A mother-daughter story about the strong pull of tradition, and the lure and cost of breaking free of it.We asked her to entertain us with her experiences of being a half-Japanese, half-American young girl in the 60’s and 70’s. Take it away, Margaret...
When Shoko decided to marry an American GI and leave Japan, she had her parents' blessing, her brother's scorn, and a gift from her husband-a book on how to be a proper American housewife.
As she crossed the ocean to America, Shoko also brought with her a secret she would need to keep her entire life...
Half a century later, Shoko's plans to finally return to Japan and reconcile with her brother are derailed by illness. In her place, she sends her grown American daughter, Sue, a divorced single mother whose own life isn't what she hoped for. As Sue takes in Japan, with all its beauty and contradictions, she discovers another side to her mother and returns to America unexpectedly changed and irrevocably touched.
When I was growing up, we knew of only a handful of Asians. Sometimes people think that all Asians automatically form communities, but it’s not true. Asians can tell the difference, by looking, between a Chinese person and a Japanese person; or a Japanese person and a Korean person. It would be like assuming that the Irish and the English must be friendly, because they’re white.
There was a Hawaiian Japanese family who had boys the same ages as me and my brother; a Korean family who lived on the next block with a girl my age (whose older sister grew up to be acclaimed YA novelist An Na); and a Korean family with a boy my brother’s age. Mom did talk about the Japanese family quite a bit, but I don’t even think they spoke any Japanese. If we saw them at a school or Boy Scout function, she’d go out of her way to be nice, but we never had them over. I don’t remember seeing the other families at any events.
So if there was an Asian kid who appeared in school, my mother wouldn’t say, “Go make friends because we’re all Asians.” She’d note the country of origin, like everybody had “MADE IN” labels on their backs, and that would be that. She neither encouraged nor discouraged friendships.
For the most part, my brothers and I had white friends, which was the majority in the neighborhood. Though most of our friends were white, with generations of American forebears, they mostly had no problem adjusting to my mother’s customs when they came over. I think kids know that every household has slightly different rules, just like I knew which neighbor bought sugary cereal and which neighbor had a pool. I asked my friends to remove their shoes when they arrived, never a problem unless someone had holes in their socks.
There were a few traditions that caused me some consternation. In Japan, if you borrow something from someone, you return it with another small gift. One day, Mom sent me to “borrow” an egg from a neighbor. You know that in the U.S., you’re never going to get that egg back, though it’s called borrowing. But the next day, Mom got eggs and sent me back with two. “Tell her it’s tradition,” Mom said. The neighbor was surprised. She wanted to turn down the second egg; she had just wanted to be neighborly, and one day she might ask us for an egg. But Mom didn’t want to be beholden to anyone.
Also, though Mom refused to teach us Japanese, saying it would only confuse our English, my English was already confused. My family used solely Japanese words for certain things, so I had no idea what the English words were. For going to the bathroom, where English speakers would use “potty” or “poop,” my parents used Japanese baby words, “shi-shi” and (I’m not even sure how to spell this, and Google wasn’t a help) and “oo-oon.” “Shi-shi” is onomatopoeia for the sound it makes; and “oo-oon” is the sound a person makes, I guess, when doing that other action.
I also had this problem when I was playing with a little kindergartner friend of mine. I remember we were lying on the sidewalk outside her house. She must have blown her nose (or, let’s face it, probably just picked it) and showed me a, “big, gross booger.” I looked at what she was pointing at. “That’s not a booger. That’s hanakuso-tare.” My friend got confused. “What’s that? This is a booger.” “No, it’s hanakuso-tare.” She laughed. “What are you saying?”
I finally realized what she meant, that “booger” was the English word. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I looked up hanakuso-tare. It’s the possibly impolite saying of never-ending snot. When my mother said it, it sounded like, “hanaxso-ta-day,” said very quickly, and she used it for anything that came out of the nose.
Sometimes what she did was different, but only added to the beauty of a situation. Mom taught me that food is eaten with the eyes first, so for special occasions, she would spend time on food arrangement. If she sent some food item to school, like cookies, she’d put them on a plate, cover them with plastic wrap, and then wrap it up in the furoshiki, a Japanese wrapping cloth used instead of paper. Everyone always exclaimed about the beauty of the package, and the wrapping cloth always made its way home.