She is complaining about how repressive the Japanese culture is after seeing Letters to Iwo Jima. Complaining, but at the same time she harbors a secret respect, an admiration, for people who are so driven and dedicated. For people who can internally bite their lip and put something other than self first. She feels there is something noble in the ideas of honor and shame and what the Japanese would and will do to achieve one and avoid the other. She thinks of kamakaze pilots and seppuku and what the crushing weight of expectations added with the desire to please can accomplish. She is feeling a connection, pride mingled with shame—the usual recipe when it comes to family or heritage. But she is rudely brought out of her thoughts.
"Oh get over it," her boyfriend says. "You are not Japanese."
When she was younger Japanese tourists would speak to her, in Japanese. Perhaps they were asking directions, maybe looking for a friendly connection. She never knew because she could not speak Japanese. Her mother taught her early on to point to herself and say, "yon-sei," Fourth Generation. With those words, they would shake their head, an "aha" expression on their faces, and move on. In high school she took French. It never crossed her mind to take Japanese.
Substitutes always asked if she was from the mainland. They commented on her "perfect" English. "Not a trace of pidgin!" they'd say. "No accent at all. You sound like you're from California."
Several of her great aunties always told her to be proud that she was Oriental. "Not Asian," they would say. "You are Oriental." She remembers back when they made a point to make that distinction. In class she'd look around as all the kids raised their right hands over their hearts to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Annually on May 1st everyone had to participate in May Day: sixth grade did poi balls, fifth grade did the Filipino Tinikling, fourth grade did a Japanese fan dance, third grade danced the hula, and the younger grades grabbed streamers and danced around a maypole. In high school she was one of the few "Orientals." Several boys had crushes on her—they hungered for all things oriental, read every new manga, watched all the animes, and styled their hair to copy the outlandish looks of current Japanese pop culture. The Filipino and Haole girls were copying the anime fashions. She only knew these things existed because they told her, constantly disappointed and in disbelief that she would rather read contemporary American literature, watch Wimbledon, and dress like a country tomboy.
No to sashimi, unagi, ika, and ebi nigiri. A big NO to wasabi, naresushi, and ikura makisushi. She doesn't drink ocha (green tea). She doesn't drink any tea. Instead order up a hot chocolate, New York steak, fries, and mashed potatoes.
Her grandparents and parents were all born in Hawai‘i. How can you tell what's what after that many years? Are her hands Japanese because they wash so many dishes and do so many chores? Is her mouth American for talking back so much? What about her hair, so black—it must be Japanese. But her knees and toes are always dirty and her ears don't "listen." Were they converted? No one in her family has ever been to Japan. Her grandmother won't speak Japanese to young tourists because they comment on her language, "Oh, it is so old! It's like you came from 100 years ago!" They laugh, but the tourists are right. It is because her great-grandparents came over at the turn of the 19th century. Her grandmother speaks their Japanese.
She had a few Japanese dolls from her grandmother when she was younger. She had loved their colorful kimonos and perfect, shiny black hair. They were kept in glass cases and had white faces, pink cheeks, and red lips in the shape of hearts. Her mother kept them in a closet and let her look at them on occasion. She envied their neat beauty, their finished look. As she grew older she requested to see them less, until one day she and her mother discovered that insects had gnawed them to dust.
She is loud, almost obnoxious, and a ham in front of her family and close friends. She isn't afraid to speak her mind, be blunt, or yell if the occasion calls for it. She lectures her family on the subservient role Japan and America expect women to play and convinces them she won't be a part of it. She flusters her grandmother, okaasan, by calling her "G-ma" and saying that's her pop-culture "gangsta" name now. She does goofy dances and makes G-ma shake her head when she eats by stuffing portions so large in her mouth that she can barely chew. She gulps her food down so quickly she often gives herself the hiccups.
She is quiet, soft-spoken, and reserved in front of strangers or at school. Her teachers either beam about her being such a "proper young lady" or else can't remember her name. She is timid in her choices, rarely taking risks or doing bold moves. She calls all people older than her "Mr." or "Mrs." regardless if they have said to call them otherwise. She never walks in a house wearing shoes and tends to defer to her older brother or boyfriends when it comes to major decisions. She holds doors open, always says "thank you," and she laughs along when men make jokes about women drivers, that-time-of-the-month, women wanting jewelry, or women being bossy shrews. She doesn't want to risk seeming "uncool" by disagreeing. However, she still scarfs her food down and grabs thirds and fourths.
She remembers her mother flying fish on boy's day for her brother. She liked seeing the big orange koi flapping gently in the wind; its form moving in ripples as if swimming for real. Her mother defied tradition by including a small blue koi for her. In elementary, on Girl's day, the boys had to carry the girl's books, get their lunch trays, and put up their chairs for them. All the girls felt like princesses. She felt sorry for new mainland transfers who never got to be a princess on Girl's day. She felt jealous of real Japanese girls who got carefully crafted, delectably fragile new Japanese dolls every year on Girl's day. Her mother said making mochi was enough.
Education was so much of an issue that it became a non-issue. She learned early on that an A was the only acceptable grade. However, since anything less just wasn't an option, since receiving an A was only meeting the standard, report cards received short nods of approval instead of praise. As her mother's friends bragged about their kids making honor roll, her mother never mentioned she was going to be valedictorian. No boasting—actions should speak for themselves. Let others speak for you. It doesn't matter she told herself, education is my key out of here, so it became a part of every pore. It was under her nails, in between her toes. It was the one area in which she didn't let her parents down.
She can't speak the language and she has never been to the country, but she knows the expectations. She knows honor and shame. Her family may live in Hawai‘i, they may be Americans, but she was raised the oriental way. She has learned that one never speaks ill of their family, that you must put family before self. She knows that a child must never bring shame to their parents and that fathers rule the household. She has been taught to swallow her words though they clog her throat like raw beets. She knows all of this, but she wants to grow something new in old soil.
She tells her boyfriend, "I am me."
|© Copyright 2010 Michelle Shin & Trout.