"He living with some woman in Korea," my mother told me of the time when she and my father first met while he was on a weekend trip to Japan after the Korean War; "I saw a picture." Dad had served in both World War II and the Korean War. Mom merely survived them. There's a story that my maternal grandfather, during the US occupation of Japan, set up small sheds on the perimeter of their property to rent out to sex workers servicing the servicemen. He was a photographer before the war who had his home and possessions burned down three times during wartime air raids. This was said to be the only means of support he could come up with when it was all over. Mom says she had to tell her little sister not to play with the "balloons" that were often scattered in the nearby bushes after soldiers had left.
"I was engaged to another guy," mom explained, "but your dad say he buy me same engagement ring if I marry him. He always carry his whole paycheck in a money clip so I thought he rich."
"What did you do?" I asked her.
"By the time I found out," she explained, "it was too late. I already love him."
And to her credit, I think she truly did. My father loved her too. Their motives or methods may not have been purely romantic to start—I don't know what happened to the spurned fiancé or Korean lover, and my father certainly never became rich—but my mother and father remained married until my father passed away at seventy-three from the combined effects of stroke and cancer decades later. They settled in the working-class neighborhood of Carson in Los Angeles County and bore two children together, myself and my elder sister. I grew up doing my homework in a blue bedroom in a blue house with blue carpet while sitting in a desk chair that was imprinted with the words "Made in Occupied Japan" on the back. I was a product of that catastrophic conflict between nations and its fallout as much as that chair was. Even as a child, within me I embodied this history of poverty and opportunity [End Page 156] spooling out from the devastation of war to manifest on the level of individual human relationships, the tectonic movements of two very different cultures rubbing against one another, and ultimately, the sense of isolation resulting from neither entirely belonging to one community nor the other. My body may remain in one place, but it is by nature transnational. Nothing within it is fixed and unchanging. I travel without moving; my context shifts within me even while seeming stable all around me.
My mother fervently sought to inculcate her children with Japanese culture and values. I grew up in a home where I heard Japanese spoken as often as I heard English and where, on occasion, I was likely to find rubbery octopus tentacles greeting me when I opened up the refrigerator—a terror I've never recovered from. And, each tortuous Saturday, I was packed off to Japanese language school at the local Buddhist church in Gardena, California, followed immediately by piano taught by a rather rigid and proper woman from Japan.
At Japanese school I often felt isolated and ostracized because I looked so different. Whether, in retrospect, I was really ostracized by the other kids or I ostracized myself because I felt so profoundly that I didn't fit in, I don't know. All I knew was that I didn't look Japanese enough to feel as if I fit in with the other Japanese Americans, but I was also acutely aware that elsewhere I didn't belong in other cultural or ethnic groups either.
Growing up in predominantly Latinx Los Angeles County I was most often mistaken for Latina. Once, at a gas station, a little old woman got mad at me for not being able to speak Spanish. Part of me I think really wished I was Latina. Given the way I apparently looked, it would have been so much...