Watashi no Otousan
I’m standing on a fisherman’s boat as it slices its way through the Sea of Japan, my hair whipping in my face and the brilliant blue of the water nearly blinding me. It isn’t quite the romantic image I might have imagined myself—I’m wearing a life vest as big and cumbersome as a cereal box, a gaudy red, and instead of standing carelessly at the side I’m gripping several of the metal hooks above that are used for hanging fish. If I weren’t, I would probably be pitched overboard into the choppy waves.
In the distance I can see lone islands, almost nothing more than fingers of earth poking up from the sea, and the translator tells us they are part of South Korea. Each one is covered in trash, like the sugar coating on a donut, and I can clearly discern the animosity from my companions as we go by. The Japanese are a very cleanly people, so this blatant disregard for the land is taken very seriously.
The day is warm, sunny, and I’m feeling adventurous. I try to let go of the metal hooks, stumbling awkwardly to the back of the boat to watch the foam break behind us, to see the ghostly outline of the coast of Japan getting more and more distant. I had never thought that I would get to see Japan, but now, with a People to People group of twenty other students my age, I am finally getting to take in the view I always dreamed of.
I grasp another metal bar, not wanting to fall in, and it’s then I notice a man. He is elderly without being old, which is something I have noticed with these fisherman. They all seem to have been built with a stronger skeleton, one made on the honor and pride of an entire country. It holds them erect, makes them imposing, garners them respect and then grabs it and holds it high. He already has mine.
He stands in a shadow of the wooden craft, arms neatly folded at his back, head as bare as the rocks in the harbor. There is nothing keeping him in place but his feet, firmly planted, and although I can’t stand for fear of careening over the side, he seems to have discovered the rhythm after years of experience. His features are small and slender, but he gives the appearance of a much larger man.
I can see him watching me as I watch him, and we stay for a minute like this as the sea air batters us and leaves me breathless. Then he smiles, just the gentlest curving of lips, and I respond with a lopsided grin. As the boat makes its inevitable turn towards home, I wonder what it would be like to sail forever this way: the slap of water a siren’s call, the sting of the wind biting my face, my physical uncertainty making me feel alive.
If I were like this man, would I come home at all?
Feeding a Village
There was a barbeque today, and I am pretty sure everyone in Hirado turned out for the event. It was held in the community center, but even then the building could not hold us all, and we spilled out the doors and into the courtyard, around the ochre-colored walls and into the mossy-stoned yard where the grill was arranged like a hot buffet table. Children ran beneath my feet while their mothers talked; friends caught up on the latest of small-town gossip. Old men and women sat in the shade, out of the dwindling afternoon sun, their clothes as well-worn and sturdy as the town and the people who owned them. They may be the tiniest of fishing villages, but they certainly know how to throw a party.
The overwhelming chatter was loud, and boisterous, and completely foreign to me. I couldn’t understand a word. That didn’t stop me from listening, a smile on my face, entranced by the pulse of it.
My elderly man from earlier, my fisherman, helped work the barbeque pit. No doubt he had caught many of the items it offered, which ran from squid the size of shrimp to any number of tiny fish, vegetables, and even some beef, which I was eyeing with much more enthusiasm than anything else. Tiny squid, about the length and width of my thumb, gave the occasional squelching pop as he pushed them into the grill. He did it quietly, not speaking while he tenderly flipped and monitored and grilled and seasoned. He was listening, like I was listening, to the activity going on around us.
The eating was a large event, and when it was finished an entire village had been fed. The light was orange and pink, fading fast, and some entertaining person brought out sparklers which scented the evening air with curry-smoke and lit it like large fireflies. Kids ran from the back to the front, writing their names in the air with letters I had never seen.
Finally everything was packed away, because despite our best attempts there was still food left over, enough for everyone to take some away. The inky blackness of night had fallen, and instead of the half-light I am used to, this was real darkness, a true absence of light. I had never noticed how strongly the stars glowed before that, or how comforting the night could be, coming from a place where there is always a light on somewhere. Shadows, darker places that were shaped like people, gradually trickled away and left only a few of us. I went to find my fisherman.
He was there, waiting, his wife at his side. They looked comfortable together, like weathered puzzle-pieces, and they acknowledged me when I appeared out of the darkness. The woman, Ryoko, wrapped an arm around mine, one that looked soft but was filled with surprising steel strength. I had to bend when she did this, her small frame only half my height, and she gestured for the man, Tomohisa, to follow us. For the next three days I would be staying with them here, in this sleepy little town by the sea, in the foreign company of the fisherman and his wife.
I strained to see the water from the road. It was hidden by the night, but I could still hear the ocean’s heartbeat-rhythm as it beat against the stones of the harbor, and that was comfort enough. Tomohisa watched me silently as we walked, as he seemed to do most times. His approval was also silent.
