I was ten years old when I first traveled to Japan in 1970. My adoptive nisei parents had planned a combination tourist trip and homecoming for my issei grandmother. This journey marked her first trip back to Japan since she’d left as a picture bride. Her parents had died long ago, but she would be seeing her sister for the first time in fifty years. My parents had coaxed me away from my New Jersey friends with stories of Nara Park, where deer roamed free, nibbling from visitors’ hands. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this trip halfway around the world.
In a photo taken of our tour group, I am wearing a red striped shirt, stretchy shorts, and clunky orthopedic shoes. Thick brown bangs and smeared horn-rimmed glasses dominate my face. I sit between my parents and grandmother in the front row, holding the sign for Rising Sun Tours. My mother is wearing her customary buttoned-down blouse and boxy skirt, my father has a camera hanging from his neck. Except for my family, the tour group was all hakujin, or white Americans. I am half Japanese: hanbun-hanbun, or half and half, or, as they say in Japan, haafu. I was just beginning to think about being adopted. It meant that I didn’t match my family the way that others did. It meant that I had other parents, only one of whom was Japanese. I wondered if they might be Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
The guide, Namiko, gestured for our family to sit near her on the bus, as if we were her favorites. My father spoke to her in Japanese, but it seemed that this was maybe against regulations. She hid her lipsticked mouth behind her hand and answered him while giggling.
The minibus wound through the green landscape of my grandmother’s childhood. I sat next to her, holding her hand. After my grandfather had passed away, she’d been folded into our family. She was like an elderly sibling, and my partner in everything: we shared a room in the hotel and buddied up on the bus.
My mother pointed out the window. “Look, Ma. Do you remember that?”
My grandmother shook her head, either in denial or amazement. “Oh my. Oh my,” she murmured. Her eyes were watery, her voice incredulous and sad.
My grandmother stumbled through the tourist part of the trip as if she was sleepwalking. When we’d first arrived in Tokyo, my parents urged her to ask directions from a police officer. She approached him sideways, like a crab, bowing awkwardly. He leaned down to listen to her, then gesticulated with both hands, a rush of words coming from his mouth. Nana nodded, bowed, and thanked him—I heard her mumble “arigato gozaimasu”—and then she scuttled back to us.
She grabbed my father’s sleeve. “Masaji, you go ask other person.”
“What? Didn’t the junsan tell you?”
Her mouth trembled. “Talk too fast. No understand.” She shook her head violently. “Different kind nihongo.”
We stared at her. Different kind of Japanese? What did she mean? But she insisted that it was different, that he used words she had never heard, and she had no idea what the police officer had said. The language she had known for five decades had been replaced by something much more rapid, full of sounds and textures she didn’t recognize.
My mother barked at her. “Whaddaya mean, you don’t understand? This is where you come from! You were born in Nihon!”
My grandmother turned away, ashamed, and brought her cotton handkerchief to her face.
My mother muttered under her breath. “You baka?”
I flinched. She had used this word on me too, when I lost a sweater or forgot to bring my lunch to school. Baka. Stupid. It landed like a gob of spit.
My grandmother spoke a broken, stuttering half-English, half-Japanese. None of my friends could understand her, but her jumbled code comforted me. I understood her perfectly—we were like twins who shared a secret language. I knew she sounded like a toddler to others.
I think we expected that in Japan, her homeland, she would return to speaking fluently in her mother tongue. But she stumbled in Japan too, still grasping for language, never fully confident. I watched her rock silently back and forth, gazing out the bus window, and I ached for her.
In our small suburban town in New Jersey, my parents were a distinct minority. I saw kids pull at the edges of their eyes behind my father’s back. Although his teeth were perfect (also false, manufactured by his older brother Ichiro in his basement dental shop), they would stick their top teeth over their lips, like rabbits, and jeer hay yee ching chong.
But in Japan, my parents and grandmother dissolved into the population. With their black hair and golden complexions they looked like everyone else. The only thing that set them apart was the tour badge pinned to their clothes. And me.
I noticed sideways glances in my direction. A vendor in a shop looked from me to my parents and asked questions. My father answered back in Japanese. Was he telling them I was adopted? That I was hambun-hambun, half and half, haafu? That it was none of their business?
I didn’t want to eat Japanese food. I turned away from everything except bowls of plain white rice, or onigiri, rice balls like my grandmother made. My parents were perplexed. “She likes sushi at home, she eats it all the time,” they insisted. My mother said, “It’s sashimi. Just like in Florida.” But the orange bubbles of fish roe made me gag. This wasn’t the sashimi I knew.
