Chris Takaishi devoured food-court sushi in a Bethesda, Md., mall one recent afternoon, then walked, robotlike, to his car. Shoppers from many nations streamed past him, their...
WASHINGTON — Chris Takaishi devoured food-court sushi in a Bethesda, Md., mall one recent afternoon, then walked, robotlike, to his car.
Shoppers from many nations streamed past him, their foreign speech reminders that nobody here pays much attention to a 31-year-old Japanese man in a green fedora. He hopped into his Saturn and headed down a road fringed with birches, peering through the windshield at cloudless blue.
“When I see the sky,” he said, “I think I will miss this country.”
Tadakatsu Takaishi, as he was known then, came to the United States from Japan in 1989, a 15-year-old boy sent to military school by parents who thought he simply lacked discipline. In fact, those who know him say now, he had autism. Takaishi proved a survivor, learning English, eventually earning a college degree and finding a job.
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He built a life, and at its center was Herb Stutts, a longtime American University dean who treated Takaishi like a son. Then this year, Takaishi’s student visa ran out, and though everyone who knew him tried, he was not allowed to stay. So came his toughest lesson: Sometimes, hard work doesn’t change things.
Today, after one last holiday with the Stutts family, Takaishi plans to leave his American life as it began, aboard a plane, bound for an uncertain future.
Takaishi is a compactly built man who speaks elegant English in a mechanical staccato. He sends dozens of e-mails a day to friends and acquaintances but finds conversation difficult. He speaks in bullet points, relaying an encyclopedic knowledge of cars, politics and, now, immigration law.
In the Stutts family’s Potomac living room this month, he outlined Mexican President Vicente Fox’s recipe for immigrant success. “One: He or she must not quit. Two: He or she must have a goal. Three: Even if he or she faces great difficulty, he or she must accomplish his or her goal.”
When he gets emotional, Takaishi squeezes his eyes tight. Losing the battle this time, he wiped them fiercely.
Takaishi’s American memories begin at Oak Ridge Military Academy in Oak Ridge, N.C., where he was sent by his family, owners of a Tokyo-based newspaper, after failing Japan’s high-school entrance exams. He knew barely a word of English. When he wasn’t in class or alone in his room, he was walking — across the drill field, through the forest, alone in a school where “no one desired to talk to me.”
After three years at Oak Ridge, Takaishi was still in ninth grade, and Herb Stutts got a call from a friend who insured international students. Stutts had retired from American University two years earlier and founded a business assisting students in their adjustment to academic life. Would he, the friend wanted to know, help a Japanese student who was failing and had nowhere else to go?
Stutts arrived in North Carolina to find a quiet, well-dressed boy. Though Takaishi refused to make eye contact, Stutts recalled, he noticed the teenager was squinting. “Chris, have you ever worn glasses?” Stutts said he asked.
He took Takaishi to an optometrist, who diagnosed severe nearsightedness. It was the first of many difficulties Stutts noticed in Takaishi, who did not like being touched and rarely laughed, except in a movie theater, where he guffawed uproariously at cartoons.
“He had the social skills of a 7-year-old,” recalled Stutts, now 75. “But he never cut a class, never lied. … He would not give up.”
Stutts enrolled Takaishi in an English-language program offered through Yokohama Academy, at the University of Maryland. Stutts noticed that if material were presented in clear steps, Takaishi could learn it.
It took three tries, but in 1994, Takaishi passed the test for his high-school diploma.
Stutts then helped Takaishi enroll at Montgomery College in Maryland for an associate’s degree. Bill Patterson, one of Takaishi’s professors, noted his withdrawn behavior and his focus on tasks rather than relationships.
“When I met him, I wasn’t sure if it was cultural stuff or what,” Patterson said. “But I have a grandson who’s autistic, and I saw some of the same things. Chris is a very bright guy and a really nice kid. His brain’s just not wired the same way other people’s brains are.”
Patterson helped Takaishi overcome a fear of computers by showing him how to look up statistics about cars on the Internet. After getting his associate’s degree, Takaishi, once afraid to touch a keyboard, enrolled in the management information-systems curriculum at the University of Maryland’s University College. He graduated in 2003, with a 3.2 grade-point average.
Takaishi’s parents, who live outside Tokyo, did not attend his graduation from Montgomery College, nor from the University of Maryland system.
Takaishi’s father, Matafumi Takaishi, said through an interpreter last week that he now realizes his son has had a developmental disability since childhood. “Now [Chris] is an adult, and we are leaving up to him to make his own decisions,” he said.
For more than a decade, the Stuttses were Takaishi’s family. He spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve with Herb, Marilyn, their four grown children and six grandchildren. They’ve celebrated milestones together.
Over time, Takaishi began to be more comfortable away from the Stutts family. He has lived in a rented room in a suburban house for the past 10 years. He joined a health club. He spends hours on the Internet, downloading music, reading about world affairs, politics and autism, which he calls “the mysterious illness.”
“I like Sting,” he said. “His music is quiet and calm. Music may be able to heal me.”
In April, he bought a Saturn Ion, “a 2004 dent-resistant vehicle,” he said, researched on the Internet “to eliminate the pain of purchasing the vehicle.”
About that time, Stutts contacted former colleagues, neighbors and friends to try to find Takaishi a job. Weeks into the search, Ed Downey, a former classmate who owns Empower IT, a Bethesda business that sorts information from product bar codes, said he had an opening. It was a repetitive keypunch job, but the small company was warm and casual.
“We decided we’d only give him a job if he could do it, or it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else,” Downey said. “He focused on it as if his life depended on it.”
Takaishi developed an error rate of zero and won a company award.
Herb Stutts knew that under a student visa, Takaishi was allowed a short period of training after graduation. But he had never seen a student barred from staying longer. So it was a shock when Stutts learned over the summer that Takaishi’s prospects for a long-term visa were grim.
Empower and Stutts put two law firms on the case but were told that, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. immigration requirements for a visa “are a backbreaker, especially for someone like Chris,” Stutts said. They looked into having Stutts adopt Takaishi, but at 31, he was already too old.
So in September, Mary Lesh, Empower’s human-resources director, told Takaishi what the others could not bear to say. “Chris, you have to go back,” she recalled saying. “He was quiet and sad, thinking about it. Then he said, ‘Probably I can’t come back.’ “
Takaishi’s U.S. days, as he wrote in an e-mail at the time, were numbered. But Stutts had one last gesture. “He’s always enjoyed Christmas with us. Let’s have him here, and then send him home.”
One day last week, Takaishi passed by the family’s Christmas tree and patted the toy reindeer beneath. “Stay,” he said, “until I return to this house.”
“Love hasn’t been in his vocabulary,” Herb Stutts said. “Only since he’s going home has he hugged me.”