My mom’s been gone nearly two years now but over the past two weeks, I’ve been grateful that she wasn’t alive to have her heart broken every day. To see the devastation and suffering in the Japanese country of her birth would have slowly killed her.
Although I sense her presence daily, it has been these past weeks when I have shouldered her sorrow, anguish and helplessness as unrelenting scenes of destruction and loss have unfolded. It’s as if it was my country that lay tattered and my roots which had been ripped from the ground.
I worried about my mom’s family, no longer in touch, and the three international students we had mentored and grown to love — the three Powerpuff girls — Shoko, Eriko and Horoko. We finally heard only from Shoko, who e-mailed that she and family were shaken, but safe. But, we wondered, safe for how long?
My mom was called Baachan by her grandkids, short for Obaachan, the Japanese word for grandmother. She was so proud of her ancestry. In many ways she was a banana, yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and had become very Westernized through the decades she had made America her home, but she was still very much a Japanese. I learned from her always to return more than you borrowed, to hold your head high and not to bring shame to the family. Most of all, I inherited the Japanese philosophy of “shikataganai,” accepting your fate with graciousness and gratitude. It is that attitude I have respected among the first generation Japanese Americans in my church who were herded into relocation camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is that focused beam of light I see in the survivors of the earthquake, tsunami and radiation disaster which keep them persevering.
Every weary, and now homeless, baachan I see on the news or scooped up and carried to safety by their families, brings the heartbreak so very close to home. In a culture that reveres and respects their elderly, it is no small wonder that many of them made it to safety, possibly at the expense of their younger family members. The majority of the elderly still live with their families — not so much a pattern in this America.
My mom only returned to her native Kyushu, a southern island of Japan, just twice since she came here as an American war bride. Most of her family was disgraced that she married an American. She spoke of her homeland’s haunting beauty and its pristine seascapes. Although she lived on the Monterey Peninsula, she felt its beauty was dim in comparison. Until her illness enveloped her, Baachan called her older brother on the Japanese coast weekly. Not surprisingly, he died just days after her, neither realizing how ill the other was.
I’m grateful that neither lived to see those beautiful Japanese cities swept off the map.
I have wept till my eyes were swollen shut these past two weeks, but still the images haunt me. The world watches as once again, Japan, lying in rubble and ruin, with an uncertain and frightening radioactive future, bends down and starts to pick itself up. As it did following war, as it must do following nature’s fury.
I despair for the Japanese people but am also, very proud. I have never been so confident of their fortitude and their courage. Being half-Japanese, there were times in my youth I denied my Asian ancestry, as did my quarter-Japanese children. Now, as I have witnessed the universal outpouring of support from so many sources — Mexican American neighbors, strangers and East Indian students, I realize I am more than Japanese or American; I am interwoven into this race of humanity.
The Japanese, as they and other nations have done before, have shown the world that they are knocked down, but not beaten. I can now feel Baachan, her head bowed in respect.
Carol Lawson-Swezey is a Japanese American child of an American soldier and a Japanese war bride. She lives in Clovis, Calif., is a wife and mother of two, and is a program coordinator of volunteer services at Saint Agnes Hospital in Fresno, Calif.