“We’re American,” he said to her. “We live in America and we will speak American.”
So even though my older brother and I both spoke Japanese while growing up in Japan, my mother was forbidden to speak her cultural language to us when the Navy transferred my father back to the states.
We had lived in Japan when I was two years of age to four and a half or so. I was bilingual, albeit at a child’s level. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain knowledge of this language resides, but only a shadow.
I’ve been preparing… and avoiding… and preparing to go on this journey of discovery into my mother’s past. So I was delighted when Human Japanese presented me with an opportunity to speak, read and write Japanese in exchange for an honest review. I already knew enough about this software to know that when I was ready to learn Japanese this was the software I was going to use.
I know how I am. I’m plagued with procrastination, especially when delving into my mother’s history, but knowing the author of the software, Brian Rak, was now going to expect periodic feedback from me would encourage me to continue even when I hit some rough psychological spots. I need that.
I asked my daughter if she would like to learn Japanese with me, and she gave me an emphatic yes. So, last week we started using Human Japanese, and I quickly realized this was going to be a lot more significant endeavor than originally anticipated.
Learning to speak my mother’s language is going to be a triggering experience for me.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Triggering” has a negative connotation. That’s because the things that are triggered are often traumatic — painful emotions, flashes of nightmare realities, wrenching memories. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can, also, trigger tender emotions, treasure-bits of loving experiences, cherished memories.
Still, you have to take the time to really respect the process, and sometimes you just have to step back a bit when the impact is intense, even if positively.
I know, because that’s what happened to me last week.
My mother used to make certain sounds that I thought were just her own particular way of exclaiming or interjecting. In Chapter One, I discovered one of the sounds she used to make meant, “Omigosh!” Another meant “Yeah”. Which may seem small to someone else, but to me it was huge. It just kind of hit me, as I said my own “Omigosh!” when I realized my mom was actually saying something out of her own cultural context that I now understood.
While it was not a difficult interpretation, the fact is going from assuming a person is making nondescript sounds to using real words is a significant shift in how you perceive that person.
And maybe that is why my father forbade it.
Yes, I believe part of him dictating that we were not to speak Japanese was racial prejudice, but it was more than that. For one, I think he did not want my mother to share a part of herself with her children in a way that excluded him. My father was a jealous person. If we could speak to one another in Japanese, he’d be left out. Well, he could have learned the language, himself, but why should he? We were in America, and we should speak “American.”
Two, by making her communicate only in English with her children, he crippled her ability to express herself, at all. She could not show us how smart she was, share her insights or put forth a point of view in a clear and concise manner. She was forced to use early elementary school language to share a thought. So in effect, my father’s decree that she speak only in English, silenced her…or made her look ridiculous or stupid when she did speak.
As I write this, a memory is coming to me. I am sad to say that we laughed at her. Dear Daddy encouraged it. She was so easy to dismiss. He did it all the time, and when she stumbled over words or tried to find the right ones to express what she was feeling or thinking, he would chuckle or out and out laugh… and we, her children, would laugh with him.
I see it was more than censuring a language. It was censuring a woman. It was more than not being bilingual. It was not being close or experiencing the intimacy with our mother that we had a right to. He drove a wedge between us, mother and children, from the beginning, encouraged us to look down on her, dismissed her so that her stories fell on deaf ears.
I used to think it was because we heard them so many times, but I’m beginning to see perhaps, in part, it was because we didn’t think she really had much of any worth to say.
I thought any closeness with my mother was lost forever.
After all, she is dead. But I’m realizing now, it may not be. She may come alive to me again through the language she once spoke. For though she was not allowed to speak to her children in Japanese, nothing stopped her from speaking Japanese to other Japanese. In the military, there were always a few native Japanese wives for my mother to connect with.
I remember standing next to my mother or in the next room, when she had company, listening to the women speak. I did not understand what they were saying, but in those moments my mother was obviously witty, articulate and confident. They laughed with her or agreed, and she never seemed at a loss for words.
I had once written the only time I ever saw her happy was when she was painting. But I don’t think that is true, anymore. I think she was happy when she was with a good friend, when she could reconnect to Japan through a woman who had similar experiences there…and perhaps here.
None of these women, however, ever withstood the test of time, which is sad. No one could be in my mother’s life for long without betraying her. Whether they actually did or not in reality was irrelevant. That was the template of her life. It’s how she lived. But still, when language was her friend, when it was a tool with which she could tell her story, speak her mind, well…she was powerful.
Not every memory reclaimed through my study of Japanese will be happy. That’s evident in this one post. But I’ve looked at my mother enough through my father’s eyes, his filters, his prejudices. It isn’t fair.
Studying Japanese now is like taking back what my father stole… retrieving a key he had buried in the field behind the house. I think, in this language, I have a treasure chest filled with gems… and if a snake, or two, or more, lie hidden among them?
I will take the chance.