Fifteen years after the discovery of my adoption , when I was pregnant with my fifth and settling into what I had always thought was the perfect age (about 36), I bought airfare to Japan. I applied for a passport (no easy feat, as I don’t have a birth certificate) and convinced my mom that she should go with me. This wasn’t my first international flight, although it had been a long time since we flew stateside from Germany. I was feeling very excited to meet my Mom’s people and to be in the country where I came from and maybe feel a sense of reconnection or something I could feel good about. I wasn’t worried about speaking the language, I really could rely on my mom to translate and make sure we got what we need. I assumed we would visit family and do a little bit of sight-seeing. I had no idea of any plans she or they had made. I would figure it out when we got where we were going.
The flight to Tokyo is long. Like 5 or 6 movies long. It’s so long they put videos of exercise on the movie screen to make sure you don’t croak from DVT. I’m not one to be pukey when I am pregnant, but then, I hadn’t been on such a long flight while pregnant either. I spent a lot of time in the lavatory, which is curiously equipped with cologne (which made me pukier). The funniest thing about a flight to Tokyo is the inflight meal and the overwhelmingly order and politeness exhibited by passengers. Most of the flight was Japanese folk. When the flight was underway and we were at altitude, a meal was served consisting of a little sushi bento, salad, fruit and noodles that you dip into a cold sauce called soba. Almost on cue, the entire plane went from quiet and the droning sounds of air to noodle slurping. This was my first lesson in sounds that are acceptable and sounds that aren’t. Here is a picture of me at Nikko. I am wearing a mask, because I sneezed and mom’s niece, Hideko, insisted I wear a mask. No one says “Bless you” in Japan. Sneezes are ignored.
We flew into Tokyo and took a limousine to my aunt’s in Utsunomiya. They say limousine, we say bus. I was immediately struck at how similar things looked (aside from signage). A lot of what grew in Virginia was growing there. I don’t know what I expected, but it was April and everything was in bloom. The cherry blossoms, camellias, lots of bright green sprouting going on. Everywhere we went, the center island in the roadway was gardened patches. They waste no space, yet there is a pleasant amount of open air…in the country at least. My aunt was in the middle of preparing to plant rice. She has what looked like an acre of space, if it wasn’t ornamental, it was edible. Chicken coops lined the driveway. Vegetables and temporary green house set ups to keep the rice seedlings protected until they went in the ground. What my aunt didn’t grow, her neighbor did and she showed me how they exchange goods. He shares his bamboo shoots and she gives him rice and eggs.
So many things those first few days were full of new experiences. My aunt put us in a room with a mat on the floor. No problem. With a pillow that was a basket. I opted to roll up a sweatshirt instead. The toilets were hit and miss. My aunt has a regular flush bowl with a curious little fountain on top of the tank. My cousins in Tokyo had a toilet with lights and heaters and a bidet and music. It was plush and like a video game! When we traveled by car, I encountered squatting toilets that were essentially a depression in the ground with a hole. My aunt’s house had an ofura and if I had to pick one thing to bring home with me, it would be this. There is something incredibly wonderful about floating in water that is clean and perfectly warm. Japanese do bathing right. I didn’t find the food to be strange, in fact I was excited to be eating all my favorite things and I was accustomed to eating my mom’s cooking, so it was just more of the same. My aunt insisted on fixing me an “American” breakfast everyday, followed by a Japanese breakfast. So I ate twice. Of course I did. 2 eggs, OE, ham, lettuce, tomato, coffee and the teeniest cartons of milk. Everything comes in small packages there. Refrigerators are small in homes, so the containers have to be small. It was like the play toy cartons that come with little kitchens. The Japanese half of breakfast was soup (potatoes, bamboo, miso, greens), rice, tea and all these little packages of tempura vegetables and fish and pickles. The kitchen was well equipped and I was impressed by the butane water heaters that instantly heated the water at the tap, on demand. So much smarter than heating 45 gallons 24/7. Sitting in the kitchen was done at a western style table and chairs. Dining in the front room was on the floor. Sitting on the floor wasn’t so bad especially since it was chilly and the space under the table was heated. They offer jackets to cover your upper body. Again with the efficiency!
We took a road trip after a few days and headed into the mountains. They didn’t tell me where we were going and at one point, we were on a gravel road and had a flat tire. My aunt simply got out, opened the trunk, pulled out whatever was necessary and flagged the next truck that came by. The driver happily changed the tire and we were on our way. There seemed to be no worry that this was going to be inconvenient or worrisome. We went to a small bay community with jutting rocks off shore. I hadn’t seen my mom on either end of the emotion spectrum. This was the happiest I had seen her. We took a short cruise out amongst the rocks in the bay and she was smiling and laughing. She was home. I kept waiting for it to feel like home, but it never really did. When we would stop to eat, I could feel eyes on me watching me eat. I was taller than most men we encountered and while my hair is dark and I was wearing typical clothes, I think I still stuck out like a visitor. It hadn’t occurred to me that being half Japanese (hafu nihongo) was an issue, but I am learning that it’s one of those things Japan is working on. I did feel a sense of belonging, like I had the right to be there. I doubt it would be easy to live there and I might have to wear some pretty tough skin to forget what I am.
My mom had funny habit of repeating the last few words of any conversation you were having with her. I think it was her way of confirming what you were saying to her. If you were giving her a choice, she would just choose the latter. It has something to do with accommodating you, rather than herself. I can’t tell you how many times she and I went to lunch and she always ordered what I liked, even if she didn’t like it. She would order the deluxe sushi plate and only eat a few pieces, because….”I don’t really like a fish”.
One of our stops was in Sendai. I had no idea what we were doing there, but mom and aunt did . Mom took 6 Hershey bars out of her bag and we headed into a government office building. The floors were spotless, everyone was dreadfully quiet and orderly. People just waiting for whatever it is they came for. We were called up to a window. And an immediate negative reply was received. This was city hall. When a baby is born in Japan, the mother registers the baby’s birth in the city she was born in. My birth mom was born in Sendai. They brought me there to get a copy of the koseki (registry) that would have my name on it. The attendant at the counter was not going to approve this. She kept saying no. Mom put the chocolate bars on the counter. And we had a xeroxed piece of paper in 3 minutes.
Neither mom or aunt could read the paper, except to see that her name was on there, and my birth was reported. Mom could read that she married and emigrated to Omaha, NE in 1968. Any name or place that was not Japanese in origin was spelled phonetically. Mom could read that her name was Sakai and she married a man and his name sounded like “Craig Mc Something”.
Coming home to the US is a thing if you are flying in and going through customs. There’s a bit of waiting, but the officer at the post, after looking over your passport offers a sincere “Welcome home” that really helps define what being American is about. Mom was really fidgety in line. Seems she dug up a piece of tree from her sister’s yard and stashed it in her purse. She was really worried that they would discover it and impose some awful consequence. Didn’t happen. I told her to think of it as a sandwich and worst case scenario, she could eat it in front of the guy. She planted the twig, defended it against marauding beavers on Aquia Creek and it grew into a gorgeous tree.
Back home again, we unpacked all our goodies. My cousin, Shim, loaded a duffle full of wonderful things like real Cup O’ Noodles, and little statues and crackers. When I got to the papers, Dad wanted to see them. Mom told him about how she couldn’t translate the writing as it was too formal. Dad offered to have it copied and translated. I never saw the papers again.