Keiko Ito has been taking on big challenges most of her adult life. The veteran Park City school teacher's latest endeavor - becoming an American citizen. Her account of that process, and how she involved her students, is inspiring. Ito, a "green card" holder for 26 years, says she'd been thinking of citizenship for a long time. Events over the last three years finally convinced her the time had come.
Born into a "nontraditional" family in Tokyo, Japan, Ito attended the American School in Japan. "That's where most Americans living and working in Japan sent their children," she explains. "My father was a musician and vocalist and my mother owned a beauty salon. They knew that learning English would be important after the war."
Ito was bilingual by age six. Later, she parlayed the skill into jobs. "I was 16 when my mother told me I wouldn't get an allowance anymore. So I started teaching English to kids in the neighborhood for money." Soon she was working as a translator and interpreter. She worked with singer Stevie Wonder, guitarist Carlos Santana and tennis player John McEnroe.
Ito attended Sophia University in Tokyo, where she took a bachelor's degree in comparative culture. She married in her late 20s and followed her husband to the United States, living in far-flung places from New York, to Pennsylvania, to Montana. The couple had two children together. Emmett is now 26 and Penelope is 23.
The couple moved to Park City from Hershey, Pa., in 2000. "We remembered our time in Montana and wanted to move back out west to the mountains and the clean air," says Ito. She took a teaching job in the Park City school district, which she held for several years. She and her former husband also owned the original "Good Karma" restaurant on Park Avenue, which many Parkites will remember for its tasty Indian/Pakistani and Japanese cuisine. The food was healthy and affordable.
After closing the original restaurant and divorcing, Ito essentially reinvented herself from the ground up.
"I taught both English and Japanese as a foreign language for about three decades," she says. "I had studied Spanish in school, so when I started teaching English as a second language (ESL) part-time to the Hispanic community in town about 15 years ago, I got more interested in really learning and teaching their language. I enjoyed teaching ESL for years and my relationships with many of my Hispanic adult students continue to this day. I try to be an advocate for younger Hispanic students and enjoy assisting them in their high school and college planning."
When her mother became seriously ill in 2010, Ito took a leave of absence and went back to Tokyo to care for her. "I had to face the possibility of calling Tokyo home again after 26 years of calling the U.S. my home," she recounts. "As much as I've always loved Tokyo, I found I was no longer compatible with such a huge city. I longed for the mountains, clean air, blue sky and slower pace of Park City. When my mother recovered, I returned here with her blessing and a clear understanding that Park City was home for me."
In March 2011, just a month after Ito's return, Japan was struck by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left thousands dead and huge areas in ruins. The tragic event shook Ito to the core. "I felt I had to do something," she says. "A lot of my friends called to ask if my family was safe and what they could do to help. I started thinking about how I could help the people of Japan and also make this a learning experience for Park City school students, sort of a 'win-win' situation."
Ito decided she could best serve by acting as a conduit in the humanitarian relief effort. She created "PC Unites for Japan" and started a fundraising campaign in all the local schools, both public and private. "We put donation jars in every classroom and began collecting money. I also asked the schools to donate 'spirit wear,' sweatshirts and T-shirts with their school logos. We ended up with $8,000."
Ito flew to Tokyo with the money and clothes, drove with volunteers to northern Japan and distributed them in the area most impacted by the disaster. She says it was very emotional for her. "We had a barbeque for everyone and let them pick out shirts. I got it all on camera so I could show the students back home how their efforts really helped people. The spirit shirts in the hands of victims was a strong image that helped the kids understand that our efforts in Park City reached far-away Japan."
Ito was deeply impacted by these recent events in her life. "I had this powerful new realization and reconfirmation that Park City was really my home," she confides. "I decided on my return that the time had finally come to apply for American citizenship." In typical fashion, she used the process as yet another 'teachable moment' for her students. "I got the middle school students at Park City Day School involved. We did a mock immigration interview using the questions on the very long citizenship application form. They also took the American civics test required of every applicant. Some of the questions were very thought provoking. It was real experiential learning and we all discussed and reflected on what it means to be an American citizen."
With her testing and documentation completed, Ito attended a small swearing-in ceremony in Salt Lake City in August. "There were 22 of us, representing 17 different countries, and we all took the oath together. My son, Emmett, was there and he said it was the most touching thing he'd ever seen."
The newly-minted citizen says Park City is where she's meant to be. She plans to continue teaching at Park City Day School, where she practices her mantra for life every day: "I do what I can and I do it the best that I can."
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at email@example.com