Monthly Archives: February 2015

Hai: An Essay

I sat across from my grandmother—Ah-chan in Japanese—at the table in the middle of her dining room. My family’s summer visit had drawn to a close; in a few hours my mother, sister and I would be on a plane heading back to San Francisco. I listened to Ah-chan’s parting lessons while helping myself to tea and stale rice crackers. (She buys crackers in plastic packages and puts them in tins from Harrods of London, which are handsome but not airtight.) In her house across the road from a rice paddy, we were far away from Tokyo, that grotesque metropolis of neon and concrete and secondhand smoke, though it was barely an hour away by train.

Ah-chan told me, as expected, to study hard and be good to my mother, because it’s hard to raise a family in a nation that’s not your own. I don’t remember the context of her next edict.

“Don’t marry a man,” she told me. “It may be okay in America, but you are Japanese.”

Hai,” I responded.

No word in my first-grade Japanese vocabulary has been as versatile at hai, an assertive, respectful greeting and acknowledgement. It can stand in for more substantive speech in a range of situations. Your teacher asks if you’ve been listening to her—hai. A clerk thanks you for your business—hai. Your grandmother, sitting across several decades and the Pacific Ocean, tells you that her love, while strong, is conditional—hai.

“And don’t marry a dark girl,” Ah-chan added, “because then the babies will come out black.” For black she used makurokeh, not just black but the blackness of a street urchin who’s fallen down a chimney.


Ah-chan didn’t attend my parents’ wedding. My mother is Japanese, my father is a white American, and their union so displeased her that she didn’t care to see it formalized. I didn’t know this until my late teens, when my mother told me, because Ah-chan’s hostility never extended to her half-blood grandson. She’d spoil me with snacks and toy cars during my summer visits, and call throughout the year to promise more and say she loved me.

I remember only one time when I saw my father and Ah-chan together. They were in the dining room, and my father towered over Ah-chan, his body too tall for the Japanese doorways and ceilings. Ah-chan was smiling, but in retrospect this becomes something done out of obligation, as for a school portrait.

I can’t help but love her, though. She was forced to work in an aircraft factory as a teenager (“the boys got in thinking, ‘I’m going to die,’”), briefly taught elementary school in the wake of the Second World War, supported her devoutly Christian husband’s evangelizing while hesitating to get baptized herself, raised three daughters, and never quite found a life of her own after her husband died. I’ve only been around to witness the last chapter, but in my mother’s childhood memories I’m shown a woman who made skillful use of time and money, who welcomed guests from around the world through my grandfather’s church, and who listened as much as she talked.

Now that I’m older and have started to regard fatherhood as a distant aspiration rather than a joke or nightmare, I’ve come to understand Ah-chan’s reservations—though boycotting your own daughter’s wedding is still hard to forgive. Interracial marriages, and the children they create, inevitably dilute the cultures of the parents. I’m less Japanese than my mother is. I barely know the alphabets, recoil from pickled vegetables at breakfast, and have a comparatively lax sense of propriety. My children, in turn, will be even less Japanese than I am. Mixed-race children may be the embodiment of a better, less racist America, but we’re also the embodiment of cultural dissolution.

Which is not, of course, to say that our parents did anything wrong. I recall an interviewee in a Studs Terkel oral history saying that she was completely against interracial marriage because the children come out all confused. Well, yes. All children come out confused. The confusion of mixed-race children is different in degree, not category, from that of children whose parents differ in strictness or class backgrounds or aspirations for their offspring. Race, as America’s been realizing over the past decades, is one difference among many, not the barrier between species that prejudice and pseudoscience made it out to be.

The American ideal isn’t a melting pot, in which different cultures are poured into a homogenous stew, but a mosaic, in which different pieces of culture are laid next to one another. After generations of intermarriage, those pieces grow smaller and more scattered but remain distinct. In other words, I’m an American, but still have Japanese characteristics, and will do my damnedest to pass them on, so time doesn’t pluck those pieces from the mosaic and toss them into obscurity.

I still picture Ah-chan in the dining room, reading, watching TV, and receiving an occasional visitor, setting out those crackers that would still be crisp if only she didn’t care so much about appearances. I may not be able to speak with her again—I don’t know if I ever could—but I’d like to see her at least one more time, to assure her that there’ll still be a bit of Japanese in her American descendants several generations down, even if it only reveals itself in a hint of shamefaced humility or a family saying like hai.