the autobiographical series by Roald Dahl).

I ended up getting Mikko a military grade, weather sealed pelican trunk which I thought would be nice for the varied humidities of the climate, but I probably went overboard and it’s not so classy or classic. As it turns out, all our preparations on wardrobe, supplies, and equipment ended up perfectly calibrated. And it was nice for Erika and me to help him unpack, label his clothes, set up desk and closets, make his bed — for perhaps the last time. This was especially important for Erika. These minutiae are not trivial, it’s the little things that define the whole, the substance of things. Now we feel connected. And as he wakes up and walks up the hill half a planet away to his first day of classes today, we are now familiar and intimately connected to that world.


Adieu

We left Mikko at the guard station above his dormitory. Before that, we returned to Rokeby’s Manor to have a nice last breakfast together, and Erika managed to finish reading the last pages of Going Solo by Roald Dahl in the car as we neared the school, before dropping Mikko off and heading towards Dehradun airport. Honestly, I thought farewells and goodbyes would be a little harder. Yes, we were going to be apart, far away, yet at the same time, we are only becoming closer. Journeying here, being here together formed a co-presence that somehow transcends space-time. He is with us, and we are with him.

View of Woodstock School as we drive off to Dehradun

Of course, the missing is palpable, but more so, the presence is real. I think about all the everyday moments we could have shared — a meal, a walk, commutes, errands, all the sweetness of the banal and mundane of life, as well as all the spectacular experiences of nearby excursions or far off expeditions, our shared adventures with art, music, culture and nature immersions. But they are an alternate reality, what is present for Mikko is this distinct experience with its own adventures and explorations that is unlike anything he would experience back on the west side of LA. The unmistakable good and benefit of his experience there not only eases the goodbyes and longings but underscores the truth, that we are once again, and only continuing to co-create this odyssey. Of course, it also helps to see it as a discrete story or film, that’ll last only a couple hours. In fact, if it were a film, it would be a Wes Anderson one, like a mashup of Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore and Grand Budapest.

Last breakfast at Rokeby Manor before our departure

Aparna and Runi

Runi speaks in Hindi, English and colors and numbers.

Want to add one more post from the Himalayas. Apart from Landour-Mussoorie, Woodstock School, and Mikko’s immersion into his new natural habitat and cultural milieu, there are of course the individuals that he will interact with and hopefully create deep, life-long relationships with.

The first people we encountered was already family, and though it was our first meeting, it was somehow intimately dear. Aparna and Runi are the daughters of the late Philip Jacob, who married Mikko’s grandmother Kaye(they met while working at Woodstock). Andrew, Aparna’s husband was away at a conference, and Runi was home for summer holiday.

Being welcomed, the soft light illuminating the lush greens surrounding Lady, and a parting shot
An icon from her travels to visit Kaye and Philip in Egypt, appropriately above Aparna. She took care of Mikko with bottled water for the initial few days while he acclimates to the local source.

If I may share, after only days with them, some remarkable impressions. Aparna is super chill; her calm, ease, patience is very present throughout. Her tremendous ability to feel and embrace the actualities of life with love and tenacity is inspiring. It is evident with the recent loss of her father, and present in the everyday work of caring for her sister Runi, now over decades while also caring for her own two children. There seems to be an abundance of empathy, grace, and constancy. And Aparna founded and runs Arunima (named after Runi), an assisted living center for adults with autism.

Runi and Mikko basking in her favorite, Pete Sampras’s video emission.

Runi, different in many respects to her sister, has lived with autism, but even more significantly she has lived with Aparna. She also shares in their understanding, grace, and loyalty. Her dynamic with Aparna is both playful and plain-spoken, reliant yet free; and there’s a simple, true expression of love in their relationship. That love is unequivocal. And as much as she’s dependent on Aparna, Runi is such an independent person — full of charisma, warmth, and wonder. I enjoyed so much her take on the world, her artwork, her constructions of language, symbols, and significance. Her personality brims with joy, spunk, and wit.

Aparna taking care of Mikko with his favorite fruit for breakfast, princes is still asleep, and the view of the Bazaar from their home.

They are both saints in their own right, emitting light and truth to those around them. In them, I find a true portrayal of symbiosis, an interdependence where the framing is not those in need and those who give, rather that we are all in need, and we all need to give. Thank you Runi and Aparna for sharing your space and time with us.

The morning of Erika and my departure. Apartna on the phone to arrange a car to pick us up

Always Returning

Landour-Mussoorie / Dehradun / Delhi / Tokyo / LA

Brian Eno has an instrumental, ambient track called Always Returning. The structure and flow of the piece are seemingly repetitious and yet it has a passage. Like many of his pieces, there’s a looping motif, and this one seems to spiral so that on one axis you keep moving forward, and yet on all other axes, you are all the time tracking on a familiar arc. This was the exact sentiment as we departed from Mikko and began our journey back to southern California, but were we going home? Where’s home? Coming and going, to and fro, there and back becoming not a blur but a singular event, ever turning, revolving, evolving.

Landour-Mussoorie / Dehradun / Delhi / Tokyo / LA — door to door in 45 hours. Space-time compressed. Even with our layover in Tokyo, we enjoyed a four hour window to have a flash of the quintessential Japanese mushiatsui (wet/hot) summer , semi (cicada) saturated trees buzzing as we walked through Ueno park while FaceTiming with Iowa, met Niklas in a smoke and salaryman filled (3 floors) cafe in Shimbashi before he took off himself for Shanghai, shopped with Kanye in the quiet of Kapital in Ebisu, met up with dear faces like Yoko and Sue at W+K Tokyo, floated across a bridge in Naka-Me, and still had time to fill our mouths with momo (Japanese peaches) from the market and noodles at Afuri, gifts from Tsutaya, and then back to Zhao Xun greeting us at every turn in Narita. All moments are both an instant and somehow an infinite.

Another cultural reference I was reminded of was the theme in the film Interstellar. Not exactly the science, physics, but the metaphysics that those stories suggest, the existential states that we all can open up to but are regrettably confined by the conventions of our cultures and personal mindsets. I kept wondering why this expedition, which had so much potential for mishaps and glitches was so fluid both practically and psychically. I believe it’s a combination of great intention and purpose, pretty solid planning and execution, but most of all an openness and trust in the flows that are outside of our own domain and control. Open eyes to see, open hands to work, open hearts to embrace as the universe wraps around you.


find Mikko’s own stories and photos here on medium or instagram