“I don’t really fish,” I confide to my house-mother at breakfast over thick slices of bread, a dish of rice and a small bowl of miso soup. In the soup is a tiny colony of shiitake mushrooms, and I poke at them with my chopsticks.
Ryoko can’t understand me, of course, and I can’t understand her when she responds. Neither of us really understands one another that that level. When I was left in her home, the home of Tomohisa and Ryoko Narita, I was given a phrasebook. I could ask very important things like “Where is the bathroom?” and “Can I take a shower?”, but in casual conversation I am on my own.
We’re going fishing today, according to Satoshi. He is the interpreter, and he stopped by this morning just long enough to tell me about our activity before moving along, presumably to help get things ready at the dock. Tomohisa has already been there for several hours. He is a fisherman, after all. It’s a job that suits him.
My mother packs me a snack, some sort of red-bean-paste wrapped in dough and packaged in leaves, and then she walks me to the dock. On the way we see a crab, and she stops to imitate its sideways walk. I can’t help but laugh—Ryoko, who looks as frail as a chicken bone with salt-and-pepper hair, smiles at me from hooded eyes. Her apron, which she is still wearing, flaps gently in the breeze.
At the dock my father is easy for me to pick out, although he is dressed similarly to all the other fishermen there. His gleaming, bald head is shining with sweat already, his face set in gentle lines when we approach. They exchange words, my parents, and not for the first time I wish I could know what they are saying. He gives me a pole, one that looks like nothing I have ever used. It is a long piece of bamboo, no reel or handle, and from the end dangles a piece of fishing wire. My pole is already hooked and baited, and Tomohisa shows me how to cast. I have gone fishing a few times before, but it is nothing like this.
Despite my desire to do him proud, an hour goes by and I haven’t caught a thing. My father doesn’t go far from my side the entire time, although we don’t converse. After the fourth worm has been eaten off my hook, he says something off-handedly, and I can only imagine the comment. Embarrassed, I try to hand him the pole, but he gives me one of his rare smiles and guides it back into the water for me.
“I’m just awful at this,” I tell the girl next to me when she catches a fish a few minutes later. I help her take a picture, wishing our positions were reversed. The thing is, I don’t even like fish, but I’m wishing I could catch something for my father. He has left for a few minutes, and while he is gone I take a break to eat my red bean bun and mope.
Even though I have failed at fishing, the scenery is excellent. It’s a very warm day, and I’ve taken off the jacket I was wearing earlier and tied it around my waist. There isn’t much of a breeze, so the water is mostly still, only the occasional half-hearted wave lapping the dock and making the boats in the harbor bob like wooden apples. I can see bruise-colored barnacles clinging to anything below the water level. I still can’t see any fish.
We stay at it another hour, and I continue to catch nothing. Eventually my group turns in our fishing poles and heads out to spend the day visiting a fish hatchery, a sake and rice-wine production company, and a local elementary school. (“Local” means almost a half-hour drive from Hirado.) The thought of fish gradually fades from my mind as I play dodge ball with a rag-tag group of Japanese fourth graders, exchange drawings with a fairly talented third-grader, and get pelted with questions by a fifth grade class excited to try out their English. On the way back we stop at a small beach, and I manage to lose a sock while trying to wade through a shallower section of the Sea of Japan. We nearly leave one of the chaperones in the bathroom of a gas station.
By the time we return to our homestay families we have been very busy, and are told to expect more of the same for the next day. The students who managed to catch a fish get to eat it for dinner. That is one thing I am glad of—at least I won’t have that to look forward to. When I get back to the Narita household it is late, but most of the family is still out. Dinner is in the preparation stages, and since I have nothing that I could help prepare without getting in the way, (not to mention my size makes maneuvering extremely difficult in the small kitchen,) I take my place at the low dining room table and wait.
I can see Ryoko from where I sit, as well as a pretty, middle-aged woman talking to her. I know, with the help of several translation books and some time spent with a family photo album, that this is their daughter-in-law. In this house, which seems so small when I look at it, resides three generations of the Narita family. My mother and father are the grandparents. Their son and his wife also live there, and with them their three children.
Megumi is the eldest, and only a year younger than me. We rely on her as a translator when Satoshi isn’t on hand, and what she doesn’t remember from school she can figure out on her little pink cell phone. She is the only one of the grandchildren that I have really talked to—there is also Sachiko, the second oldest, and Humiya, the only boy. I can see him in the living room, his round face watching the television intently, homework spread out on the floor beside him. His sisters aren’t home from school yet, and won’t be for another hour or two.
