PHILADELPHIA — When Hannah Ryles was a junior at a Tokyo high school in 2008, she was determined to attend David Lee’s junior prom.
“I loved him,” Ryles said, “and nothing was going to stop me from being with him that night.”
Her father, Richard Ryles, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, already knew that neither force nor negotiation would get his 17-year-old daughter to retreat from the idea of seeing Lee, a former classmate who was also 17.
“There was no talking to Hannah when it came to David,” Richard Ryles said. “She had already proved to us that she would move heaven and earth to see him, so we let her go.”
Though Hannah Ryles left heaven and earth intact, she did cross the Sea of Japan — roughly three hours by plane — to attend Lee’s junior prom, which was held in Shanghai.
Ryles and Lee had met as classmates at the American School in Japan, an international private day school in Chōfu, Tokyo.
“She was the new kid in school and I had a crush on her,” said Lee, recalling the start of eighth grade in September 2004. “She was so beautiful that I just couldn’t muster the courage to approach her and start a conversation.”
She also liked what she saw, hairdo aside. “He was this tall, lanky kid who wore nerdy glasses, and had this ridiculous bowl haircut,” Ryles said. “But he also had this remarkable confidence about him, which I observed in the second semester that year, when we ended up sitting at the same table in Japanese class.”
Ryles, the daughter of Melissa and Richard Ryles, a career Army man, had moved with her parents to Japan from St. Louis in 1999. They lived on two military bases, Sagami Depot and Camp Zama, each two hours from Tokyo.
Five years later, her family moved to the suburbs of Tokyo, in Setagaya, as Richard Ryles was transferred to the nearby Hardy Barracks in Akasaka.
Lee, the son of Jin Lee and Yu-Ching Lee, had enrolled at the American School the previous year. His mother, an information technology specialist with the U.S. Foreign Service, left Davis, California, with her family and traveled to Akasaka, as she was assigned to the American Embassy there. Her family was housed on its residential compound.
Hannah Ryles and David Lee briefly dated other classmates, but eventually began waiting out each other’s relationship as they held a huge, not-so-secret crush on one another.
Ryles was the first to break up, and a few days later, when Lee told her that his relationship had also ended, Ryles literally pounced on him. “I just kind of jumped on him and gave him this giant hug,” she said. “One half of that hug was meant for being sympathetic, but the other half was meant for celebration.”
They continued as friends before they began dating in April 2005, and soon after, “our mutual crush quickly blossomed into full-blown teenage puppy love,” Ryles said.
They shared a first kiss at the ticket booth inside the Tameike-Sannō subway station, neither realizing that their young love was about to be thrown off course.
By late summer, 2005, Lee’s mother had accepted a two-year assignment from the State Department that would take the family to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Around the same time, his father accepted a job in Shijiazhuang, China, working as the chief executive of a Chinese-Indian joint-venture pharmaceutical company and commuting from Kuala Lumpur.
“We were both very upset, but despite the geographical distance that was about to come between us, we weren’t going to let each other go without a fight,” Ryles said.
They made a pact to keep in touch, and did that through hourslong Skype sessions, phone calls and emails.
“I kept telling David that Hannah lived too far away,” said Lee’s mother, Jin Lee. “He would look so sad on occasion because he missed her, and I would say, ‘David, there are so many girls out there, why are you doing this to yourself.’”
But David Lee would have none of it, and in the winter of 2005, he returned to Tokyo for a week to visit Ryles and other friends he had missed since his departure.
The following spring, Ryles and Lee convinced their respective families to vacation in Thailand, both conveniently forgetting to explain the reason.
“As soon as we arrived Hannah says to me, “Oh, by the way mom, David Lee and his family are here as well,” recalled Ryles’ mother, Melissa Ryles. “It was unbelievable.”
The two family vacations overlapped by a single day, so the former classmates made a plan to introduce their parents once they arrived in Bangkok, then left to spend precious time alone.
When Lee’s parents saw that Hannah Ryles had dyed her hair red and was sporting large hoop earrings, they sent Lee’s younger brother, Jamie, to spy on them. “I guess I wasn’t a very effective spy,” Jamie Lee said, “because all I was able to report to my parents was that Hannah and David seemed to be having the greatest time.”
