It started with corn. One of their new neighbors, a bent-backed woman with a face like that of those apple dolls Lisette had made long ago when she was a Brownie in Michigan, had rolled into the driveway on a bicycle with a paper bag full of fresh-picked corn. “Namba,” she had said, handing the bag over. Lisette had been confused, thinking only of that busy quarter of Osaka, over the Pearl Bridge, one of the world’s largest cities, until her mother-in-law informed her that “namba” was the local dialect for “tomorokoshi.”
Corn brought back more memories of of Michigan, of sitting on the back porch with the bushel baskets before her, husking and detasseling with her mother, of suppers at the picnic table under a parasol on the patio, of sweet yellow kernels shiny with butter, studded with salt crystals, summer in her mouth.
Lisette bowed awkwardly to the neighbor, whose name she hadn’t quite mastered, mumbled a thanks in Japanese, and then brought the cobs into the house. She stood at the sink peeling back the green leaves, stripping the silky strands, while Kai played with blocks in the next room. He was talking to himself while he played, narrating in Japanese. Sometimes he played in English. It seemed to depend on the context — for instance, English when he was pretending to be Spiderman, Japanese, when he was imitating a ninja.
When she’d cleaned the corn, Lisette gently tugged a cookbook off the shelf. It was tattered by now, the middle pages now loose sheaves; she had consulted it over and over, looking up recipes for meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate cake, in order to comfort herself when she felt homesick. Now, she flipped to vegetables, then to corn: Add one tablespoon sugar and one tablespoon lemon juice to each gallon of water. Heat to boiling; boil uncovered 2 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand 10 minutes before serving.
She followed the instructions, and then she prepared a salad with cucumbers and tomatoes that another neighbor had brought over the day before, and grilled a fish. When supper was laid out, she called Kai to the table. Isamu wouldn’t be home till later; he usually ate alone.
Lisette admired the colors — the yellow of the corn, the cucumbers with pine-green skin, the flash of red tomato. Her mouth watered. Kai slid into his chair.
“Itadakimsu,” they said together.
She tried to put a cob of corn on Kai’s plate, but he held out his hand as if he were stopping traffic. “I don’t like corn.”
“You should try it with butter and salt,” she said. “It’s really good.”
It was then that he shook his head and said, “Japanese don’t eat corn like that.”
Lisette sighed. The summer 15 years ago when she’d first arrived in Japan as an assistant English teacher, she’d been instructed on many occasions about the peculiarities of the natives. Her boss, a middle-aged woman who’d just returned from a four-day trip to visit Beatrix Potter’s birthplace, had laughed when Lisette complained about the incessant shrill of cicadas.
“We Japanese find the sound beautiful,” she said. “Japanese hear insect sounds in a different part of the brain than foreigners, you know.”
She’d wanted to challenge the woman. Which foreigners? Does that include the Chinese? Koreans? Japanese-Americans? But being new to the country, she’d kept her mouth shut and nodded politely as if in agreement.
Another time, on the way to watch a bunraku puppet show, they’d passed a Western hamburger restaurant and the teacher had frowned saying, “We Japanese have shorter intestines than you foreigners. We can’t digest meat as easily as you.”
It was as if she believed her countrymen were of another species entirely.
Lisette had felt both annoyed and excluded whenever the teacher made these kind of pronouncements. Now, in the dinette with her son, she said, a little bit more coldly than she intended, “Kai, there are many ways to eat corn.” She picked up a cob and took a big bite.
Or maybe it had happened later, during their trip to South Carolina to visit Lisette’s brother and his family. She remembered what Kai had said in the car, on the way to Osaka to renew his American passport.
Isamu had been driving. Lisette laid back against the headrest, looking out the window at the tiny islands scattered across the inland sea. She listened to father and son talk, glad to not be, for once, the center of Kai’s attention.
“So which do you like best,” Isamu asked. “Soccer or baseball?”
Lisette smiled. She knew what their boy would reply. They both knew. He was, even at five, a diplomat, and his dad was a baseball coach.
“Who do you like better? Mommy or Daddy?”
Kai giggled. “I like Mommy and Daddy.”
“Are you American or Japanese?”
Kai paused for a moment, then said, “When I’m in Japan, I’m Japanese. When I’m in America, I’m American.”
Good enough, Lisette thought. When he was 20, he would have to choose sides, unless the law changed. But for now, he was a dual citizen.
They were a bit confused by all of the one-way streets in the city of Osaka, but they finally found the consulate. When they’d gone through the glass doors and up the elevator, Lisette leaned down and whispered in Kai’s ear, “You’re in America now.”
The passport that arrived in the mail a week later was the same size and color as his Japanese passport. But this one listed his middle name — Benjamin, after his grandfather, Lisette’s dad — and gave him rights to a country that his father didn’t have.
Two months later, Lisette and Kai set out for the United States. Isamu stayed behind, and Kai cried for a few minutes about leaving him at the gate.
“Pretty soon you’ll be able to play with Max,” Lisette said, hoping to distract him. Max was her brother’s son. He was a year older than Kai and they’d gotten along well on previous visits.
And this visit started out well enough. Max was there to greet them, as soon as they walked in the door. “I’m going to be a rocket scientist or the president when I grow up,” he said. “What about you, Kai?”
Anne, Max’s mother, leaned in and said, “Excuse him. It’s Career Week at school, and he’s all fired up.”
