Creative non-fiction / December 2016 (Issue 34)


Okaeri

by Esumi Fujimoto

I used to write my father love notes in his native tongue because I thought that perhaps his love for me was being lost in translation. But these confessions, like his love for me, felt incomplete. They were, after all, composed solely of the few relevant nouns that I was able to string together at a moment's notice:

Now at Kana's house.

With Kana and Kisara.

Be home later. Esumi.

I always left these haikus on top of the bamboo bench in our entryway, where one sat to remove their shoes before sliding bare feet into cotton slippers and announcing: I'm home.

ただいま。

I loved how the syllables rolled off of my tongue: tah-dah-ee-mah. Each time I announced my return, the word felt more my own. The word began to sound just the way I imagined it in my head. (It sounded like my father's voice).

But often, I returned home to find my little love notes right where I'd left them, sleeping atop the bench in our doorway, collecting sea salt on their bellies. My mother always told me that my father was absent-minded, but it seemed to me that he had too much mind and too little space. He was constantly preoccupied with the mysteries of Other People, with the stories of Other People, with the People we met each day and where they came from and where their families came from and which Other People they, too, had met. He amassed a collection of information in tattered composition notebooks and spent hours poring over illegible penmanship, trying to decode his notes and make sense of them. Nearing nine, I was still too young to understand the depths to which a sociologist's passions seep, but I understood well enough that my father's first love was not my mother, nor the wife that had preceded her, and that it was certainly not me. Japanese may have been his first language, but it was the language of Other People in which he flourished and spoke with the fluency of a true polyglot. It was the vehicle for connecting with yet more Other People; and as such, it was the language of his love.

I longed for his praise, albeit in secret, and so I hand-delivered my forgotten love letters to my father in silence, daring only to set them gingerly on top of his beloved collection of chaos before promptly returning to our bedroom. Sometimes, I would slide one of the shōji doors to the right and peer at him through the gap, waiting for the moment when his eyes would finally meet the face of my love. But there he would stay, unflinching, just as I had left him in the morning. Even now, I can see him through the slit in the sliding doors, rubbing his forehead as he surveys the galaxy of information before him, a still-boiling cup of green tea expelling bursts of itself over the brim, staining his notes upon notes upon notes on Other People with tiny moon-shaped kisses.

***

Never mind that we shared the surname of the village's wealthiest resident, or that my eyes matched those of Ma-Chan—she who still dried her salted fish by the sea at dawn each morning, although she was quickly nearing her ninetieth year; never mind that the dust of our ancestors laid beneath slim tombstones along with the dust of everyone else's ancestors. Never mind it all: Papa and I remained in the kind of cultural limbo reserved for foreigners who will always, no matter the amount of time elapsed nor the antiquity of kinship, remain Other People.

I knew that the village for which I was named might never become my home because once, when Wakana and I discovered boxes of fireworks in her auntie's attic, I exclaimed 凄い!, and the other girls began to giggle and fold over themselves in fits of laughter. Because once, I caught my father studying one of my vocabulary workbooks from school, carefully copying the character for flower into a notebook of his own. And because once—and only once—Mrs. Ogura asked me where my mother was this summer (my blue-eyed, fair-skinned mother whose physicality I did not inherit but whose introverted tendency was certainly hereditary), and I replied アメリカ (ah-meh-ree-kah), which sufficed.

There was no hiding our Americanness from the other village residents; there was no way to at once soften and sharpen the curvatures of spoken English to transform it into a gentle staccato that could, to one at a distance, sound more like the familiar lilts of Japanese. To my dismay, my father was unabashedly loud, speaking both languages at such a volume that his words seemed to reverberate from the mountains enclosing us in the valley, competing against the crash and roll of the Pacific Ocean's tide. I remember how I blushed with embarrassment every time he greeted the motley crew who waited for me before school, how I rolled my eyes at his enthusiasm as he asked each student about their family and home, at how he frantically wrote down the details of his inquisitions in another composition notebook. I remember how envy turned my cheeks crimson when I watched my father chat effortlessly with my friends in our driveway. (I remember how I practiced the same greetings before bed each night, laying my hands against the cold tatami while beads of sweat wept down my temples).

***

Mornings were filled with anticipation and dread of the school day to come, but at least they brought the relief of the cold ocean breeze, which swept across the village just after dawn and escaped while lunch was being prepared. They also brought the monkeys. I frequently begged my father to wake up before the sun crept over the mountains so that we might catch a glimpse of the red-bottomed monkeys who hid in the trees behind our home, whose howling and hooting lulled me to sleep at night, and whose thievery was the bane of Tokiko's existence.

