I am sitting at her kitchen table. Red and black cloth placemats with pictures of Japanese cranes cushion my laptop and iPad. “You should try this Jan, it’s called zen doodling.”
She starts with a square and makes a few lines then changes her mind and tries to show me the example of how to start off with a star shape. After a few lines she gives up.
“I forget how this one goes. I gotta look at the book again.”
I sip my coffee and look at my mother. She has a pair of reading glasses balanced on her nose, and another pair on top of her head. Two more pairs are on the table. My dad is pacing around, then settles himself and starts watching The Outdoor Channel. Within a minute he is up again, walks to the fridge and begins munching on celery and carrots – for breakfast. I feel pressured to hurry up knowing that they have plans – to go to the dump. After 40 years of marriage, there are still certain things they still refuse to do solo. Showering and taking care of the trash make the top of that list. I ponder for a moment the deeper secret of marriage success in those traditions.
“Do you remember how old you were the day you heard Grandpa’s story?”
She looks beyond my shoulder and into the past. Pressing her lips together she inhales deeply and travels back to her early teenage years. Back to the kitchen table in the redwood house she grew up in – a house that my Grandpa had built himself. Sitting across from my Grandpa, she remembers his words, his gestures, and his love for conversation that caused people to think and examine their beliefs. I interrupt, “Is that the same table from when I was little?”
I travel back to the house I loved as a child and sit at the table too. In my memory, it is too cluttered for everyone to sit at, so my Grandpa lounges in his lazy boy recliner and watches baseball. He celebrates when I eat a peanut butter sandwich. “You make Grandpa so happy when you eat.” I feel my throat choke up, and quickly ask another question to control it.
“When you were talking to Grandpa that day was Grandma there?”
“Yeah, she was. She was doing stuff in the background. I don’t remember her saying anything. She just let him, let him talk.”
I think to myself, I should do the same. Just let her talk.
My mom continues, “I think I looked at my father in a different way. I think I respected him more. I think I respected them - my uncles. I think I respected them so much – for being true to their country. That despite the ugliness of what had happened to my family, knowing that they had sacrificed so much and endured so much and they had come out victorious and they had the respect of America, because - you know also identifying myself with the 442nd and 100th battalion, because these were the stories that I had grown up with - reading about what these Japanese American soldiers had done, reading about their heroism, their bravery, their giving it all kind of thing. Hearing that made me prouder to have a part in the history of America. And made me understand why, when I saw my father standing up for the Star Spangled Banner with his hand over his heart and tears in his eyes, it made me understand that he had given so much and his family had given so much to have a place in the history of this country. So instead of being angry at America, they had gone beyond that."
"I remember when Grandpa would talk about going to college and how at the beginning when he wrote his first paper, that his professor had written on his paper and there were red marks and corrections. He said the paper was just covered with red. And at the bottom she had written, “I have never read such childish writing at the college level before.” He got that paper back and said, “I’m gonna show you, you son of a bitch.” And at the end of the class she had written, “I had never seen anybody come so far and make such improvements in their writing in one semester in my career.” And so it was that whole thing that, you think I’m nothing, I’m gonna show you. And so that same kind of attitude, I think, went into that you think I’m a second class citizen, I’m gonna show you, you son of a bitch. You think I can’t do it, I’m gonna show you.”
I ask her if there is a Japanese proverb for that – I’m gonna show you, you son of a bitch.
I had expected to hear about injustices and how Japanese Americans were victims. Instead, she told me the exact opposite. The Japanese Americans refused to be victims of oppression. They fought to have a place and they fought for their honor to be restored.
I am beginning to understand what it means to be Japanese.