Lisette tried to listen to Kai’s end of the conversation, but Anne put a hand on her arm and led her into the next room. “Why don’t you have a rest? I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
Dozing on the sofa, she could hear bits of Max and Kai’s play. At first, they were pretending to be firemen, but then Max said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’m George Washington and you’re a British soldier.”
“George Washington?” Kai asked.
“Don’t you know? He was the first president.”
Lisette’s stomach went a little queasy. Was he supposed to know about the Founding Fathers? The Revolutionary War? Had she known that in kindergarten? Then again, Max was fairly precocious. His mother had written that he was beyond picture books, and that he entertained himself by writing poems and stories on the computer.
Lisette was a bit jealous. She’d done everything she could to interest Kai in learning to read English. She’d even set up a chart for him: a star for every ten minutes spent practicing writing the alphabet, a small toy for every ten stars, and an expensive computer toy — the one that his best friend had with the fighting beetles — if he mastered the stack of easy readers she’d bought for him. Bugs and violence – she was willing to stoop that low just to get him sparked. But it hadn’t worked. He’d learned to read Japanese with almost no help at all, and now he sat in rooms with books by himself, sounding out the words with greater and greater proficiency.
She’d done her best to fill him in on American culture, though she had felt he was too young to learn about war. He sometimes asked her about photos on the front page of the newspaper, and she answered evasively. He was never allowed to watch television news. But now, she could hear the “bang bang bang” in the next room as “George” took out the soldier.
Lisette was leafing through an American parenting magazine (“How to Fire Your Nanny,” “Time Outs for New Moms”) when Kai suddenly appeared, brow furrowed, chin against his chest. His lower lip jutted in a classic pout.
“What’s wrong?”” Lisette put down the magazine, which didn’t tell her how to raise a bicultural child in Japan, anyway, and patted the cushion beside her.
Kai burrowed into her side. “I want to go home.”
She sighed. Home was living so close to others that you could hear the phone ring three doors down. Home was having her mother-in-law telling her how to store her broom and chiding her about the dust on top of the television. Home was not understanding half the things that people said. Here, Kai was, in a huge house full of playthings, with a yard big enough for a full-scale soccer game, a treehouse, cousins who understood his love for Scooby Doo and macaroni and cheese. Why wasn’t he having fun? Sure, he missed his father, but it had to be more than that.
He plucked at the cushion for a moment then looked up at her. Tears pooled in his eyes. (His father’s eyes, she had to admit.)
“Max said that there was a war between Japan and America.”
“Yes, there was, but it was a long time ago. Japan and America are friends now. Daddy and Mommy got married, right?”
He sniffled and dragged a sleeve across his nose. “Max said that America won and Japan lost.”
Oh. So that was it. “Well, honey, I don’t think anyone really wins a war.”
She could have told him how Japan had been rebuilt, how it was now a prospering and peaceful country, but all that she could think about was his apparent rejection of his second country, her country. Even as he sat there snugly, warmly against her, his hand toying with hers, she felt disowned.
Kindergarten had already started up again when they got back to Japan. Kai would be going into a new classroom, with a new teacher, and kids he didn’t know who’d had a jumpstart on bonding. She hoped that the foil-wrapped chocolate rabbits Kai was bringing as souvenirs would help him break into the group.
She parked the car and walked him to the gate. Some mothers lingered there, chatting after their kids had gone inside.
She turned to see Phoebe, another American mom with a Japanese husband. Their daughter Erika was in the four-year-old class.
As they stood there catching up, Lisette caught sight of a little girl with frizzy blonde hair. Her name hadn’t been stitched onto her uniform yet.
“Hey, who’s that?”
“Her name’s Zelda. Her father is a visiting professor this semester. He’s teaching American literature.”
Lisette watched the girl for a moment. She stood still, at the center of a swirl of children, looking as if she might cry.
“Sato-sensei put her in with Erika,” Phoebe said. “I guess she was hoping Erika would be her buddy, but you know how they are about speaking English in front of their Japanese friends.”
Lisette nodded. A lump formed in her throat. She’d heard of bicultural kids asking their foreign mothers not to go to their Japanese schools. It was embarrassing for them to stand out, embarrassing to hear the calls of “gaijin da!”
The rest of the day, Lisette worried about Kai. She imagined him sitting alone on the playground, or lost in confusion as the teacher reviewed the kanji she’d taught during Kai’s absence. But that was silly. They wouldn’t be studying Japanese characters till first grade.
She drove to school to pick him up a little earlier than usual. A few mothers were already waiting in the shade of the gingko trees.
At the sound of the bell, the children started filtering out the door. Erika rushed out, into her mother’s arms, and then Kai, like a greyhound out of the gate.
“How was school?” She bent down to look into his face. “Did they like the chocolate bunnies?”
“Yes! Everybody said thank you.” His eyes darted around as he waved to his new friends. “Bye Ichiro! Bye Ami-chan! Bye-bye Zelda!”
“You met Zelda?”
“Yeah. She’s from Michigan, like you, Mommy. She likes roast beef and her favorite animal is the kangaroo.”
“You talked to her?”
“Yeah. We played together, me and Zelda and Junpei. She doesn’t know any Japanese words, so I had to tell everyone what she was saying.”
Lisette felt a burst of pride. “You were a translator.”
“Yeah.” He spun away from her, into a swirl of children.