It’s 6 o’clock. And I’m late. Again. As I slowly drag myself out of the covers, putting every inch of toned muscle in my body to use, I suddenly remember the five-page essay that is due today…and I haven’t even started. Oh well. Homework is least important when you’re on the rise to popularity. Not that Mum would understand. Scratching my head, I wander into the bathroom, the room in which most of my day is spent. Why? I’m Japanese. Of everything I could have possibly been, I’m Asian. Since I can’t change my nationality (although I wish I could), I’ve settled to making readjustments as necessary. Which reminds me…I need to ask Mum about that cosmetic surgery booth I’ve been eyeing in the mall…An eyelid with a single fold is far from ideal.
Aito claims my face is caked in makeup. And the insults certainly don’t stop there. I’ve taken to ignoring my brother for as long as I can remember, because he doesn’t understand what it’s like to undergo a transformation every day, nor does he comprehend the notion of popularity. Even if my appearance is met with derision, at least I’m confident in my taste. In fact, today I’ve decided on an Oscar de la Renta blouse, a pair of Gucci jeans, and a new palette of makeup I ordered from MAC this past weekend. A Year 11 girl, I’m definitely loyal to my makeup, but for different reasons than the typical high-schooler. Although it is a bit painful to apply and remove, every trace of “Asian” skin immediately vanishes, and the cat-eyes are scarcely visible under numerous applications of mascara, eyeliner, and eyeshadow.
“Nariko, have you made me breakfast yet? Please tell me you didn’t put any dairy in it this time.”
“Sora, you know your grandmother can’t speak English. Learn to treat her with some respect!” my mum, Tamiko says.
“Fine. Then I won’t talk to her at all. You, of all people, should know that I never speak Japanese.” I know, it seems a bit harsh, but I cannot show any sign of my Asian heritage. Having to say these people are part of my family is more than enough. So, that’s basically how every morning goes. I slam the door and feel the warm Australian sun hit me in the face…Two more hours before my makeup starts melting. That means two hours before I have to rush to the bathroom with my makeup bag and start the reapplication process again. Ugh…The miseries of life love playing with me. Well, you know what? Game on. I wait in the scorching sun until one of my best friends, Layla, comes to pick me up. Soon enough, she arrives, leather-clad and all, in a flawless Jaguar, a birthday gift from her way-too rich parents.
“Hey So. My mum said she saw your mum at the mall the other day...Your mum was dressed in a gaudy kimono and wooden slippers that could be heard from the other end of the mall. What was she trying to be? A geisha girl?!?! Ha!”
“Oh Lay. It’s nothing important. Her ancestors were Asian or something…It’s not like I am.”
“Yeah, whatever. Let’s get going. The principal made an announcement last week saying that anyone who’s late today will immediately be sent to detention. We’re heading to the mall after school today, so there’s no way I’m spending my afternoon with Mr. Jenkins and his hideous lab rat.”
“Totally.” I watch Layla out of the corner of my eye as we drive to Auburn High. She is the very root of my envy with her long, blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and pale, creamy skin. So is Lexi, my other best friend…And, neither of them are Asian, which just leaves me. Who am I? I may be unsure, but I know I am definitely not Japanese. And I never will be.
Auburn High grows clearer and clearer as we near downtown Sydney, away from the bucolic desert that is my home. No, seriously. We have one neighbour, an elderly man who believes that the cacti in our garden are talking to him. This is no joke, because my mum makes me bring tempura and whatnot over to his house, where he feels the need to update me on his cacti nightmares. The sun reflects off of the solar panels that were installed on the roof last year, a product of underclassmen efforts to make the school “greener.” The school is already green enough, with its composting programs and tree-planting festivals, so I personally do not understand why we had to sacrifice our vision for the “greenness” of the school. Layla and I make our way to the flagpole, our designated meeting spot, where Lexi is impatiently tapping her Louboutin heels against the sidewalk and checking her phone.
“Hey Sora. Hey Lay. You two better get here quickly. My parents just texted me, saying that two of their guests cancelled, which means that the two of you get to come with me to Los Angeles this summer.”
“I’m in,” says Layla, the slightest hint of a scream interrupting her usually cool manner.
“Me too,” I say, even though I know my mum has booked tickets to Japan this summer, a trip she has been planning since I was ten years old. Friends come first, though…Japan can wait. Besides, it’ll probably be better for her to bond with Aito. Layla quickly whispers something into Lexi’s ear, her fingers forming an impenetrable shield. Soon enough, Lexi smirks, placing her fingers on her eyes and stretching them as far as they will go. I, meanwhile, am glancing at my phone while trying to hold back tears of, not only frustration, but of pain as well. If only I could discard every bit of Japanese in my body…Maybe they would finally start to accept me.
----------------------------------1 year later----------------------------------------------------------
Nariko is dead. Just like that. And I never said goodbye. One minute she was there, her strict yet loving spirit watching over the entire Nakamura household, and the next minute she was gone, her frail body offering little insight to the wisdom and brilliance within. Even though we all knew her time was coming, we refused to believe a word she said, making it all the more unexpected. My little brother, Aiko, was too young to understand the gravity of the situation, and my father, Toshiro, too aloof to relate the pain and suffering my mother and I were enduring with each and every passing day. She died at the very beginning of winter, the start of a new season signaling the start of a new lifestyle for us Nakamuras. I can still remember watching her spray the garden with water to prevent the crops from freezing in the absurd cold, and then toppling over into the mud like a felled soldier into a state of perpetual sleep. The tears came, without warning, pooling on top of the linoleum tiles, until I angrily swatted at them, pulled on a pair of wellies, and went outside to deal with the situation.