The door opens and shuts, and I can hear the sound of shoes being abandoned in favor of slippers. When I turn around I see Tomohisa, his entire height several inches shorter than the ceiling that makes me bow when I walk. Still, he manages to fill the room. He is carrying a bucket, and when he sees me sitting there he comes over, saying a few things haltingly in Japanese that we both know I won’t understand. He gestures to the bucket; I look at it in bewilderment. It’s clear he wants me to look inside, and suddenly I’m hesitant. I think he senses that, because he looks almost mischievous. It isn’t an expression I ever thought I would see on his face.
I glance over the rim of the bucket, an unspectacular white plastic one, and filling it almost entirely is a squid. This one is much larger than the tiny ones at the barbeque, its translucent body jiggling at the slightest motion, its tentacles thrown haphazardly in after it, some still sticking to the sides. I think I make some sort of noise, probably somewhere between a squeal and a groan, and sit back with so much force the floor rattles. If he wasn’t such a stoic man, I feel like Tomohisa would have laughed at me then. Smiling, he tucks the bucket back under his arm, and wordlessly goes into the kitchen.
What if I have to eat that thing? is my first wild thought. The idea of putting any piece of the squid’s gelatinous mass near my mouth is enough to turn my stomach on its axis. I lean back on the tatami mat, contemplating my impending doom. Of course I will have to eat it; courtesy demands at least a bite of something before leaving to be violently ill. I can hear them talking, their melodic language a foreign hum in my ears. My father is no doubt telling them about my hilarious reaction, even as mom puts the squid on to boil, or however you prepare it. I couldn’t even think about eating the thing raw.
A few minutes later their daughter-in-law comes in to set the table, and I drag myself back up into a seated position. Despite how well I have bonded with my parents and Megumi, I still feel odd and uncertain around the rest of the family. I try to smile at her casually as I watch the plates, cups and chopsticks laid out. The customary bowl of rice is set down, followed by a bowl of miso soup. I’ve gotten used to having these staples for every meal.
She leaves then, and when she returns it is with some sort of circular device I can’t place. It is modern-looking, with a plug and everything, but for some reason I still have no idea. I am still staring at it stupidly when she brings out a package of ground beef, and suddenly, gloriously, I recognized what it is—a mini grill. She is making hamburger patties. We aren’t having squid! I think I might cry I am so relieved. I watch her cook them, the smell of beef quickly traveling through the tiny house, and have never looked forward to anything so much in my entire life.
On my way to get something to drink I pass Tomohisa, who is cleaning out his bucket. Its contents have disappeared, presumably to be eaten another time. He keeps washing when I come in, but he does turn to watch me with those ever-so-slightly-curved lips and dark eyes.
“Thank you so much for not making me eat that thing,” I tell him sincerely. He doesn’t look quizzical, and he doesn’t try to figure out what I am saying. I think he gets the picture.
An Evening In
It was the third and final night of the homestay. I had just finished my shower—a unique experience involving sitting on a small stool with a showerhead, getting yourself clean, and then taking a bath—and was just drying my hair when Megumi came in. It was eight at night and I was already in my pajamas, eating one of the many popsicles Ryoko liked to feed me when I looked like I might be hungry. Mom and I had been playing with my Japanese-to-English dictionary, waiting for Megumi to get home from school. I couldn’t believe how late they came in every night.
We had a pretty typical family gathering going on. Ryoko and I had been sitting at the low table, the scarred wooden surface still shining and smooth thanks to coats of wood varnish and care. It was set in what acted as the dining room, the foremost room of the house. The look was somewhat cramped but homey, a large picture-window letting in light during the day, an empty laundry line running from one end of the room to the other, the detritus inherent to day-to-day living and years of accumulation. Still, it was clean, just like the table.
Megumi joined us, sitting back on her feet and looking rather alert considering the time. Her school uniform was still on, a simple white blouse with a mid-length dark navy skirt, and she looked every inch a Japanese schoolgirl. I felt slightly odd in my careworn pajamas, but no one seemed to mind. After a few minutes, where I managed to casually ask how school had been, Tomohisa sat at the table. His posture was always perfect, not ramrod-straight but a casual straight, and his arms were folded neatly on the table, wide-palmed and flecked with callous and age.
I presented Megumi with a present I had made for her that day, a small paper crane in bright pink paper decorated with tiny rabbits. This seemed to give Ryoko an idea, and she shuffled into another room, coming back with a pile of newspapers and some multi-colored origami paper. I’d had a little experience with origami, but not much farther than cranes and the occasional cootie-catcher. I discovered that origami was among the many things my family was talented in. All of the things that were made I brought back with me, and still have them tucked away.
Ryoko managed to construct a small balloon out of blue paper, an unimposing-looking thing that would inflate when blown into. Megumi made me a frog out of appropriately green paper. I made my own army of cranes (it was the only thing I knew how to make), all colors of the rainbow and different sizes. Tomohisa, working silently at the end of the table, constructed a wearable samurai helmet out of the newspaper. When he handed it to me, I was so excited—it felt like ages since I had worn a paper hat, and certainly I had never owned one so interesting. The Katakana and Chinese characters from the newspaper gave it a foreign flavor, and it had tiny horns, an addition I couldn’t even begin to figure out.
