Wakaranai

When I asked Otosan how I was to sur­vive with­out Ja­panese, he told me not to worry

Geist - - Features - Hanako Ma­su­tani

When I was seven I was cer­tain my dad was cru­eller than ev­ery­one else’s. For one, I wasn’t al­lowed to call him Dad. He went by Otosan, which was old-school, im­pe­rial, even in Ja­pan, where ev­ery­one called their fa­ther Papa. Two, he didn’t be­lieve in cel­e­brat­ing birth­days. He thought that I should drop the idea of a Cin­derel­lath­emed party and med­i­tate in­stead. The heav­i­est cru­elty, though, was that Otosan was send­ing me to Ja­panese School. This was no ex­tracur­ric­u­lar lan­guage class. No, Ja­panese School was run by the far-dis­tant Ja­panese School Board, the Mon­busho—the name had Mafioso over­tones. Ja­panese School was an out­post, a place to cram the Ja­panese cur­ricu­lum into Ja­panese na­tives liv­ing abroad, one tor­tur­ous Satur­day at a time.

I was not a Ja­panese na­tive. My par­ents, my brother and I lived in a small, un-up­dated Vic­to­rian house in Point Grey. We kids played He-man and watched Tom and Jerry. At the din­ner ta­ble we ate York­shire pud­dings, chip butty, egg and sol­diers, and spoke my mother’s tongue: a self-dep­re­cat­ing Bri­tish English. My ticket into Ja­panese school was Otosan him­self, who taught grade 3. When I asked him how I was go­ing to sur­vive with­out Ja­panese, he told me not to worry. All I had to say was wakaranai.

“Wakaranai,” I re­peated. He as­sured me it could be said in ev­ery cir­cum­stance. “To any­thing?”

“Yes.”

What a mag­i­cal word! I thought, and I felt a lit­tle less afraid.

My first Satur­day morn­ing I climbed down out of my top bunk and al­lowed my mom to brush my knotty, half-blood hair into curv­ing pig­tails. I left the house feel­ing im­por­tant, armed with Otosan in his

suit. And with some­thing else, too: the magic word.

Ja­panese School didn’t look like Queen El­iz­a­beth Ele­men­tary, my reg­u­lar school. Ab­sent were the colour­ful al­pha­bet ban­ners and soft car­pets where we did show-and-tell. I was given a seat in the first row. Around me the walls were bare, mint-green cin­derblocks. Switch our desks out for gur­neys and the place could have been a morgue. A mid­dle-aged woman with fat curls stood at the front, wear­ing a skirt suit and tie. Koike Sen­sei— our grade 3 teacher. I guessed that at home her kids called her Okasan, rather than Mama.

She said my name. A flow of Ja­panese words fol­lowed. The class turned to ap­praise me. I smiled into the pause. Was I meant to speak? “Wakaranai,” I said. Koike Sen­sei didn’t ex­actly smile, but she ac­knowl­edged my re­sponse as ap­pro­pri­ate and turned the class’s at­ten­tion away from me to the board. It works. I cel­e­brated silently. It re­ally works.

Through­out my first long, deskcon­fined day ev­ery­thing I re­ceived was en­tirely in Ja­panese. Work­sheets, quizzes, maps. I had taught my­self to read early, staying up dur­ing my nap times to read Frog and Toad. Not be­ing able to un­der­stand the sym­bols in front of me was as for­eign as the chat­ter and faces of my new class­mates. They must have math class, I com­forted my­self. I would rec­og­nize the num­bers. But when math pe­riod came, Koike Sen­sei passed out a quiz with dou­ble- and triple-digit num­bers linked by dots and lines. It may as well have been Ja­panese to me.

At this point in my child­hood I was still deeply in­vested in magic. Over the pre­vi­ous sum­mer I’d hid­den be­hind our cot­tage and re­peat­edly jumped off a rock, se­cretly hop­ing I’d fly. How amazed my fam­ily would be when I took to the air from the power of pure be­lief! In this same vein, I spent the re­main­der of my first day at Ja­panese School be­liev­ing I would sud­denly un­der­stand Ja­panese. Just be­fore the dis­missal bell, how­ever, that hope quickly bled out. I had my work re­turned to me. I’d got zero out of ten, zero out of twenty, zero out of thir­ty­five. I gave a shud­der­ing sigh, care­ful to re­serve my tears for a friend­lier place.

Otosan was un­fazed by my ze­ros. He brought me to the kitchen ta­ble af­ter din­ner on Sun­day to start on my Ja­panese School home­work. It landed on the ta­ble with a thud. A pile of black and white pho­to­copies, enough to de­liver a week’s worth of the Ja­panese cur­ricu­lum. I took one look at the pile and be­gan to cry. Otosan looked out the win­dow at my brother and his friends frolick­ing in our back­yard ap­ple tree. He re­ally was the world’s most heart­less dad.

