On Being Japanese Canadian in the ‘80s and ‘90s
‘And I would like a rice of bowl’, said my mother to the waitress. I pursed my lips together to hold back a giggle.
It was the ’90s, and my mother had been in North America for over 25 years at this point. Her English was fluent, but not without the occasional slip. She had become indifferent to such gaffes, yet not indifferent enough to miss an opportunity to laugh.
After the waitress left, I burst into a fit of laughter. My mother laughed along, realizing her mistake. To add to the silliness, we were in a Japanese restaurant and the waitress was Japanese.
There are many markers of being a nisei – second generation Japanese – and growing up in the ’80s to ’90s Greater Vancouver was a unique sliver of time. Back then, the number of visible minorities in any of my elementary school classrooms was about 1/4 or less, none of whom were ever of Japanese descent, much less of Japanese-Chinese descent as I was.
Try explaining to your young friends that your family’s nickname for you, Magu「マグ」, is a short form for Magnus. While in English, Magu conjures up images of the animated Mr. Magoo – short, stocky, bald and old – in Japanese, it’s actually kind of cute, I would tell them.
And when your first exposure to English words are layered with a Japanese accent, you’re bound to have some confusion growing up. To this day, I still have to think twice about whether I want ma-yo-nnaise 「マヨネーズ」 or mā-yo-nnaise 「メヨネーズ」 with my burger. And although there is a perfectly good word for refrigerator in Japanese – reizouko「冷蔵庫」 – somehow re-fu-rii 「レフリー」 made it into the list of regularly used imaginary words in our house.
On one of my tweenage birthday parties, my mother took a huge watermelon into our carport. Wide-eyed and giggling, my young party guests followed along and watched with anticipation. I was nervous, not knowing what to expect and worried that whatever it was would be considered very uncool, which is likely why my mother kept even me in the dark. We each took turns getting blindfolded, spun around 3 times, and smashing the watermelon with a long, wooden stick. The first one to crack the watermelon open was the winner. We learned that this is a popular summertime game in Japan called suikawari 「スイカ割り」, and ends with all participants sharing in the spoils. It was a big hit.
And Japanese superstitions are plain weird.
‘Don’t play with fire,’ my mother would say. ‘You will wet the bed.’ I had a tractable personality and this story did not end well for me.
‘Don’t fight with your brother on New Years Day. If you do, you will fight for the rest of the year’. After years of collecting empirical data, I happily call bogus on this one.
And whenever I lost a tooth, my mother tossed it up to the roof of our house if it came from the bottom-row, and she buried it our backyard if it came from the top row. The explanation? Teeth on the bottom row need encouragement to grow upward, while teeth on the top row need it to grow downward. Duh! In my circles, to say it was novel would be an understatement. ‘Ewww, you have teeth on your roof!’
In fact, ewww was a common theme in the overall Japanese Canadian childhood experience. Ewww, that’s raw fish? Ewww, you eat raw egg on rice? Ewww, those are salmon eggs?
As I got older I realized that New Year’s as a Japanese Canadian was proof of just how cruel life could be. Take a typical Canadian New Year’s Eve, then tack on a bleary-eyed 8AM ozoni 「お雑煮」 breakfast the next morning. Talk about incompatibility.
And finally, no discussion about the Japanese Canadian experience is complete without accounts of maniacal levels of reciprocation. By example, I was taught that if I am ever on the receiving end of kindness – a gift, a favour of some sort – I must make it my mission to thoughtfully reciprocate as soon as humanly possible. And many a time I have witnessed a delighted but perplexed guest receive a gift from my mother: delighted at the kindness, perplexed as to what they did to warrant such a beautifully wrapped token.
The Japanese Canadian experience is much different these days, given the amount of diversity we now enjoy. As I say to my mother now and again whenever we come across Hello Kitty or Doraemon in a storefront, or see an ad boasting Japanese-style anything: ‘Mom, you’re finally in style!’