Notes: This is not a work of fiction, but a memoir. No, this memoir is not an autobiography, but rather an account of one section of my life. Dialogue used here is not word for word, but is true to the original content.
I wrote this for my memoir assignment in Creative Writing class, it still needs to be reworked since I'm still not satisfied with it.
Please tell me what you think.
Where I Come From
Shoulder length black, silky, straight hair draped on light honey colored skin of her head. Thin, slightly tensed eyebrows on smooth flesh lightly wrinkled with age, hunched over the black key board, typing. This is Okaasan*, or Mom, writing diligently to her friends or family in Japan on the black, square, Japanese electric typewriter that resembles a small computer monitor.
Mom has been living in Alaska for the past twenty years; nineteen of them were after marrying Dad, a white American who speaks Japanese very well. She misses Japan for its four season weather and most especially its food.
"When you become an old woman you miss the food of your country the most," she had told me in her soft flowing Japanese, "It's a fun and nice and perhaps a good experience to live in a foreign country when you are young, but when you become old like me you miss the food."
Mom called herself an "obasan"*, meaning "old lady" and sort of hinting at "granny", several times but to me she doesn't seem old.
About a year ago, when I was sixteen, I sat on the green angular futon couch covered by a white patterned across from the fireplace in the tan-beige carpeted living room. The carpeted stairway is parallel to the arm of the couch and on the top step my mother sat in this room lit up only with natural light that filtered in through the two skylights overhead of us and the windows on the wall by the other arm of the couch. Neutral light.
My mother tried to answer my question: "On the family tree Dad made I saw that Ojiichan* and Obaachan* were born in Korea. Is that true?"
My face was angled up to keep eye contact with Okaasan through the deafening silence that followed as she confirmed what I saw. It was a very solemn occasion since my mother is rather conservative in her emotions. I stayed very quiet and still, afraid that if I made a sound she would not speak further of it since she identifies herself and family as Japanese. The possibility that she would just say, "They were born in Korea and went to Japan," and turn her dark eyes away from me, and get up to do some sort of domestic chore was very palpable to me.
But she did not.
With her hands lightly folded in her aproned lap, legs together and resting against the step, she sat on facing me. As she sorted through her thoughts, she began to tell me of the grandparents I hardly knew. I would never be able to talk to them personally, as they had passed on many years ago.
"Our name Takamitsu* was made up by my father after the name of a prefecture he lived in, in Korea," my mother started.
"So that means there's no one else with the Takamitsu family name in Japan other than your family?" I asked, taking in this new information.
"There wasn't until recently. Eiko-neesan* found a couple other Takamitsu's in the phone book a few years ago," she answered in Japanese.
"Otousan*," she continued, "came to Japan when he was young with his father and older brother from Korea. It was around then that Otousan worked as a barber. His father and brother began a small trading business between Korea and Japan. Back then Koreans went to and from Japan often.
"My okaasan came from a rich Korean family and was a tomboy. When Otousan asked her father for her hand in marriage he allowed it since Otousan was a hardworking and honest man. That is how their wedding was arranged."
I had wondered if they loved each other, an arranged marriage seems so surreal since I grew up in the Western culture. It's something seemingly only heard in stories like Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club.
The living room lightened and darkened with the passing of thin white clouds in the sky.
"Koreans didn't like Koreans who lived in Japan and stayed there. They called us a word meaning "Japanese Koreans" said in a distasteful manner. At the time I didn't understand."
My mother's parents were born in Korea and my mom's siblings were all born in Japan.
Okaasan gave a little watery sniff and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. It was a pain I couldn't fully understand. Our eye contact was broken, but after she regained her composure she continued.
"Eiko and Kiyoko-neesan decided to put me in a private school. They must have had a hard time when they went to a public school and didn't want me to go through what they had. They wanted to protect me.
"I am thankful for that because I have such wonderful friends from school. I've had the same friends that I've had for over thirty years. Your Nobuko-obachan* went to a public school. The children were probably mean since our parents were Korean immigrants to Japan. That must be the reason that she doesn't like it in Japan and preferred living in a foreign country. She has no lasting friends in Japan.
"Lea," she said, looking at me, studying me, "do you understand? Do you understand the hardships my family went through? This great sadness?"
I searched inside of me, sorrowful at the thought of what my mother and her family had gone through. Prejudice because they chose not to be Korean and adopted the Japanese life, but not fully Japanese and so belittled by the people whom my Ojiichan chose to become one of.
I understand some of my mother's sadness, but I don't "understand". I can understand the plight of African Americans from the Civil War days and sympathize, even feel great anger at those who proclaimed the white race's superiority. But do I "understand"?
In seventh grade science, a boy, who I had disliked since fifth grade, sat at my table group had asked me, "You're like half Chinese, right?"
Offended, I corrected him, "No, I'm half Japanese."
