When my mother first came to America, she wore a pink coat with a rounded collar and four beveled black buttons. A farewell present from her parents and by far the most expensive garment she’d ever owned, the coat was wool, custom-made, and heavy enough to withstand the winters of Boston. It was March 1959; she was 22 and had never been outside of Japan or on a plane, and she’d not seen my father, Shoichi, for a year, but she wasn’t nervous, at least not much, or at least less nervous than excited. In her carry-on was a copy of A Little Princess, a pocket Japanese-English dictionary, and a daikon, a Japanese turnip, that she planned to grate, douse with soy sauce, and share with Shoichi for their first meal together in America.
The story of the eighteen months that followed, when my mother lived with my father in Boston, also sounded like a fairy tale.
My father was good to her, that was a lot of it. The bipolar illness that would come to plague him hadn’t manifested yet, and in the MIT physics department, where he was a grad student, he was acclaimed as a star. But according to my mother, they were also lucky. The McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in 1952, meant that they and a few other select Japanese could now live and work in America. And as my mother told it, eighteen years after Pearl Harbor, the hatred that many Americans had felt for the Japanese was on the wane: everyone was welcoming, everyone was kind.
At first, she stayed in the house of my father’s Ph.D. advisor, a sweet man who called Shoichi the best mind at MIT; he and his wife made her feel at home. A week later, when my mother and father married, the advisor walked her down the aisle.
Boston had been colorless, the tree branches bare, when my mother first arrived. But in a few weeks a plant she hadn’t ever seen in Japan, forsythia, began to bloom; in the coming years she’d recreate it again and again in her paintings, her favorite harbinger of spring. My father’s apartment, a drafty set of rooms with ceilings so high that my mother felt exposed, was a block from Symphony Hall. During the days and evenings, while my father was in class or the lab, she wandered their neighborhood. The sidewalks were red brick; the street lamps iron and ornate, their light soft. When she discovered one afternoon that the names of a set of streets nearby had a pattern—Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth—she was thrilled, and wished she were brave enough to tap on the shoulders of passersby and let them know, in case they hadn’t noticed.
In the fall, she began a Harvard masters program in literature, and she and my father moved across the river to an apartment with an address that even now, almost six decades later, still makes her smile: Harvard Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The paint flaked; the wide-planked pine floors tipped so sharply she felt vertigo. In the mornings my father headed east to MIT while she went west to her classes, and in the evenings, they regrouped for supper and homework. My father was a favorite among the department secretaries; he and my mother were always being invited to dinner with his professors and their wives. They became friends with a Japanese man, an MIT engineering student, whose roommate had recently died; he visited them so often they joked they should have an extra bedroom for him.
The eloquence and learning of her professors and fellow students awed and humbled my mother. Was this the world she would have encountered had she been allowed to attend Tokyo University—an institution that loomed above all others in Japan, as if the Ivies, Stanford, and MIT were rolled into one—instead of the women’s college, really no more than a finishing school, she’d gone to? Her English was poor and she had to struggle to keep up with the reading. In a creative writing class, she wrote a poem about her life in Cambridge: frying up chrysanthemum leaves as tempura in her small kitchen; missing autumn in Tokyo despite the glory of the New England leaves; thinking she never wanted to leave America, but feeling a homesickness for her country and language that was almost a physical ache. She’s not a crier—I remember her weeping each of the three times that my father tore up her paintings, but only rarely when he beat her—yet when her professor praised and read out her poem to the class, she felt teary with gratitude and pride.
I was in college, the turbulence of my parents’ break-up and its aftermath finally more or less behind me, when I began questioning my mother about the fairy tale. Soon it was going up in smoke.
After going through customs in her new pink coat, my mother felt conspicuous in a crowd of people dressed in green: it was St. Patrick’s Day. When she stayed at my father’s advisor’s home, she was jetlagged and eager to see my father and explore her new city. But the advisor’s wife had recently given birth to triplets, and my mother was asked to babysit.
My mother was a small Japanese woman with hardly any English. Though not unkind, the students in her Harvard classes rarely spoke to her, and never invited her out.
In my father’s last year at MIT, a professorship opened up in the physics department. My father, the odds-on favorite, was voted down by this same advisor, who persuaded his colleagues to choose another student.