Though she already spoke excitedly of her planned retirement at the nursing home overlooking the sea, Tokiko was the titan of village gossip; and her house, which sat atop the village's highest peak just beyond the cemetery, provided the perfect vantage point from which she could survey her theatre, both dead and alive. I loved her because her kyphotic back reminded me of my grandmothe and because of the way her glasses fell down the bridge of her nose when she bent her neck to the slightest degree. She loved to serve us the chilled beet juice that caused goosebumps to erupt on my forearms with each sip. And she always kept a careful eye on my cup while she reminded me that the red-bottomed monkeys, whose appearance I coveted so dearly, were not friends of the forest, but were in fact enemies of her tomato garden; creatures to be feared and fervently detested. "They come down from the mountains and take, take, take! And they wear little backpacks to hide what they steal!" she chided, shaking an arthritic finger at me. I thought perhaps they were simply misunderstood.

I never mentioned the monkeys to my friends, who preferred eating pastel-coloured ice pops in the abandoned parking lot by the highway and lighting as many firecrackers as they could manage in sixty seconds, maximum. There was no use in trying to inquire about the monkeys, at any rate, because the electronic dictionary in my front pocket could only explain one word at a time and had no capacity for grammatical structure or use of the copula. After several weeks, I tired completely of the little dictionary and handed it over to Kisara for entertainment. She, too, quickly grew frustrated by its limitations. Because we were only in the third grade, even the most talented student could not yet distinguish between the more complex Chinese characters whose distinct strokes made the difference between, say, painful (辛い) and lucky (幸せ). But Kisara refused to give up on the mystical machine and led the group in the many wasted hours we would spend plugging in dirty words in our native languages, laughing at the results and politely ignoring the times when the joke fell short on the linguistically naïve and had laughed at the wrong translation.

I could always get by. I could always string together enough words and wave my arms in as many charades as necessary to get the point across. A laugh always sufficed when all else failed. But I could never explain that I wanted to go home because I was tired of being lonely with these Other People, because I missed my mother and because I needed my father to rescue me. I needed my father and his loud Japanese to save me when my electronic dictionary ran out of tricks, when I was too overwhelmed by いえ, いえ, ちがう, by No, No, Esumi-Chan, that's not it. I could not will my mind to wrap itself around the verb-subject role reversal, the lack of plurality or the sheer amount of context required to make sense of anything in my father's native tongue. I only wished to understand, to be understood, to know the who, the what, the where. (I was my father's daughter after all.) And so, because the present polite and past negative form of the copula were always jumbled in my head and because I could never find the right verb, much less the correct place for it, I often stayed quiet, remaining comfortably mute so that I could continue staring up at the mountains in search of my monkeys, unnoticed, as my friends kept their eyes glued to the screen of the pocket dictionary in search of answers (or questions).

***

I was making my evening delivery one night, placing my neglected letter onto one of my father's mountains of paper just as the sun seemed to fall into the Pacific Ocean, when my disturbance of his organised chaos caught his eye. (It did not catch his ear, startling him the way a solitary scream from the forest will, because a virus had stolen most of his hearing when he was a child and his hearing aid often left a trail of violent feedback which was, ironically, deafening.) I watched as his gaze met the opening line of my little note, now yellowed from the elements. I felt the words get stuck in my throat once again, and their bitterness reminded me why I was always the quiet one. I could not even muster the courage to point to the character 森, to its perfectly even pyramid of trees—mori was my favourite Chinese character because it was still a perfect hieroglyph and because I only had to memorise four strokes in order to complete it— and I could not collect my memories of the afternoon into a package as neat as my rendition of the character for forest. And anyways, Papa had already cut to the chase.

"Oh, the Morishitas! Yes. How many of them are there again? Two boys? Is there a sister? Have you met them all? Do you know which grades they're all in?" Check, check, check. I handed my father my pen so that he could copy 森下 haphazardly into a notebook of his own, disregarding the importance of maintaining harmony among each branch.

森下

Morishita. Once for each family member. Morishita. For Ryuji Morishita, the boy I adored, whose name I wrote in a notebook which was mine and mine alone. I looked up from my father's sloppy portrayal of my beloved's name. He smiled at me with satisfaction.

Now at Morishita's store. It was the most sophisticated note yet. The memory of the afternoon was still warm, and it flooded over me just the way the ocean did when it kissed my earlobes at high tide. I wished Papa could have seen me laying on that big yellow inner tube in the gulf of the river, right where the Pacific eats it whole at dawn and dusk, wished that I could find the words to tell him how I could see all of the cars fly past me on the highway overhead, how if I squinted, they almost looked like birds. I wanted to tell him about all the shrimp we caught in borrowed nets from the bait shop, about how Ryuji-Kun had smiled at me and how it had made my heart melt like putty in my hot hands.

But Papa was busy, already back at work shuffling his papers into new kaleidoscopic arrangements. He had collected all of the important details and now his knowledge was spread across the table, obscuring the yellow daisies that were printed on the plastic tablecloth so that I could no longer count their petals. I watched as his tea jostled in its cup with every rearrangement, spilling yet more of itself onto the table, and I wondered if my father ever got a chance to taste it.


 Esumi Fujimoto graduated from New York University's College of Nursing and is now a registered nurse living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently practices in the labor and delivery department of a major New York City hospital and is pursuing a career in midwifery and reproductive health justice. When she is not helping babies come into the world, she enjoys exploring the nature of lived human experiences through writing.

 
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