Letters link two young lives Pen pals: Two girls who had never met read 'friendship' between the lines for 13 years. It took a wedding for them to meet.

August 11, 1998|By Young Chang | Young Chang,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

When she finally arrived, after a journey of almost 7,000 miles from her Pikesville home, Kara Silberg broke into tears. There before her in the train station in Tokyo, Japan, stood a woman she knew intimately, a woman whose wedding she had come to take part in, a woman she had never met.

After 13 years of letters and photographs, but nothing more tangible than an annual birthday package, Kara had to reach out and poke Eri Okuba to make sure she was really there. The notion that her longtime pen pal stood inches away suddenly seemed ideal, even surreal.

And so she cried. And so did Eri.

"Everybody was crying," Kara's mother, Fay Silberg, recalls of their July 23 meeting. Kara and her parents, Eri and her sister Yuka, they all "ended up hugging and crying as if they were long-lost relations," she says. "I didn't expect that to happen. ... I felt like I knew them."

You might think that Eri wouldn't just ask Kara to come halfway around the world to speak at her wedding. You might think that Kara would have nothing to say about someone she had never actually met. But for the two young women, there was nothing to think about. There was nothing more pressing than meeting in person after 13 years of merely written correspondence. And Kara had plenty to say.

"When I received word of Eri's engagement," she wrote in the speech she made at the wedding, "I thought back to the letters Eri sent me years ago about dreams of her wedding day. In 1994, Eri wrote, 'When I hold a wedding some day I want to invite you. Will you attend a wedding party? But I do not know when I will get married. I need to find a nice man first.'"

Eri found a man, a nice man named Ayumi Taga, and so Kara traveled 17 hours across the globe to the wedding. "It kinda felt like a sister getting married," she says.

Their differences, apparent since the very beginning, still distinguish them today. Kara, 21, is a recent graduate of Franklin and Marshall College looking forward to coaching lacrosse at Bowdoin College in the fall. Eri, 27, has lived in Japan all her life, and soon will be joining the family business -- an optical business that sells eyeglasses as well as hearing aids.

The pen pals "met" for the first time in 1985, when Kara was in fourth grade at Park School. Eri was a ninth grader. Their first letters back and forth were part of a program designed to teach Park's fourth-graders about communication, and Eri's ninth grade classmates about written English.

Each girl was only required to write two letters, but two gradually grew to nearly three hundred.

The difference in their ages "didn't mean a thing" back then, Kara says. It didn't matter when they finally met in person either, she says. "Couldn't even tell." And neither did the fact that though Eri can write English very well, she speaks it just "OK."

"Girls have that secret way of talking anyway," says Kara. And after 13 years of telling each other everything and anything in their writing, all they had to do was look at each other to know what the other was thinking.

"She's always been an outlet," Kara says, "... and we've never fought -- how do you fight [through letters]? ... She was always so excited for me, always seemed so genuinely happy for me."

Not that there wasn't some trepidation at the idea of meeting face to face, of testing an ideal friendship, one untainted by the boredom of spending too much time together and fueled by mystery about the other. The outcome could have been disappointing. What were the chances, after all, that Eri would meet Kara's idealized expectations, or vice versa?

'Everything she did was like perfect," Kara says of watching Eri interact with others. "She couldn't have been more ideal. ... Seeing someone face to face, it brings everything to life."

For her part, Eri was apparently more "nervous and excited" about meeting Kara than about her wedding. Kara, meanwhile, was nervous that cultural differences might cause awkwardness.

"Japan is very traditional," she says. "... The women aren't as outgoing or overwhelming as we are." But within a few days, Kara learned that Eri was, in fact, a "wild horse" as her new husband, Ayumi, describes her.

"She's crazy, and I love it," she says.

Pictures from the wedding pictures illustrate the two friends' fairy tale. Eri is wearing a post-wedding reception gown, a "magnificent pink ball gown," according to Kara, while her husband, Ayumi, is clad in a white suit, holding a gold sword with a flame at the tip. Photos show him going from table to table, lighting a candle at each.

Among the 300 guests, five were Americans: Kara, her parents, and two others. "In order to make us feel more comfortable, I think they invited other Americans ... Eri's English teacher and Ayumi's English teacher," says Kara.

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