Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Stranger In A Foreign Land

"Well hello, dear, I don't remember seeing you here before. Are you new in town?"

I heard her before I saw her, and the woman's voice stopped me dead in my tracks. I'd been wandering through the shopping mall, doing my best to blend into the sea of Japanese shoppers when she spoke -- in perfect English. And it didn't make sense, because the woman speaking was at least seventy years old, and she looked 100% Japanese.

In the small town I lived in, I knew, or knew of, just about every foreigner within a thirty mile radius. There were the foreign students at my university: a redheaded Brazillian woman, three Chinese men, another American exchange student, and a man from Zaire. There were the two foreign lecturers at the university, Bert from America and Reginald from England. There was my friend Nancy, married to a Japanese farmer, and Jack and Liz, a married American couple who taught English in town. There was the elderly Russian tailor who had a small shop near the station and had reputedly lived in Japan since before the war. And now, this woman; she had to be an American with an accent like that.

Then I remembered Liz telling me about a woman she had met in town -- a woman brought up in America whose family had moved back to Japan before the war. And I knew that this had to be her.

"Where are you from?" she was asking me now, her shopping bag of vegetables over one arm. "Are you American?"

"Yes, and you are too, aren't you?"

She smiled. "I was once, after a fashion. My parents took me to America when I was one year old, you see, and I lived there until I was fourteen."

I stood in the mall talking to this woman while the rain hammered down on the plastic awning over our heads. She had an incredible story. Her parents had decided to emigrate to America in the twenties. Japan was in a slump, and they were finding it difficult to make ends meet. Friends who had emigrated to the West Coast told them America was a wonderful land of opportunity and they longed to see for themselves. Leaving their home in Kyushu, they moved to Oregon with their two small children.

"America was all I knew," she said. "My parents bought a small grocery store and put us into the local school. But we were the only Japanese kids there, and it was tough."


"Because Japan was already getting a bad reputation, trying to start an empire. We were the enemy no matter how hard we tried to be American."

"What a shame!"

"It was, really. We kids felt like Americans, you see. And we tried so hard to make them like us! But after the windows in our store were broken for the fifth time -- and so much more -- my parents couldn't take any more. They decided to move us back to Japan. I'll never forget the long voyage back. We were so scared, but they told us that Japan would be better. That we would feel at home there."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see passers by looking at us in amazement. If this lady had been young, no one would have batted an eye, but the fact that I was talking to a little gold-toothed grandmother gave them pause. That foreigner is fluent! I even heard one woman murmur to a friend. If she had gotten close enough to hear our conversation, she would have realized that we were speaking English, not Japanese.

"What a shame you were treated badly in America," I said, but the woman laughed.

"You may be surprised to hear that we were treated no better in Japan!" she replied. "I know that you are called gaijin here because I talk to many foreigners -- non-Japanese people -- and I hear that they get tired of being called foreigner. But when we came back to Japan, we were called gaijin too."

"Really?" I asked, astonished.

"Yes. We were living in Shikoku then, out in the country where my father grew up. The children would follow us around the playground, poking at us. Gaijin! they would call, Say something to us in English! She laughed bitterly. "We even took to wearing kimono, and we spoke to each other only in Japanese, never English -- but it was not enough. We could never be Japanese enough for them. Whatever we did, they could tell we were foreigners."

I shook my head, amazed.

"And then the war started," she said quietly, "and we knew we would never go back."

"Do you ever think of going back now?"

She smiled. "Sometimes. I would love to see Oregon again -- to see the forests and the ocean there. But I have a child who is badly disabled and who still needs my care. I have never been back."

When we said goodbye, I watched her disappear into the crowd. She looked so much like everyone else.

"I saw you in the mall yesterday talking to that old lady," a girl in my dorm said the next day. "I meant to help you out, but you seemed to be doing okay." She cocked her head. "Your Japanese must be a lot better if you can talk to someone that old. What was she saying, anyway? Was she bending your ear about the war?"


Carolie said...

Oh Mary! You made me weep.