Sashimi was what we ate after my father went deep-sea fishing off the coast of Florida. Every summer we packed our station wagon with clothes, books, my father’s fishing poles, and my mother’s electric rice cooker. We rented a kitchenette double unit at the Fabulous Waikiki Motel in Miami Beach. My parents had been going to the same motel since the mid-fifties, before I was born.
Deep-sea fishing was best at night, when the big fish—sailfish, swordfish, red snapper—rose up from the dark surface of the Atlantic. On fishing nights, my mother let me stay up late. We walked to the beach at midnight and took turns squinting through binoculars, looking for my father. The fishing boats floated on the horizon, tiny dots of light like stars that had fallen from the sky. He would stay out until three or four in the morning. When I woke up, I’d rush to the kitchenette’s mini-fridge and fling open the door to see his catch wrapped in newspaper. “Yes! How big was it?” Then he’d tell me dramatic stories of the struggle, the fish’s shining body twirling in the moonlight.
My mother would steam a pot of rice and bring out the glass decanter of shoyu. My father would slice the fish thin with the special knife he sharpened against a wet stone. The red flesh would melt on my tongue. It was exhilarating to eat something that my father caught with his own hands. I would tell him how I stood out on the sand in my pajamas, the lights from his faraway boat winking at me.
This was sashimi to me—fresh fish on hot rice, eaten off a paper plate in Miami Beach. The elaborate little sculptures on lacquer dishes in Japan seemed strange and foreign. The wasabi made my eyes sting.
My parents befriended the maitre’d at the New Otani Hotel. He was an older gentleman with a kind voice and a good command of English. Each night he led me to a small table near the swinging kitchen doors. He brought me potato chips in a porcelain bowl, ice cream and cheeseburgers, Amerikannu-style. He introduced to me Chicken a La King, a creamy dish with a bowl of rice and perfectly golden toast triangles. I signed my name with a flourish alongside our family’s hotel room number.
Meanwhile, my parents and grandmother maneuvered along narrow Tokyo streets with the tour group, pouring en masse into alleyways to sit on the floor and drink tiny cups of sake served alongside wagyu beef and grilled octopus. They were tasting real Japan, while I sat cross-legged on a chair in the hotel restaurant, sucking ketchup from my fingers, homesick for New Jersey.
I was bored, and I longed for my friends in Park Ridge. I imagined them hanging out at the town pool without me, sitting at the snack bar in their wet bathing suits, sharing a basket of French fries. I wanted to be there; I didn’t want to visit yet another Buddhist temple, the sound of incomprehensible Japanese droning around me.
The tour bus sped around the country, stopping in front of what felt like a hundred temples and shrines. We disembarked and snapped photographs of pagodas and Buddhas in countless poses. We posed in front of the sleeping Buddha, the two-thousand-year-old sitting Buddha, the Buddha guarded by five hundred stone cats at Nikko, and the enormous sitting Buddha whose great toe was the size of a refrigerator. My grandmother pointed at the cats.
“Nikko nekko,” she repeated in sing-song, and we repeated it to each other, amused that the word for cat, nekko, was so close to the name of the city where cats were immortalized everywhere.
Finally, we arrived at the promised deer park at Nara, where thousands of roaming deer approached us. They nudged at my grandmother’s purse with their soft noses. “Go way!” she laughed, waving her hands.
“Sus, you want to feed the deer?” my father asked. He slipped a coin into a red dispenser like the candy machines at Woolworth’s and salty brown pellets poured into my palm. I held out a handful for the deer. They crowded around me with eager eyes, and their wet tongues slid roughly across my palm. I was in love with them—the way they stood in groups to watch us, how they followed us over the sandy paths to the temple. They were like magical walking trees, the velvety antlers curving in branches from their heads.
We eventually bid farewell to Rising Sun Tours and squeezed ourselves into a bullet train which flew through the countryside. At Okayama station, we were greeted by a sun-weathered man named Hiroshi. My grandmother was shy, and bowed over and over. “My nephew,” she said to me. “My sister boy.” She had never met him, having left Japan in 1920, years before he was born. She only knew this family through formal photographs and thin blue air-mail letters.
At the house, a slightly sterner and older version of my grandmother was waiting. “Ne-san.” My grandmother reached out to her sister. Their eyes filled with tears and they held each other’s wrinkled hands. The last time they were together they had been barely out of their teens, and now they were in their seventies.
