COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — By the time she was 20, Tamami Sugo had never been on the back of a motorcycle.
Growing up under a strict and protective father, she recalled, she was never allowed to ride.
So when she learned that her younger sister's friend, 18-year-old Shunji, had a bike, she didn't hesitate to ask for a ride along.
"We went to the beach, we went to the mountain," Shunji recalled. “(We enjoyed) the beautiful view from the top.”
The young man who took Sugo on her first motorcycle ride 30 years ago would later become her husband, take her last name and raise two kids with her. She would follow him for his assignments all across Japan before he brought her on a grander adventure -- one that's far away from her hometown in Yokosuka, Japan, and all the way to Mississippi for his two-year military service as a pilot at Columbus Air Force Base.
For Sugo, this cross-continental trip to the United States is a dream realized 30 years late.
Yokosuka, home to 400,000 people, is the location of a U.S. Navy Base. As a teenager born into the era of famous American pop musicians such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, Sugo became interested in English and American culture. She wanted to study abroad and experience a different part of the world. Her father never allowed her to live abroad, but she still got a job on the Navy base to practice her English.
"I realized the world was very big," Sugo said. “I wanted to know and communicate with foreign people. They were born with another face and they have different cultures, languages, ways of thinking. ... It's interesting.”
The opportunity to live abroad finally presented itself in 2018 when Shunji was to be stationed in Columbus for two years.
When Sugo arrived in October of that year, Columbus struck her as a Southern historical town. From time to time, she said, she would experience culture shock.
"When I stopped at the Walmart ... I could see a gun section," Sugo said. “I was very surprised at first, because I have never seen (that) in Japan. We have very strict rules. They are illegal. But they sell it at the supermarket (in America), and there are a lot of kids.”
Sugo's English was still poor at the time, she remembered, and people's thick Southern accents did not help. Ordering at drive-throughs sometimes became a challenge.
"I could not get what they mean," Sugo said. “Sometimes I give up. ... I (would leave) the car and go to the shop and I pointed at the picture (on the menu).”
Soon, Sugo met a group of international friends, with whom she takes English classes several times a week in Starkville. They all come from different cultures, she said, which made her feel at ease.
"I don't have to hesitate to speak with them, because all the people who came from other countries were very friendly to me," Sugo said.
One of those friends, Olga Almazan, said Sugo wants to know about everyone else's culture. The two exchange details about Japan and Almazan's native Mexico, including weather, fashion and family traditions.
"She always tries to speak with our students and tries to learn more about them," Almazan said.
Sugo was eager to learn about Columbus as well. To prepare for last year's Pilgrimage as a member of the CAFB International Spouses Group, she had to learn how to sew the dress she would wear.
Patricia Wilson, who led the efforts to create the group in 2003, taught her how, Sugo said. Since Sugo did not have a sewing machine at home, she worked on the dress at Wilson's house for a month.
"I have never sewn a dress, I just made kids' clothes," Sugo said. “(It was a) big mission.”
Being a part of Pilgrimage, standing in old houses and walking tourists through a brief segment of history, made Sugo's life in Columbus more enjoyable. After more than a year living in the city, Sugo said she has adopted the lifestyle here to some extent.
But sometimes, she still misses the hot springs, the food and culture in Japan.
"When I went to Houston, I went to a Japanese supermarket," Sugo said. "The atmosphere reminds me of Japan, my hometown, a lot.
"But when I go outside, it's America," she said.
Sometimes, she said, she just wants to quit studying English and go back to Japan “tomorrow.”
Other times, she feels torn at the thought of leaving Columbus in October.
By the time she leaves, she said, Columbus may even become her “American hometown.”
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Sugo said. “I should cherish the time (I spend here).”