Ultimately, the stress of maintaining a long-distance relationship while not knowing when they might see each other again took a toll, and Ryles and Lee, both 15, reluctantly agreed to start seeing other people. “I was heartbroken,” Ryles said. “That’s not what I wanted.”
In the summer of 2006, Lee returned to Tokyo but chose not to see Ryles, because the thought of seeing her with another boy was too much to bear. He decided to call her from the airport, just before boarding a flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
Ryles was heartbroken again. “I felt as if he had stood me up,” she said.
Though their pact had come unglued, neither could stay angry, or apart from each other for long.
In January 2007, they patched up their friendship via social media and by February were professing their unwavering love for each other.
In April that year, Ryles, then 16, convinced her parents to allow her to visit Lee in Kuala Lumpur, where they committed to a long-distance relationship.
That summer, Lee began living with his father in Shanghai — making that decision after his mother decided to take a new assignment in Bangkok — and adding another international stop on a dizzying romantic journey that “mile for mile, began proving how truly committed Hannah and David were to each other,” Richard Ryles said.
Indeed, Lee and Hannah Ryles continued to pursue each other aggressively. In 2008 Lee returned to Tokyo for a visit, and this time, the teenagers spent the better part of a week together, catching up on their lives while exploring the city.
That spring, Lee visited Ryles once more in Tokyo, and she returned the favor by “sneaking out,” to his senior prom in Shanghai. This meant crossing the Sea of Japan once more, this time without telling her family.
“I told my parents I was going hiking with a friend in the mountains of Japan for three days,” said Ryles, who played hooky from school one morning to get a Visa for her excursion, and paid for round-trip airline tickets with money she had earned as a babysitter and as a school-bus monitor.
“I also told my parents that we would have no cellphone reception, so don’t bother trying to call us,” she said.
They continued to creatively scheme and boldly plot new ways to continue to see each other. But no scheme was as creative and no plot as bold as the one they would hatch that summer, when they both enrolled in a summer volunteer program to teach English to elementary school students in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
By now, each was 18 and a high school senior.
They received approval from their parents, who did not know that their children were going together.
“David’s parents were very liberal, while my parents were much more conservative, which is why I always had to make up stories to go places,” Ryles said. “My parents always trusted me, and though they might not have known I was sneaking out, it was always with David, I never took advantage of their trust for any other reason.”
For Ryles and Lee, the experience offered a first taste of living together for three months in a house in rural Thailand they shared with a high school teacher from Texas, a French university student, and several others.
One month after they returned from Thailand, Ryles visited Lee in China once more, and in the spring of 2009, they continued to rack up frequent flyer miles as Lee managed to find a way to escort Ryles to her senior prom in Tokyo.
After high school graduation, they decided to go to nearby colleges in the United States. Ryles went to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she studied psychology, and Lee to Haverford College less than a mile away, where he studied chemistry.
They spent one semester of their junior year studying abroad together at the University of Melbourne, in Australia, then went on to Sydney, then New Zealand and on to the Great Barrier Reef before returning to their respective colleges, from which they each graduated in 2013.
For the next two years, they lived together in Philadelphia, working as technicians in cancer research laboratories. Life was beautiful, but not quite as easy beneath a roof that did not include their parents.
“We would come home from work smelling like mice from working in mouse research laboratories all day,” Ryles said. “Our apartment also had no working heat.”
She took on a second job as a waitress at an Italian restaurant, working nights and weekends to help pay bills. Both applied to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where they were accepted.
But before medical school began in 2015, Ryles and Lee made yet another international voyage, a sentimental trip back to China and Japan, where they revisited the Tameike-Sannō subway station in Tokyo to recreate their first kiss.
The next year, Lee proposed to Ryles in John F. Collins Park across from where they now live in Philadelphia in front of close friends and family. Lee’s parents and his younger brother, Jamie, as well as Ryles’ sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Scott Downie, were all there to witness the couple’s engaging moment. Afterward, everyone sat around a photo album that Ryles had been putting together since the day she met Lee, flipping through pages filled with pictures of their days in grammar school, high school and college, and many other images from across a decade filled with more than 100,000 miles worth of sacrifice, commitment and dedication.
“It’s like no other fairy tale I have ever heard of,” Lee’s father, Yu-Ching Lee, said.