I want to find your little old lady and hug her (which I'm sure would have startled her!) and escort her to Oregon and to my home in Kyushu, and to meet my parents in North make her feel loved and wanted and accepted.

I won't ever truly "fit in" in my neighborhood (a well-padded blonde American in a neighborhood of elderly Japanese couples) but I'm so very lucky that my neighbors welcome me and are so gentle and generous to me. One neighbor rang my doorbell yesterday with two spears of red gladiolus (at least four feet long) and two heavy, lumpy citrus fruits that look like squat grapefruits (maybe they're yuzu?)

I didn't understand what she was saying as she chattered on, nodding and smiling, but finally understood "chocolate" and realized these gifts, both from her garden, were in exchange for the box of chocolates I gave each of my neighbors at Christmas.

I hope I can be as welcoming to others in my life as the Japanese have been to me.

Angela said...

I hope she makes it back to Oregon one day, too. What a great story!

Brave Astronaut said...

I read your blog posts (and star them in my google reader) over and over. Everytime I find something new in them.

You really know how to do this blogging thing don't you? Another outstanding story.

Well done, Mary! On so many levels.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow. How sad at the way she was treated in two countries. People can be so cruel. We're no better than chickens who will peck an outsider. A powerful story.

Gorilla Bananas said...

They couldn't have picked a worse time to emigrate to America, with depression and war around the corner. I hope she does go back for a visit, hopefully to see how things have changed for the better for Japanese-Americans.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- If you had lived in Oita, this lady would have found you. Eventually, she met and talked to every foreigner there, with the exception of the Chinese students and a few Brazillians of Japanese extraction, who did not stand out. I wish I could describe how gently and thoughtfully she spoke. She had a lovely, soft voice and though she had been through trials, did not seem to hold it against anyone. But I know what you mean: I felt like taking her to meet every kindly, friendly person I know. And in a way, she is getting around now, if only virtually, on this blog. She told me she wanted young people to know her story -- and that was why she approached so many people and talked to them. I think she must also have gotten a kick out of speaking such incredible, natural English to people who took one look at her and saw only a little Japanese granny. I know I would have.

Those fruits your neighbor gave you do sound like yuzu! Shave off the peel and put it in some sugared water: yuzu-ade!

Angela -- I doubt that she ever did manage to get back to Oregon. She said she often went back in her dreams to the grocery store her parents owned.

BA -- Your kind words almost turned my head! Fortunately, another rejection letter is bound to come my way pretty soon, quickly deflating my ego. But you are awfully sweet to praise me and this will go a long way to balancing out my rejection dejection.

Charles -- This woman's family was doomed no matter what they did; if they'd stayed in America, they would have been relocated and their property and assets confiscated. As it was, they returned to Japan to be scorned and mistreated; her father was no doubt drafted into the military, and the family had to endure wartime deprivation.

Sometimes we're even worse than chickens, but sometimes we are so much better.

GB -- You are so right: their timing was awful. After Nanjing, anti-Japanese feeling was understandably high, and Japanese- Americans were included in the hate-fest. I hope she lived long enough to hear about the presidential apology for executive order 9066 and subsequent reparations.

Alice said...

One of the best conversations I ever had with a Kenyan was on the matatu going back to my village. There were two Kenyan men sitting behind me speaking about guitars and drums of all things, and they were speaking in English. I turned around and spent the best hour speaking with Kenyans in all my time there. I think because the topic didn't have anything to do with poverty, politics, condition of life, etc....just ordinary things and the fact that they didn't hit on me which was a first. It's funny the moments you enjoy.

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent story. It is always important to speak to others you meet on any given day. You never know what you will learn, or whom you will meet. A bit of kindness goes a very long way.

A Paperback Writer said...

Excellent choice of title. Moses probably could've sympathized with her.
I'd like to think that if she'd lived at a different time, then things would've been better -- in both countries.