In stark contrast to the New Otani Hotel, the house was a humble wooden structure on a dirt road, surrounded on two sides by rice paddies. The fields glowed an almost fluorescent bright green, and the wind rippling through them made a soft, wet sound.
My great-aunt opened an aluminum tin that held all the photographs my mother had sent from America. Pictures of me from second grade, toothless and holding a Mother Goose book. A snapshot of my grandmother in a drooping bathing suit in Miami Beach, wearing enormous black sunglasses and a floppy blue hat. These images represented the life my grandmother was living, so different from their own.
My grandmother had left the Okayama rice fields to marry my grandfather, a man she had never met. She ended up working in the laundry room of a busy Brooklyn hospital. “Bloody sheets, too much blood,” she’d say with disgust, flexing her hands. Later, she ran a Nikko restaurant in New York City with my grandfather, and then she worked in a curtain factory—a sweatshop in Chinatown—for decades. She had traveled the country, but her favorite place was Florida, where she could bob in the warm ocean. She never learned to swim, but she relished walking into the water up to her waist, doing shallow knee bends and dancing slowly under the surface.
The Okayama relatives had few photographs of their own. They didn’t own a camera and only sat for portraits on formal occasions: my grandmother’s niece, powdered, wearing an elaborate wedding kimono; a few faded portraits of the entire family, my grandmother absent. I watched her trace her mother’s face in a photograph taken during the war, two decades after she had left Japan.
“Okaasan,” she murmured, waving me closer. “This my mother,” she said. “See, Nana has mother too.” She slid the picture back into its worn envelope and returned it to her niece, then wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
I felt embarrassed and helpless, seeing her cry. I got up and went over to the front porch, and looked out at the green rice fields.
I’d already heard the sound of my grandmother’s weeping more than once during the trip. When I tried to comfort her, she just said, “Daijobu, Su-sahn,” but I didn’t believe her. Everything wasn’t all right. Had bringing her home been a mistake?
I came back in from the porch and huddled next to her in front of a tabletop shrine. She lit a stick of incense and began softly chanting a Shinto prayer. The sharp sweet smell curled around us. Blurred photographs of my grandmother’s parents, as small as postage stamps, were propped against a bowl holding an orange and a dish of rice. She was back in her home at last, but it seemed to be breaking her heart.
Her parents were gone and her teenaged sister was elderly, and so was she. The house was smaller, more fragile. Only the rice fields, wet and whispering, remained the same as in her memory.
There was one child in the family close to my age, a boy of seven or eight. He was skinny, with a spiky black crew cut, his feet in thin rubber zorii. After some conversation with the relatives, my father said, “You’re going to go to gakko, today, Sus.” I recognized the word for school. The boy nodded and pointed up the road. I was shy, but I followed him to a low building with two or three classrooms, their doors open to the outside. There was no main office or secretary to approve my presence. I just slid into the room.
My young cousin was proud of having a foreign relative. He spoke rapidly as he presented me to his teacher. All I could understand was, “Amerika-no New Yokku!” The sensei, a young man with wire-rimmed glasses, smiled and gestured toward an empty chair. I followed the boy down the rows of desks and heard a smattering of words. “Hontoni nihonjin?” A question, and then tittering. Is she really Japanese? My face burned.
The boy-cousin stared at me as if seeing me for the first time. Had he not noticed until then that I didn’t resemble my parents? That my eyes were rounder, my hair and skin lighter? He shrugged and blurted out something I didn’t understand. The teacher clapped his hands for order, and class resumed.
At the end of the day, a bell sounded and my cousin grabbed my hand. We tumbled out of the classroom and he pulled out a warm, grimy coin from his pocket.
“What?” I held my hands up and shrugged in the universal sign of “I don’t understand.”
“Hanabi! Hanabi!” His mouth made exploding sounds.
A pack of children ran up the dirt road in front of the school to a worn shed with a window cut in front. We followed them and stood in line, waiting for something. I thought it must be candy, and my mouth began to water.
A leathery-faced man in an apron stood behind the window, passing out small colorfully wrapped packages in exchange for coins.
The cousin deposited his coin on the counter and grabbed a package that looked like it held pencils. He tore at the paper and inside were sparkler sticks tied with a string like a small bouquet. The man pointed his chin at a tin box on the counter, and my cousin took out a few wooden matches. He bent down and struck a match on a rock and it burst into flame. He touched it to one of the sparklers and then passed it to me, grinning. The sparkler hissed in my hand, tiny threads of flame falling onto the dusty street. The boy whirled around, his arms outstretched, and the sparks circled around his head. I laughed, jabbing the flashing wand into the air until it sputtered and died.
