Usually, having a Japanese mother was great. It made me feel different and special. I was the only kid I knew who had lots of exotic Japanese items, like geta (wooden shoes), a kimono, and Japanese dolls with real hair, that I could bring in for show and tell. Nobody else had a mother who could speak another language, who looked different.
But sometimes it could be confusing or memorable, and those moments made their way into the book. For example, my family sometimes used solely Japanese words for certain things, so I had no idea what the English words were. For going to the bathroom, where English speakers would use “potty” or “poop,” my parents used Japanese baby words, “shi-shi” and (I’m not even sure how to spell this, and Google wasn’t a help) and “oo-oon.” “Shi-shi” is onomatopoeia for the sound it makes; and “oo-oon” is the sound a person makes, I guess, when doing that other action.
When I started kindergarten (no preschool for me) and the other kids raised their hands and said, “I have to go potty,” I had no idea what they meant. All I knew was that I had to go “shi-shi,” and I didn’t think they’d understand my words. In a bit, I learned that I could just ask to use the “restroom,” and figured out what the American slang for bodily functions was later.
I also had this problem when I was playing with a little kindergartner friend of mine. I remember we were lying on the sidewalk outside her house. She must have blown her nose (or, let’s face it, probably just picked it) and showed me a, “big, gross booger.” I looked at what she was pointing at. “That’s not a booger. That’s hanakuso-tare.” My friend got confused. “What’s that? This is a booger.” “No, it’s hanakuso-tare.” She laughed. “What are you saying?”
I finally realized what she meant, that “booger” was the English word. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I looked up hanakuso-tare. It’s the possibly impolite saying of never-ending snot. When my mother said it, it sounded like, “hanaxso-ta-day,” said very quickly, and she used it for anything that came out of the nose.It’s also interesting to me that because I used these words in a family setting outside of Japan, I have no idea if these words are used in regular Japanese conversations in Japan. I suspect not. I think if I used these words to ask Japanese strangers for a tissue, say, or for a restroom, they would be horrified or amused. I don’t even know if the way my mother pronounced the words was standard or her southern dialect.
My mother also had a few traditions different from other families. Once I borrowed an egg from a neighbor for my mother to complete a recipe. In the U.S., when you “borrow” an ingredient, you usually don’t mean you’re going to return it; it’s just a neighborly thing to do, and one day the neighbor might request the same kind of help from you. But my mother didn’t subscribe to this point of view.
The next day, after we bought more eggs, my mother sent me over to the neighbor’s house with two eggs. “Tell her it’s how Japanese do it,” she instructed. She did not want to be beholden to anyone, for anything. The neighbor tried to wave me off, saying it was fine, she didn’t need the egg back, but I had to insist that she take both.
When I was growing up, I never thought of myself as particularly Asian. If I got teased, it was for having a crooked mouth or being painfully shy. I didn’t look particularly Japanese, and we never hung out with other Asians.
Most of the children we knew in those days didn’t bat an eye when they had to remove their shoes at the door before entering the house. “It’s a Japanese tradition,” I’d say, and the kid would just do it without comment. Kids know every house has different rules (and toys and food). The neighborhood kids, having known my mother since they were tiny, simply accepted it as the way of life. The kids I met at school were not the sort who would pipe up un-politely about another culture’s traditions —and honestly, I had only a couple of close friends growing up anyway.
The shoes-off tradition got more amusing when my brother turned into a teen. Teenage boys (surprise!) are kind of stinky. So to have six pairs of athletic shoes lying by the door was not particularly pleasant. Our cat loved it, though. The cat would wait by the door for the boys to take off their shoes and then stick her head in them, rubbing and rolling, until she’d had her fill. I remember this mainly because my mother got so much entertainment out of it; it was rare to hear her laugh, but this did it every time.
There’s a part in the book where another mother can’t understand Shoko’s accent, and there’s a big mix-up over popcorn balls. As a kid, I was never aware of anyone not understanding my mother. But my husband’s mother, who never met mine, told me a story about a Japanese mom she knew when her kids were little. It was difficult to have a conversation with this lady, she said, and she expressed how badly she felt that she hadn’t tried harder to include her. I included a similar scenario in the novel, for Shoko.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Margaret!! Thank you, too, for sharing your experiences. =)
For those who would like to enter the giveaway, just fill out the form below! OR head out to your local bookstore and pick up the paperback today!