Although the McCarran-Walter Act allowed Asians to live in America, it had a quota of just 2,000 per year. The roommate of my parents’ friend, the engineering student, had also been Japanese. He’d been so lonely in Boston that one sunny afternoon he stepped in front of an oncoming train.
Growing up, I heard my father’s rants against Americans—they were out to get Japs; they mocked his accent and laughed at him behind his back—only to dismiss them. In part this was because so much crazy talk—jealous of his brilliance, they were tapping his phones!—was strewn among his ravings: he was talking nonsense again; he was sick. But mostly I just couldn’t believe in America’s racism. My two sisters and I had been born in Princeton, New Jersey, where our parents had relocated after Boston, and they moved us “back” to Japan in 1974, ostensibly for good. My first day of school in Tokyo, I walked into second grade and felt at once startled, unnerved, and gratified by how much the other children looked like my sisters and me. Yet at recess, those same kids formed a circle around me, so tight I gasped for air; they pulled my hair, shouted that I was a gaijin, and made fun of the way I spoke, dressed, and walked. Over time I learned the language and made friends, and eventually the bullying stopped, yet I never felt Japanese. When we returned to Princeton after two years at my mother’s insistence, my father was furious; their marriage never recovered. But my relief was profound. Japan had shown me that America was the only home I had.
In 2010, when I was 44, my father died of complications from a long-term heart condition. For almost as long as I’d known him, he’d been twisted with anger and bitterness, and in the months following his death, when my grief, regret, and guilt over our long years of estrangement threatened to pull me under, I began sifting through his life for the source of his unhappiness. Only then did I recall his rants against racism and think, Of course.
The light bulb should have blinked on earlier, that’s clear. There was the way the other kids in Princeton had drawn back the skin at the corners of their eyes as I passed. There were the slurs, ChinkJapslanteyesyellowface, in the schoolyard and, later, on the streets of New York City, as well as the oh-so-well-meaning questions, aren’t I a credit to the race and how did I learn to speak English so well? The hoariest of chestnuts, an oldie but still a goodie, No no where did you really come from? The French lit professeur in college who said that she was pleased that I had some creativity, unlike the other Asian students who were comme les robots. The classmate in grad school who told me that I wouldn’t have trouble finding a professorship, not when I had the diversity thing going.
Whatever I experienced and still endure, my father had it worse. His tongue couldn’t form certain sounds—why did his accent grate, when my mother’s charms?—and his ear couldn’t distinguish them; he knew he spoke badly only from the bewilderment, incomprehension, and snickers of people around him.
He’d arrived in America in the late 1950s, less than fifteen years after WWII and the rounding up of Japanese-Americans into camps. He would have regularly met veterans who’d been taught to hate and fear the Japanese; laws banning the marriage of Asians and Caucasians were still in place. Ahead lay Vietnam; the rise of Japan as a world superpower and the inevitable backlash; the Japanese domination of the American auto market in the 1980s and the backlash to that, including the murder of Vincent Chin, the Chinese American whom two Detroit men targeted, chased, and beat to death with a baseball bat because they mistook him for a Jap and blamed him for the fact they were out of work.
But how much racism had racism affected my father’s career? He wasn’t a migrant worker, grudgingly tolerated and regularly stiffed, but a privileged student with a plum fellowship to a prestigious university, and then a respected scientist and professor. Asians in math and science, in academia overall: the stereotype might even have worked in his favor.
He also lived in Cambridge and then Princeton :liberal, intellectual enclaves filled with smart successful immigrants.
So why did he hate living here? How much racism could he have faced?
The story I told myself for years was that my father’s desire to return to Japan wasn’t about America. It was because he wanted to live in a country where he was revered, his every word awaited and hung on; he wasn’t being treated badly in America so much as missing the deference he was accorded as a professor and, even more importantly, as a man in Japan. Fixated on his own comfort, he was willfully ignoring the kind of life that my mother, sisters, and I would have in Japan—the limited opportunities, the brick load of expectations around husbands, children, and housework. In this narrative, he was the selfish patriarch and my mother, sisters and I were the victims, and because of it, I never gave serious thought to what he lost and endured for our sake.
Still, even now, I can’t quite let the story go. Because after my mother, sisters and I decamped from his house—even after he retired from the University, when he had no reason, financial, personal, or legal, not to head for the hills—our father stayed in America. Why not leave, if it was so awful? Maybe the racism he’d experienced hadn’t been that bad.