Otosan had to drag me down from my bunkbed on Satur­day morn­ings. By the an­kles. I clasped my Raggedy Ann cur­tains to make the job harder. Strangely, our new, an­tag­o­nis­tic dy­namic did not stop me from see­ing Otosan as my saviour when I en­coun­tered him at school. If I saw him in the hall­ways, I sprang out of the stair­well where I hid dur­ing break times and ran to­ward him, grab­bing his legs, his waist, any part I could reach, be­fore he shook me off like I was a berserk squir­rel. Ja­panese peo­ple do not hug.

Mean­while, back at Queen E., I was get­ting my first taste of aca­demic glory. Reg­u­lar school­work be­came a breeze.

Like walk­ing on land af­ter walk­ing through wa­ter. Like run­ning freely af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in a three-legged race. It was the in­verse of Ja­panese School— ten out of ten, twenty out of twenty, thirty-five out of thirty-five. I wanted to laugh at the read­ers our teacher had set up, cov­ers fac­ing the room, in a lit­tle wooden dis­play case. Read in my own lan­guage? Take 3 away from 7? Please! It was child’s play.

One day, late in the school year, I wrote a short com­po­si­tion in Ja­panese. How short, I can’t re­call. Nor can I tell you how this was ac­com­plished. Otosan ad­mits he may have had a hand in it. I wrote some­thing along the lines that when I was at Ja­panese School I was happy to see my dad in the halls. This piece of writ­ing made it into the school news­pa­per.

The day af­ter the pa­per came out but be­fore I knew I was a pub­lished au­thor, a group of my class­mates cor­nered me in the stair­well. They may have asked me why I’d writ­ten it or how, or why I thought I de­served the hon­our. I didn’t un­der­stand what they wanted. Backed up against the cin­derblocks, all I could say was wakaranai. My year of us­ing the word had led me to be­lieve wakaranai meant, “I don’t un­der­stand what you’re say­ing” and/ or “I don’t un­der­stand Ja­panese.” That day, the na­tive Ja­panese grade 2s took their ques­tion­ing to a place they’d never gone be­fore. Maybe they were jeal­ous. Maybe they fi­nally un­der­stood that it wasn’t shy­ness, but rather that I had no Ja­panese be­yond wakaranai. They asked me what my name was, how old I was, if I was a boy or a girl, if I had two heads. I don’t un­der­stand, I said. I don’t un­der­stand, I don’t un­der­stand. They laughed. It was in the forge of this hu­mil­i­a­tion, as I re­peated my only Ja­panese word, that I re­al­ized wakaranai en­com­passed also, “I don’t know.” It in­di­cated all lev­els and kinds of ig­no­rance. The de­tails of my ridicu­lous­ness came into fo­cus. I didn’t even know if I was a boy or girl! But hold on, did I just un­der­stand that jab? Yes. Yes, I did. Magic, af­ter all, in this un­likely, un­com­fort­able place. I was un­der­stand­ing Ja­panese.

Over a decade later, dur­ing my time in univer­sity, I en­rolled my­self in Ja­panese lan­guage classes. Thanks to my time in Ja­panese School, my pro­nun­ci­a­tion was good enough to dis­guise me as the real thing, a Ja­panese na­tive. A happy ex­change to a pres­ti­gious Ja­panese univer­sity fol­lowed, com­plete with a life in Ky­oto, a gor­geous Ja­panese boyfriend, and con­ver­sa­tions with my wise, mono­lin­gual grand­mother.

But back in the sum­mer of ’86, be­fore I could be­come one of Otosan’s grade 3 stu­dents, my par­ents sold our home in Point Grey and we moved to a Gulf Is­land. We left be­cause some­one other than me had also had a bad year. I didn’t know it then, but Otosan had been un­able to make progress on his the­sis and my par­ents’ mar­riage had nearly dis­solved. Otosan ul­ti­mately dropped out of his mas­ter’s pro­gram. He would be the only son of his pro­fes­sor fa­ther not to fol­low in his fa­ther’s foot­steps. Wakaranai had ap­plied to me more than I knew.

In mov­ing to the coun­try, my fa­ther moved away from the heavy ex­pec­ta­tions he’d put on him­self, and he lifted them from me as well. He bought me a pony, and al­though he’d never held a tool be­fore, he built my pony’s barn. I danced around Otosan, shout­ing out how it should look, as he mea­sured the foun­da­tion, nod­ding. We watched it rise, a cas­tle of pale new cedar, a home we imag­ined and built to­gether. Hanako Ma­su­tani’s fic­tion and po­etry has ap­peared in pub­li­ca­tions such as Grain, the New Quar­terly and Arc Po­etry Mag­a­zine. She is work­ing on her first novel for teens.

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