"Then it's your fault that Pearl Harbor got bombed."
My surprised anger caused my speechlessness. I couldn't think of a comeback. What kind of bigoted illogic did he learn? I was consumed by angered hurt and it was not until two classes later did I think if what I could have shot back with.
Such hurtful remarks from ignorant and mean spirited people stay with me.
"You're Chinese, right?"
"No, I'm half Japanese."
"Whatever, same difference."
"Can I try some?"
"That sounds like Japanese."
"No, it doesn't!"
I shook my head slowly and said quietly to my mother in English, "I sort of understand, but I know I will never fully."
Okaasan nodded in acceptance, her dark liquid eyes down cast.
"I guess you wouldn't know."
Grey silence masked the room as I mulled over several thoughts and waited until I thought there had been enough stillness.
"Mom? Did Obaachan or Ojiichan have any relatives in Korea that you met?"
"I went to Sol, Korea with Okaasan to visit her sisters when I was about twenty," she answered as a smile started to take shape on happy memories.
"A driver picked us up and we got to see many things. The house we went to was very big and beautiful. My aunts were happy and nice people and so rich. It was so fun."
My mother became animated, a welcome contrast to earlier, as she told me of her wonderful experience in Korea with her mother, her warm and leathery soft hands making little gestures and her face lit up like the sun. She was almost a young girl in a fifty-year-old woman's body; her eyes were ageless for that moment as they sparkled with memories.
"What about now?" I asked, ever curious, "Has the family in Korea talked with your family?"
"Kiyoko-neesan said that a few years ago a relative from Korea came looking for us. He asked the neighbors where the Takamitsu house was, but they didn't know since it is now known as the Hirayama house because Kiyoko-neesan married Junnichi-ojisan*.
"Luckily he found someone who had been in the neighborhood for a long time and remembered that the Hirayama house was the Takamitsu house. He went to the house and tried to communicate to Kiyoko-neesan, but she doesn't know Korean and he didn't know Japanese. He came back later with a translator, someone from his business since he came to Japan on a business trip.
"I don't know what was said, but that he was happy to have found one of us."
Many times I had wondered what it was like for Mom to live far away from her home country and only able to visit her relatives once in several years at a time. I got an inkling of what it's like when we went to visit Japan for the first time in eight years, three years ago.
Okaasan's sisters and friends from when she was in high school were at the crowded airport on the other side of the glass from baggage claim. Mari, my younger sister, and I were told by our parents to go to our relatives as they got the rest of our luggage.
Wizened faces of our petite Japanese aunts, still possessing jet black hair, smiled up at us as they welcomed us. I felt gangly since we were so tall compared to them. We shyly smiled and greeted back. They came and hugged us and asked, "Where are your parents?"
I told them in my halting and unsure Japanese, "Mom and Dad…um…over there, be here little bit."
I felt shy and a little frustrated with my Japanese, I understand it well enough but speaking it is another matter which is why I don't speak it often which in turn compounds the problem. Being in Japan gave me an opportunity to relearn it.
Mom and Dad finally came through the glass doorway, holding the bulky black bags not on the cart Mari and I had with us, and were immediately engulfed by our relatives. It was such an emotional event in the noisy airport. Much of the babbling around us seemed to coalesce with the background. My mom got teary eyed and laughed and sniffled with the family she hadn't seen in almost a decade.
"Takami-chan*!" a nickname from her high school friends, was called out by Bunko-obachan* who decided that Mom had enough time with the relatives.
Mom received another round of hugs and welcomes, this time from her group of small Japanese women friends.
I've never seen my mother be so emotional before.
Writing letters and having an occasional phone call will never be the same as meeting those you love in person.
I had wondered to myself, who is this woman I call "Okaasan"?
I am better understanding my mother, but my understanding is limited. I am more mature and will become part of the family conversation next time we go to Japan and I will learn more of my mother's family.
For almost all my life I identified myself as half Japanese and was proud of that, although at times it seemed inconvenient. After hearing my mother's story it put me on unstable ground, like on a sandy beach, each time a wave slid back it pulled the deceptively firm sand out from under my feet. But I know who I am again; I'm the daughter of a daughter of Japan who, in turn, is the daughter of hard working Japanese parents.
Notes: I have used several Japanese words that I've put asterisks (*) next to so this is where I will explain what their meaning.
-chan- a suffix added on to a name of a young child, a girl, or a close friend (usually a female) as an endearment.
-neesan- a suffix meaning "older sister", also used by children on young women.
Obachan- aunt, or a woman very close to the family that she almost is like an aunt (i.e. Bunko-obachan).
Obasan- an old lady, a lady that is older than you (i.e. a child might call a lady unknown to them this, usually one who seems old.)
Ojisan- uncle, or a man that is somewhat older than you.
Takamitsu- the characters used for this name means "High Light".