And yet. In high school I’d witnessed strangers and even my classmates mocking him, pretending not to understand his accent for the pleasure of seeing how, in his frustration, he’d talk louder and faster, his face reddening and eyes bulging, spittle flying from his mouth, and how, afterward, his old habit would resurrect itself and he’d bow, his head jerking down and up as if yanked by string, despite his best efforts to control himself. While I, standing beside him, would flush, too, his shame and humiliation somehow my own, and long to sidle away. No, I don’t know that man.
A warm and hazy day in late August, ten months after my father’s death: I’m at home alone in my husband’s and my house in Cambridge, two miles due west of the apartment that my parents rented in 1960, and even though I should be working on the syllabi for the writing and lit courses that I’ll be teaching in the fall, my mind keeps drifting. Finally giving up, I reach for the phone.
My mother, who remarried more than two decades ago, lives in England with my stepfather. After a few minutes of chitchat, I get right down to it.
Was the man who got the professorship at MIT instead of my father—too late, I realize that I’m assuming that it’s a man, but could it really be otherwise—white; was he American?
My mother says yes. He was a neighbor of theirs; she remembers him well. A bearish man, slow, large, and very gentle.
I ask how large a role racism had played.
After pausing to think, my mother says that more probably it was a question of personality; the man who got the job was docile, the opposite of my father. No, she doesn’t think that my father’s arrogance had put off the advisor. They remained friends for years.
When she says that Princeton, with its lab devoted to fusion research, was a better place for my father, my tone sharpens. If she’s implying that Daddy had anything to do with the choice, I say, I’m not buying it. Doesn’t she remember how sore he’d been about the job, how he was still harping on it decades afterward? I say that that rejection was ground zero, the beginning of his downfall; in his view, it proved that the world was rigged against him and it presaged or even ushered in the other disappointments, the missed honors and awards, that marked his career.
“Not getting that job changed him,” I say flatly.
My mother is silent. Then she says that the advisor was lovely, but not as smart as my father; he might have felt jealous of him. “Or maybe your father alienated him,” she says. “I thought he was a sweeter person back then, less arrogant. But maybe that’s what happened.”
I tell her that I want to explore how racism affected his career. “Even if it didn’t influence his advisor’s decision about the professorship, it must have changed Daddy’s career trajectory in other ways.”
My mother asks how I intend to research this.
“I’ll poll his colleagues,” I say.
“Even if there was racism,” she says, “it’s hard to prove.”
There it is. The slippery, insidious nature of racism: how could my father know why he was passed over for promotions and awards? How could anyone?
“And then what?” she asks.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“If you find out he faced racism, what will you do?”
Wallow in the fact that I, too, harbor racial biases? Feel like shit? “I’ve learned a lot about him since he died,” I say at last. “What will I do with any of it?”
At a loss, perhaps, she doesn’t answer.
When I send out emails to my father’s colleagues—Do you think there was any truth to his claim that the lab and the university were racist?—all their responses line up.
From one Japanese colleague: No place is perfect since most people have some degree of racial prejudice, but the lab and the university are the least racially prejudiced places I know. And from another: In University politics, we foreign born might have some political disadvantages, but racism was not prevalent in the lab. Outside physicists complained that if they had foreign accents, they might be treated better. According to the widow, a white woman, of one of my father’s other colleagues: I knew of no racism at the lab. After listing several Japanese scientists who’d thrived at the lab, she writes, Your father was not good at the “politics” of being a member of a group. This was undoubtedly exaggerated by his illness.
Discouraged but still determined, I report on the colleagues’ responses to my mother. Then I ask if she’s sure my father never mentioned a specific case of racism. “There must be something,” I say.
The wire hums. “I don’t think he did,” she says. “And I never found Americans that racist. Other than the writing on our street that one Halloween, I never—”
“Wait,” I say. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you remember?” The words had been terrible and hateful, she says, the letters enormous and in bright colors; even though there’d been other Asian families on the block, the writing had only been in front of our house.
At first she says she doesn’t remember what the words were. But by making guesses that she confirms or rejects, eventually I worm them out of her. There were the old standbys, Go home and JapChinkgook, but also words I didn’t know she knew, pussy and fuck you. And obscene stick figures.
“Neighborhood kids, I guess,” my mother says.