I have a friend (Anglo-American of many generations) who teaches at a uni in Japan. His wife is Japanese and their son has many things in his physical appearance that make him blend in in Asia -- except that he is tall, like his father. (The boy is only about 7 or so.) The child's main language is Japanese, but his given name is very western-European (and common in the States) and his surname is German.
When he was quite little, the parents would spend summers in Utah and put the child in a preschool to help him with his English. How odd it must've been for the teachers to have an Asian-looking child with a very non-Asian name who spoke no English!
I hope he'll fit in in both countries -- but then our current icky war is not with Japan.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Oregon has had a curious connection to Japan. In the 80's there was a popular TV show in Japan called "Oregon Kara Ai" (

So we were not surprise when we were in Japan that most everyone knew of Oregon. Not so our visitors from France or the UK who know only of New York or Los Angeles.

Even today, there remain direct flights from Japan to Portland. The "Rose City" has one of the finest Japanese gardens in the world. I find it not surprising at all that your friend, the old woman, would have lived in Oregon. Our state has many connections to Japan to this day.

Mary Witzl said...

Alice -- That is a lovely story, and I can well imagine how you must have felt. There are times you long to connect with others in a way that is free from gender, class, race. Living in a foreign country, you often end up taking on the role as spokesperson for your country and must answer all their questions about your country's culture and politics. And of course, if you're young and female, you inevitably get hit on. That can be a huge burden, so it is wonderfully refreshing to talk about things with a universal appeal. Having kids gives you an automatic link to other parents; in many ways, it is easier to be an expatriate when you are older and already have kids.

Barbara -- You're right. I was so glad this woman stopped to talk to me; I would never have heard her story otherwise. Almost all the foreigners around ended up meeting her because she approached them to chat. That alone seemed such an American thing to do. I suspect that she missed speaking English as much as I now miss speaking Japanese.

APW -- When I lived in Sendai, I used to pass by the foreign student housing for Tohoku University. There were always kids playing there and it used to crack me up listening to them: Indian, European, African, Chinese -- and all of them nattering away in Japanese. I taught my boss's son who was mixed race (African/Caucasian). He spoke very little English and would answer my English questions in hilarious monosyllabic Japanese responses. There were a handful of blonde-haired, blue-eyed American kids there who could not write English, but were fine with Japanese. Your friend's son would have fit right in!

Robert -- What a blast from the past! I actually used to watch that show, and while it was pretty sappy, the Japanese was just my speed -- a little challenging, in fact. I just googled it and had a wonderful trip down memory lane. I believe that show did a lot for tourism in Oregon, attracting a lot of Japanese who yearn for wide open spaces and clear skies.

debra said...

What a lovely story, Mary. Stories like this are his-tory (or her-story) and are so important to share. We are all neighbors on the beautiful blue planet.

Tabitha said...

Beautiful story. Truly beautiful. I'm not surprised at how she was treated both in America and Japan, especially given the mentality at the time. My brother is bi-racial, and he's had some difficulties now and then, but lately things have really improved. My own kids are bi-racial, but they're too young to have experienced any discrimination yet. I am hoping that, by the time they're old enough, these instances will be few and far between.

On a different note, the old woman in your story is an ideal main character! She's been through many harsh trials, learned and grown from them, and is still as sweet as can be. :) Makes the heart melt. :)

Kim Ayres said...

Beautifully written and expressed Mary

Beck said...

That story is just haunting.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- If only everyone else believed this, the world would be such a nicer place. It is amazing how much we have in common with each other if only we stop to consider it.

Tabitha -- Thank you.

In Japan, bi-racial kids used to be called 'haafu' (for 'half'). I'm not sure who it was, but someone had the clever idea of calling them 'double' instead, and I love this. Being a double can be hard work and it's not necessarily better than being a 'single,' but ALL doubles are pioneers, and I can't help but think that their lives are generally richer and more interesting.

I was thinking about this lady when I read your interesting post on how suffering makes for a more well- rounded, sympathetic protagonist.

Kim -- Thank you. It's so gratifying to trot out my long-winded tales and get praised for doing so!