“Nariko san? Nariko san! Please wake up!” I said in Japanese. No answer. The only reply came from a pair of chickadees sitting up in the boughs of an elm tree, whose mournful cries filled the air with sorrow and lamentation. I then desperately dialed 000 in last attempt to save her, but she was gone. A heart attack, the autopsy revealed. I didn’t believe them though…Why would have God wanted to claim the life of a woman with a heart of gold?
Now, as I sit in front of Obaasan’s (grandmum) garden, watching the koi with utmost concentration, it begins to dawn upon me. I’ve been living a lie my entire life. Every bit of Japanese culture Obaasan attempted to instill within me was trashed out of envy and jealousy. For what? I don’t know. My mind suddenly dwells upon a conversation I had with Obaasan years ago, as a little girl, when she was far from feeble:
“Sora, you must always live for and represent the Japanese people. I know you want to be friends with Layla and Lexi, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide who you are. If they don’t want to be friends with you because you’re Asian, then they’re the ones missing out on a beautiful girl with an enormous heart. Just as I created a koi pond from a barren land, you too should dig deep within yourself to figure out who you are. Then, you will know you are wholly Japanese, a trait that cannot be replaced by desire or envy.”
“I know, Obaasan. Can I go play now? Please?”
“Of course, but don’t throw family and heritage away for a few judgmental friends. Even if you can’t see me with your own eyes, I will always be watching you from above.”
“Okay. Can I go now?”
I don’t think I ever understood just how intelligent and important Obaasan was until now. At that moment, dad walks into the garden, his neatly ironed suit dissonant with the smooth, uncontained atmosphere of nature.
“You know Sora, I’ve noticed that you’re becoming more and more distant. It’s like you don’t want to be Japanese. I told you this many times when you were a little girl, but your mother and I named you Sora, meaning sky, because we knew that you would embrace Japanese culture with open arms, and that your acceptance and appreciation would know no limits. I know you’re a grown woman now, and no Japanese woman who rejected herself would be considered worthy in the eyes of her people,” my father says, reproach filling his eyes.
And that’s when I resolve to change my life. I pull on my flats and run across the garden, not caring that my legs are drenched in mud. Once I’m inside my house, I make a mad dash to my room, dirtying everything from the walls to the pristine floor. As I enter my bathroom, I glance at my face in the mirror, appalled by its superficial appearance. Disgusted, I immediately wash my face in soapy water, hoping that not a single trace of the gunk is left behind. I then make a second stop to my closet, where I rip off my designer clothes, instead throwing on a summer dress my mum bought for me while in Japan. With that, I rush into what used to be Obaasan’s bedroom, feeling the need to finger through her drawers and closet, to salvage whatever is left of her. I know mum is still at soccer practice with Aiko, so I decide to make some sushi to bring to Mr. Muller, who, as crazy as he is, does know a thing or two about life.
In a little while….
“Hi Mr. Muller. Tamiko is busy today, so I thought I’d bring some dinner over.”
“Thanks Sora. You know, you’re growing up to be just like your grandmother. That woman was the nicest thing this community ever saw. Did I ever tell you about the cactus…?”
Soon enough, Aiko trudges through the doorway with mum in tow, dumping his sweaty soccer gear onto the now-clean carpet.
“Aiko!?!? Pick up your gear and put it into the washing machine. How many times do I have to tell you this?”
“Later mum. I’ve got things to do.”
“You can do whatever it is you’ve got to do later. Right now, you are going to do what I tell you to do.” Mum walks through the door, but stops short when she sees me, makeup-free and in the Japanese dress she gave me.
I say, “Hi mum. I’ve been thinking that I could use a little change….Maybe start to appreciate the Japanese in me.”
“I’m glad you’ve come to terms with yourself. I had no doubt that Nariko’s wisdom would eventually set in…It just took a lot longer than I thought it would,” she says, a hesitant smile gracing her lips. Aiko then comes running down the stairs, his eyes widening in amazement as he notices my natural appearance.
“Wow sis. I’m proud of you…Guess you found out the circus wasn’t coming to town anytime soon,” he says, his hand thumping my back as he congratulates me.
“Ha. Very funny. It’s just that I decided to embrace my natural look instead of trying to erase my ethnicity. You know, it’s actually hip right now, not that you would understand fashion trends,” I argue, feigning a look of innocence. Just then, a Jaguar pulls up in front of my house, and Layla marches through the door, her combat boots clacking against the tiled floor in the foyer.
“Hey So. Should we go to the ----what did you do to yourself?” Layla questions, looking utterly bemused.
“Nothing. I am Japanese, after all. I’ve decided not to hide who I really am and appreciate my heritage and culture,” I say, feeling completely confident in myself. To my surprise, Layla flushes red, an action that is far from the cool and collected person she usually is.
“You’re right. If anyone made you feel unworthy of being Japanese, it was me. I think it was the fact that Lexi enjoyed your company a lot more than she did mine. Whatever it was, it was completely unacceptable of me to make you feel like being Asian deserved to be ridiculed. If you’ll accept my apology, I’m sorry...Maybe we can start fresh? You look beautiful, by the way.” She offers a weak smile, but her eyes are brimming with tears. In spite of all that has taken place, I know that she truly is sorry, so I grasp her hand.
“Apology accepted. Okay, now that we’ve gotten past that, let’s go to the mall. Ice cream always makes things better. And it’s my treat,” I say. With that, I wave goodbye to mum and Aiko, and then yank Layla out the door, hopping into the driver’s seat of her Jaguar. Before I hit the gas pedal, I think of Obaasan, my omnipotent (in all truth) grandmother. Even I know, though, that Obaasan was much more than a grandmother; she was the one to unearth a bond within our lonely desert community.