Someone I played Frisbee with, teenagers I’d passed trick-or-treating?
“They used some kind of special chalk,” my mother says. She sounds a little tired, maybe, but otherwise fine. “I spent the entire day trying to get it out.”
I search my memory for shameful words and drawings on pavement; my mother lugging a bucket, soapy water sloshing; on her hands and knees on the pavement scrubbing, and rising and dusting herself off when neighbors passed by in their cars.
“Are you sure I was there?” I ask.
Despite the world-class scientists and mathematicians populating our neighborhood, the street I grew up on was essentially 1970s-era suburbia. Houses, either colonial or modern, that sat on a quarter to half acre of lawn, trees, and flower beds. But even though all our nearest neighbors were white, many were European immigrants and a number were Jewish. The larger neighborhood included two Chinese American families. Our family didn’t stand out, at least not much.
We borrowed sugar and eggs from our neighbors, and they from us. I played capture the flag with the kids on the block. On Easter we held egg hunts; July, we had sparklers; November, we ate turkey; December, we hung trinkets on a tree. Our house had some Japanese artifacts and features indoors—shoji screens to separate the foyer and the living room; a Japanese warrior doll with long red hair and a fierce scowl glowering in the dining room—but from the outside, our house looked like any other: on the driveway my mother’s Valiant parked beside my father’s Impala.
In school I’d been teased for eating raw fish, sushi not yet a craze across America, and it’s true that we ate rice, tofu, miso, tempura, and sashimi, too, that we used chopsticks as often as we used forks and knives. But we consumed these meals indoors, and our food didn’t leave a telltale odor in the house or my clothes; even as a child I knew to be grateful for that, and we ate steak, too, and roast beef. In the summer we sat out on lawn chairs and my father grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and the neighbors dropped by, and as the fireflies rose like embers from the grass, my sisters and I toasted marshmallows that we shared with the neighborhood kids.
Looking back now, though, I can see that we overcompensated, as visitors and new immigrants do. Less than a year after we’d returned from Japan, my father took me to Kmart and bought me a Fourth of July outfit, a red sleeveless shirt and blue shorts with stars. One Christmas I remember bedecking myself in red and green and—could it be?—draping tinsel in my hair. So maybe that’s why one Halloween some teenagers assembled outside our house, special chalk in hand. We reeked of desperation, of eagerness to fit in.
Or maybe it wasn’t only racism. That would explain why we were targeted, and our Chinese American neighbors weren’t. My mother had mentioned stick figures: wandering past our house late at night, maybe the teenagers had seen my father in his underwear or his nightgowns through the windows. Maybe they heard the shouts and screams, the overturning of furniture, the crash of bodies hitting the floor; maybe they were remembering the time that I, sure that my father was going to kill me, locked myself in my parents’ bedroom and called 911, the wail of the police siren slicing through dinner conversations and drawing the neighbors to the window, through which they saw the car spinning red and blue lights in our driveway.
No, that’s being too kind. That’s giving the street defacers too much credit. They hated us because of who we were, because our hair was black, our skin yellow, our eyes slanted, our names strange, because according to my parents, we ate flied lice and rived on a load.
And even if I can’t recall the words on our streets, I have my own memories. Teenagers throwing snowballs at my mother and calling her Chinee outside the mall late one night, after we’d been to see Star Wars. When we arrived at our car, my older sister’s friend—her name was Janet, which seemed perfect, so American was she, so big and busty and blond—dusted the snow off my mother’s shoulders and back, clucking her tongue, as my sisters and I avoided each other’s eyes; we never did discuss it.
Or another time, our first outing as a divorced family, when my mother, flushed with pride after she’d started working in New York, took my younger sister and me to her scene of triumph, right by the Statue of Liberty (oh, the irony) a man began screaming at us. My mother gathered us together and we turned around, trying not to run, followed, thank God, only by his words. Fuck you, go home, Jap Commie bitches.
But this kind of racism, ugly and overt, probably wouldn’t have affected my father’s career, not at a university. Suddenly I recall a rumor I heard at another school I taught in: how in a job interview, a Korean American candidate’s “quiet ways”—a description that my source deemed suspect in itself—had been attributed to her deferential Asian personality. Not her fault, the committee had said, but this isn’t the right place for her.