Beck -- Thank you for visiting my blog. This story sounds sad when I reread it, but the woman seemed very upbeat and philosophical about her life -- not a tragic figure at all.

Kara said...

probably better that she left since Oregon decided to intern all residents of Japanese descent in WWII. we were some real assholes back then.

now i see Japanese tourists EVERYWHERE in Portland. they come here in droves. i always wonder what the fuck they're looking at. there's nothing to see here.

Eryl Shields said...

I loved this story, so sad. Why do we like sad things so much?

Love the names Bert and Reginald together, did you make them up or were there really two men called that?

Kim Ayres said...

Several times today this blog post has leapt to mind and I found myself wondering about how this could just have easily been written about Muslims, expecially of Middle Eastern origin (Iraqis, Iranians, Palestinians etc), these days in the UK and the US.

It's that whole notion of otherness - especially when someone not only looks different but clearly has a differnt culture.

One of the wonderful things about your stories, Mary, is how you take the otherness and turn it back to us, making us realise the sameness of the human condition no matter where or when.

Carole said...

This is my third time through this story and each time I liked it more. You did a great job of writing it without taking away from the dignity of lady, nor placing blame on either country. You make a person want to do better in their encounters in life.

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- Though she lived in Oregon, it could just as easily have been California or anywhere else on the west coast, where all persons of Japanese ancestry were interned. Her family might have had an easier time in Hawaii or the east coast. But you are right: back then racists had a free rein. I've heard that the situation in Canada was often just as bad or worse.

Eryl -- I've been pondering your first question all day! When you visit, I'll probably have sorted out my answers.

Believe me, these guys looked like they should be called Bert and Reginald. Fortunately for them, their mothers gave them different names.

Kim -- You're right. Just after 9/11, the father of a classmate of my nephew was shot dead in his small store, in California. He was a Coptic Christian from Egypt, but the boys who killed him saw only a Middle Easterner and wanted to 'get even.'

Not long after 9/11 I heard a wonderful comedy routine by two comedians, one Jewish and the other Arab-American. They pointed out how similar they were, that they were "both non- pork-eating, hairy men of God." Their routine was just hilarious -- and so heartening.

Carole -- Thank you so much, but anyone meeting this woman would have been amazed by her gracious, thoughtful attitude. And she stayed in my memory for many reasons. During the war, Japanese people were forbidden from learning English, so it was utterly bizarre to meet someone her age who looked so Japanese but sounded so American.

ChrisEldin said...

I love these vignettes, Mary.

I recently finished reading a middle grade book called "Dragon Wings." It's about a Chinese father who is living in California during the early 1900s, and his son is sent to live with him. It's a beautiful book. Your story reminds me of it.
And I heart that little old lady!

A Paperback Writer said...

Mary, this is off-subject, but Max left you an answering comment on my burrito post.
Do go and have a look at it.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- Thank you for that nice comment. Oddly, I don't feel that I can do this lady justice. The gentleness in her tone, the careful way she chose her words, and her determination not to blame either side but understand what had happened and why made me want to learn more. I've spent years now, trying to figure out just how WWII started (or the Pacific war, at any rate), and this woman was a great influence in piquing my curiosity.

I have heard of Dragon Wings and plan to add it to my towering book list. I am fascinated about this period in history, especially the experiences of all immigrants to the U.S., so this one definitely goes up to the top of the list.

APW -- Never fear: I had to go back to your site to look at that burrito again. How sad that there isn't a way to FedEx burritos to the U.K. -- along with that all-important western ambiance...

Danette Haworth said...

And how ironic that your dorm mate wanted to "save" you from a conversation so fascinating and precious--yet another prejudice.

Mary Witzl said...

You got that, Danette -- yay! Since so few elderly Japanese people speak English, my dorm buddy never thought for one minute that we'd been speaking anything but Japanese. The woman from Oregon spent most of her life being misunderstood; when I told this girl that her English had been so good that I couldn't even praise it (a bit like praising my own), this girl just gave me a funny look and changed the subject. You could see she didn't believe me.