As an afterthought, he grabbed a piece of red paper, and left to get a pair of scissors. When he came back he had a red circle, like in the Japanese flag, and he taped it to the center of my hat. I’m wearing it in several of the pictures I took of that night.
It turned out that my father was talented in more areas than just paper-folding. Ever since my first night in the house I had admired a set of two paintings, propped up in the corner and seemingly forgotten. Both were painted on large pieces of bark, giving the pictures a texture that added to their intensity. In one was a tiger, almost monstrous in the way its proportions had been rendered, with a feral look in its eyes that would have deterred even of the most evil of spirits. It prowled down a comparatively small mountainside, utilizing the sort of landscaping techniques unique to Asian artists. I was in love with that painting.
Seeing me stare at it, Tomohisa gestured to the paintings. A lot of what little conversation we had consisted of Pictionary, guessing, and the dictionary, but this one I understood easily. He had actually painted them himself, which seemed so much more fantastical than it should have—by then I was beginning to see that my fisherman was a great many things.
Leaving me to admire his work, he went into another room and returned with a miniature kite. It was small enough to fit in a sandwich bag, made from pieces of wood thin enough to make bottled ships, the cloth painted with the same red circle on my hat. It had a wooden spool with white string to fly the kite, which for all intents and purposes seemed like a working model. I pointed from it to him. He nodded, a comfortable look on his face. It wasn’t pride, not exactly. Maybe simple, old-fashioned pleasure in his work.
I’m taking in the sight of Hirado a final time, the bus that will take me to Kyoto idling in the stone-cobbled street. I can see the community center, the rows of small, salt-beaten houses, the mossy rocks and the fishing boats in the harbor. The twenty students from my group are gathered together near the bus, some already on it, others enjoying some time standing before the long bus ride ahead. Host families are ringed around us, Japanese mingling with English. I don’t understand much more of it than when I arrived, but it’s a comforting sound. It doesn’t sound so foreign anymore. Instead, it sounds like the conversation you hear from people every day. The inflections are the same, and the feelings behind them are familiar.
Now I can hear emotion. Some is excited, a lot of it is sad. I’m trying hard to hold back nostalgic tears as I think back to my memories in the small town. Three days is such a short time, but I’ve done so much with it, and gotten to really know the people who live in the country I am visiting. They’re not strangers. Several of them are even my family. Tomohisa and Ryoko have arrived to say goodbye, and they stand together, a united and supportive front. There is a hint of wetness in the wrinkled corners of my mom’s eyes when she hugs me goodbye. I’m practically kneeling to give her this hug, but I don’t mind it. She smells like something unidentifiable, something I most closely associate with the miso soup I’ve eaten every meal for three days, and she is wearing the apron I have yet to see her without. After a few seconds she lets go, and I stand back to face my father.
Tomohisa, my fisherman, seems impassive. At the very least, there is no obvious show of emotion, like the tears in Ryoko’s eyes. I can appreciate that, because I don’t know what I would do if that were to happen. It’s just not the way he works, and I understand that now. I have grown to know this man better in three days than I know some people back home. The gentle planes of his face are set as always, but his eyes regard me gently. Not sure what to do, I offer my hand to shake. He takes it, but pulls me in for a brief hug. I feel some of my resolve not to cry crumbling.
Satoshi, who is helping students and families say goodbye, comes over to translate. I have already done my best to give my regards to Megumi and the others. I feel like there’s nothing I can say that would convey how completely my experience with them has impacted me. At least nothing that would be quick and simple. I thank them profusely for everything, from access to their home to their conversation, from their food to their company. I wish I had time to write something, time to plan. Tomohisa needs no such assistance.
“He says that you must come back,” says Satoshi. I’m standing there eagerly, waiting to hear what they’ve expressed to me. “And that you’ll stay with them again. He says bring your husband, when you get married, and they will serve him sushi. Tomohisa will catch the fish himself.” This seems so much more poignant than anything I could have come up with. I look at him, wondering if the specification about the sushi came from my experience with the squid I nearly had to eat, but his face betrays nothing. Ryoko is openly crying now, dabbing at her eyes with a balled-up handkerchief.
I wonder if they will still be there when I grow older and get married. I like to think so, that they’re as timeless as Hirado. Preserved forever in a semblance of careworn old-age, used but well-loved; like a favorite book, or a pair of wool socks. I watch out the window of the bus, keeping their faces in my mind until we are long out of sight and well on our way. I remember the glare of the sun shining, dappling the water and making the boats gleam. And I remember my fisherman, watching me silently, bald head luminous and posture erect.
And I know I can’t wait to see them again.