It’s then that I realize my error. I’ve been on the hunt for out and out bigotry, for slurs, hatred, and discrimination at work, when what I’m searching for is more slippery yet.
Soon after I started teaching in my college in Boston, I fell in with a group of friends who were part of the college. Most were faculty, august scholars and artists, but W, a singer with a staff job, was also part of the circle. While the others were older by fifteen years or more, W was my age, and funny and bright. Her office was on the same floor as mine and we spent my office hours gossiping and chatting. I was single; although W was with another musician, a woman, their relationship was long-distance: our evenings were our own, and we often went out for dinner or drinks.
Months passed before I realized that W wanted something more than friendship. I was still waiting for an opportunity to tell her that I didn’t feel the same—dear to me though she was, in the end, I liked men—when another member of the circle, let’s call her Nora, invited W and me out for drinks.
We were at the bistro near our college—crowded, noisy and hip; banquette seating, W and I on one side—and on our second round when Nora cocked her head. “You two look good together,” she said.
I tensed. She was drunk, that was obvious, her voice loud, the words slurred.
Nora told me to look at W. “Isn’t she beautiful? Isn’t she funny and charming?” she said. “Don’t you like her, Mako?”
It was an ambush. I wondered briefly if it had been planned but when I turned, W was red-faced, pooling with embarrassment on the floor.
I told Nora that she was mistaken. W was my friend, and that was all.
“C’mon, kiss her, Mako,” Nora said, waving her glass, wine slopping over the edge. “You know you want to.”
On the verge of walking out, I stopped myself. Nora was good hearted, and I liked her and her husband, a scholar who also taught in the college. So I gritted my teeth, stayed, and eventually managed to change the subject.
Half a year later, at the tail end of summer: I sit at a dinner party in the backyard of a Vermont summer house owned by another colleague and her partner. Also, in attendance are Nora and her husband, the scholar. They know that I’m with the man I will eventually marry, a film professor at our college, and the incident with W seems a long time ago; I’m startled when Nora brings it up. She needs to apologize, she says. She’d had too much to drink; she hopes I can forgive her.
The scholar chimes in. It was his fault, too. He says that over several long phone conversations, W had confessed her feelings for me; she’d been so sure that I reciprocated her feelings that he’d just accepted it. He relayed the news to Nora, and, well, voilà.
When the host nods knowingly, I express surprise. She’s a journalist, and she, her partner and I are close; over the past year we’d swapped many tales of past loves. Had she and her partner also thought I was closeted, out of touch with my own physical needs and heart?
They say they hadn’t known what to think. But in the end, the scholar’s certainty had won them over. Of course they know now that they were wrong; they, too, are sorry.
The four of them are watching me, their faces, lit by the moon and the guttering candles on the table, concerned. Penitent.
Sure, their misapprehension smarts. Yet when I say the proper words about water under the etcetera, I mean them. They’ve known and loved W for years; why should they have trusted me, the new girl, over her? All four have been warm, gracious, and oh so kind to me. I’m fortunate to have their friendship.
Later, as the evening is ending, I carry dishes into the house. I’m drying my hands in the kitchen when the scholar enters with a tray of glasses. After setting it down, he comes up to me and says again that he’s sorry.
The room is dark, lit by only a single lamp in the corner. Drifting in from outside is a cool breeze and the sound of laughter, words, and the clinking of glasses and silverware.
I say again that it’s fine. Although, I add, I was surprised: if I couldn’t admit or even know my own desires, in this day and age, when we’re in the most liberal of professions and live in the first state to allow gay marriage—well, how sad. Wouldn’t that be odd.
He says they’d all talked it over at the time and even wondered if W could have misread the cues. But in the end, he says, we decided it was cultural.
Standing in the dimly lit room, I swallow. I have a guess about what the scholar is suggesting—Asians are repressed; we’re uptight, overly cerebral, inscrutable even to ourselves—yet I can’t believe it.
Later, I’ll ask myself why I didn’t think of my father then or in the months that followed: why I didn’t remember how he raged and railed against America’s racism, why I didn’t add one and one to come up with two.
What do you mean? I ask.
We thought you couldn’t admit how you felt, the scholar says, because you’re Japanese.
Stung into directness, I say that I’m an American. A Jersey girl, born and bred.
He nods. Even so, he says.
Photo courtesy of Andrea Komodromos; view more of his photography at Flickr.