“Let’s get more!” I was giddy.
He pulled his pockets out to show me. Empty. But I knew where we could get coins. We ran back to his house. My father was outside with one of the uncles, inspecting a piece of farm equipment.
“Daddy! Can I have some money? The heavy round kind, without the hole in the middle?” I hopped from foot to foot. “Pleeeze?”
He turned and looked down at us. “Slow down, rascal. What’s this for?”
I looked wildly at the boy. We both shouted in unison. “Hanabi! Hanabi!”
That’s what I called him after that. I didn’t understand or couldn’t remember his given name. I plunged my hands into my father’s pockets and my mother’s purse. I pled with my grandmother to give me a few extra coins. We ran, huffing and sweating, back to the little shed near the school. We bought more sparklers, little coils that jumped and spun in the dirt, noisy strips of firecrackers, puffballs and magic flowers. We kept loose matches in our pockets. We spent the week like addicts, always seeking to feed our habit. No words passed between us but the one: hanabi. Ours was the ecstatic language of delight, howling and shrieking with pleasure as the matches bloomed into flame.
On our last night with the family, there was a feast of loose chirashi sushi and yakitori, skewers of chicken bits broiled over a coal fire in the back yard. I ate two full plates, delighting Hanabi’s mother by exclaiming, “oishiii!” Neighbors came with their children, some that I recognized from school. I waved shyly. My father shot rolls of film, promising to send photographs back. I sat on the edge of the wooden porch, suddenly sad to be leaving. The sky turned indigo, then black, and the stars were as thick and bright as a handful of flung rice. Hanabi’s father, one of the uncles, brought out an enormous parcel wrapped in brown paper. The children gathered as he cut the twine with a knife.
It was a mother lode of hanabi—the largest, most glorious pile of fireworks I had ever seen. We huddled around a mound of dirt while he drove them into the ground, then scraped a match on the sole of his shoe.
He paused with the chip of fire flickering in his fingers, then bowed toward us, the family from America. I heard my name, just like my grandfather used to say it. “Su-sahn.”
Then he shouted, “Sahhh!” and lit the first fuse. The spark raced up the tail of the cord and the phosphorous blasted up into the sky, exploding in a cascade of light. Hailstorms of rainbow flame showered over the neighbors’ fences. There were tiger tails, gold comets that flittered and spun, peacock fans, and Roman candles that shrieked and shattered into bits of color. More people gathered from around the neighborhood.
My grandmother sat on a rough bench alongside her sister. They clamped their hands against their ears and applauded in unison, the shape of their mouths mirroring each other. In the yard, adults clapped and shouted along with the children who were leaping in the dirt. We were all exhilarated.
After it was finished, the yard lay heavy in a cloud of sulfur smoke. I approached uncle Hiroshi, who was gathering the shredded remnants into a metal trash can. I touched his arm. “Arigato. Arigato gozaimasu.” My parents had taught me that the gozaimasu was for added emphasis, more respect.
He turned and pulled me into his shirt, and patted my hair with his rough hand. I smelled sweat and phosphor in the fabric.
My parents talked as we pulled the futons down onto the tatami floor. “That was a big purchase for them.”
“I know. But the kids loved it.”
“He did it for Susan.”
I lay in the dark on my futon and reached out to touch the tatami floor. These relatives of mine, people I had never seen, had spoken to me without language. It didn’t matter that I was haafu, that I was adopted. They had showed me, through brilliant colors breaking and falling into the sky, that I belonged.
On the futon mat beside me, my grandmother lay quietly. “Did you like the hanabi, Nana?” I asked. “Pretty, wasn’t it?”
“Mm.” She nodded and patted my shoulder.
“Tomorrow, go home time,” she murmured. “You, me, we go home.”
Next up in the portfolio: “Tiger Mom” by Na Mee
Susan Ito is the author of the memoir I Would Meet You Anywhere (Ohio State University Press, forthcoming November 2023) and the coeditor of the anthology A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption (North Atlantic Books, 1999). Her work has appeared in The Writer, Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, AGNI, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen, The Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her theatrical adaption of Untold, stories of reproductive stigma, was produced at Brava Theater. She is a co-organizer of Rooted and Written, a writing workshop for writers of color, and a member of the Writers’ Grotto. She teaches at the Mills College campus of Northeastern University and at Bay Path University. (updated 10/2023)