Yeah, I skipped yesterday. The question “Are you proud of your roots?” made the whole day difficult. I really was afraid of conjuring up some ghostly nonsense after thinking about what that meant to me. So, I’ll try and write something positive but true and combine it with today’s prompt asking about food. That segway could be hairy with big yellow, gnashing teeth.
So, I was raised in a household that spent a lot of time and energy keeping a very big secret….secret. My mom had sisters and nieces and nephews in Japan, but I didn’t know of them, or meet them until I was waning into my 40s. My dad had family in the US (he is of Irish American descent) but we didn’t get to visit with them. I’m not sure if he was just distancing himself from them or if this was some wacky pact he and mom made: “Let’s have kids and not expose them to our families. Hell, they don’t need to learn a second language and if they try to write or eat left handed, we’ll take care of that, too. If they ask questions, we’ll both leave the room at the same time. Deal?” I got caught looking at old photo albums I found under the stairs, once. The cover was shiny, like the top of a black laquered dresser, with a house and trees under the glossy finish. It was bound with black ribbon and full of black paper pages and black/white photos with little white corners. I remember dad’s desk had a couple of bottles of some kind of rubber cement that had a rubber applicator top. It would leave a dab of clear sticky glue. All the pictures were adhered to the black paper with this glue. I’m guessing it ensured the pictures would not go missing. Most of the pictures were groups, unnamed in evening wear. I remember thinking that all the women had bright shiny teeth, black curly hair and diamonds all over their dresses. There were a few events hilighted, with menus and invitations for the new year, or some other celebration. There were banners in some pictures and wide shots of dance floors full of couples. It was hard to see differences in people, they were either a serviceman or a Japanese woman. One page had a dancer. She was round and mature. She looked happy. And she was topless. In high heels. With glitter panties.
I got in trouble for looking at that album. Now, I wonder if there was something in that album that would prove to be a clue. Between the time of my adoption discovery and the day I found 2 brothers, I had developed a habit of looking into peoples faces when I was out in public. I thought I could recognize someone I am related to. That if we could just look into each other’s eyes, we would know we belonged to each other. My parents never looked at me. They wanted me to be different than I was. Early on, I was left handed and I would get in to trouble for using it. “Write with your right hand. You’re not going to be left handed, dammit.” “Eat with your other hand.” To this day, I sit down and set my fork to the right. And move it to the left.
We spoke English at home. Mom didn’t teach us Japanese. I would listen to her speaking on the phone in the hopes that I might just absorb the language. Doesn’t really work that way. Mom and Dad argued in Japanese. Maybe that was something they didn’t want us to horn in on. For all the little bobbles in the house that were Japanese, for all the food she fixed (and I gladly ate), for the few years that I got to wear a kimono on my birthday, the message I got was that it was shameful to BE Japanese. It would be better if I wasn’t. Mom thought she was too short. She thought her legs were to stout. Dad told her she was stupid. We all assumed it was because of the Japanese. My embarrassment of my parents went beyond the normal embarrassment kids have when their kids get driven to school. My parents didn’t attend school functions. I often caught rides to after school events from friends and rode to band concerts and art shows as a tagalong. I was forbidden from school sports and in high school wasn’t allowed to attend homecoming dances or prom. They had no use for it, so neither should I. That was the message I got. I thought I was the reason for embarrassment. I would find out in the end of mom’s life that she suffered the racist atmosphere in 1961 Arlington, Virginia, categorized as colored. I learned she struggled to forgive her father for refusing to care for her after losing her mother at the age of 5. When I traveled to Japan with mom in 2000, I saw first hand how one does not simply land on the shores of a homeland and expect to meld back in. I get the desire to have your children assimilate into a society (really for the first time). I just wish we had talked about it. Even once would have given me the clarity to understand where she was coming from and maybe we could have both shed some that shame.
(This would have helped a lot….now I know) http://www.rolereboot.org/life/details/2013-06-when-your-mother-says-shes-fat
I experienced my own shame as a grown woman. We were living with 4 children in a Washington DC suburb and in my desire to make friends and hopefully build camaraderie, I made acquaintances a local woman. She was having her babies about the time we crossed paths. She was lovely and strong, smart. Married to a nice man who is Czech. I liked the way she cooked and they seemed to have a potential for the perfect family. My embarrassment came one day when we discovered that we liked some similar foods. These were all Japanese ingredients. Her sister practiced a macrobiotic diet and they were well schooled in the names and purposes of these items. I, to my utter embarrassment, didn’t know the names of these things. I knew them by sight. And I knew what to do with them, but I had no names for them. This was as embarrassing as answering the door with your blouse unbuttoned. How could you not know? Isn’t your mom Japanese? I suddenly lost credibility and there I was….relegated to the table with the odd, lame kids again. Knowing what these things are called, understanding the culture that I lugged around but seemingly ignored, embracing and learning what is organic in my life could have been the confidence stilts that I would succeed with. Instead, I was left sort of an ignorant fool. A generic American. Having a grasp on your ancestor’s lives gives you something meaty to walk into a room with. You’re not walking in alone. So, I eat rice. Use chopsticks. Choose pickles made of daikon radishes and cabbages. Lean towards ramen. Put shoyu on my baked potato. And I have a lot to learn. I have to do that on my own. With each new acquired name for something and each immersion in what is meaningful, I find myself less embarrassed. I will always be envious of those who organically derive their ancestors lifeways through their immediate families. I will always wish for an explanation of events and truths to match the faces in those picture albums. I’m also comfortable to offer what I can to my children in stories, hopes and fears. It’s not much of a legacy, but it’s a start.