"Imagine Little Tokyo" Short Story Contest entry: "A Little Piece of home."
This was a short story I wrote for a local short story contest entitled "Imagine Little Tokyo." Our instructions were to use Little Tokyo, a historic section of Los Angeles, as the setting for a short story. My story was titled "A Little Piece of Home", and it follows a young half-Japanese half-American girl as she tries to acclimate her cousin who's visiting from Japan to life in Los Angeles. I was a finalist in the running for 1st prize amongst 14 others who were also chosen. Alas, I lost, but it was fun writing this simple and, I think, sweet story. Enjoy!
A LITTLE PIECE OF HOME
My second cousin had been here for a week already and she still hadn’t quite gotten used to the way of life here.
Her name was Motoko and she was visiting from Tokyo, Japan. It was her first time abroad, and, of all places, Los Angeles would be her first exposure to anything foreign. I’ve spent all fifteen and a half years of my life here and even I still hadn’t gotten used to it. It hadn’t helped that my big ol’ American dad gave her a big ol’ American hug as soon as he greeted her at the airport—she didn’t know how to react to it, so she just bowed nervously toward him; and my mother, who, despite having the last name of Takahashi—as typical as a Japanese last name gets—is as culturally Japanese as California Rolls are. My mother and her siblings were all raised in Orange County and speak, maybe, seven words of Japanese combined. That number is probably smaller; I’m still wondering whether the words “sake,” “karate,” and “sayonara” even count anymore.
So, it was solely up to me to make Motoko feel at home, and I was failing miserably. I was a year away from being able to drive legally and I had never ridden on public transportation before, and was too scared to start now—I’ve heard horrible stories—so we had nothing but our feet to get us around.
I tried to introduce her to as much of my culture as I could. We went on walks around local parks and I took her to local fast food places—she didn’t want to go to McDonalds or KFC because she said they had a lot of those in Japan, so I took her to Taco Bell and the local In-and-Out. She made hand gestures and facial expressions that indicated she thought it was good; large eyes and a big smile mean the same in any country. As horrible as it may sound, this to me is what American culture is. But I was glad she liked it.
I hoped I was able to say she liked everything I showed her, but there was something wrong. With each passing day she seemed to get sadder and sadder. Four out of the seven days she had been here, I heard her crying at night during bedtime. I would ask her what was wrong in the Japanese I was able to teach myself the week before she came, which I was sure was horrible.
“Doushita?” I would ask, in my American accent.
“Nandemo nai,” she said as she waved me off trying, and failing, to stifle her sobs, but after a few ribbings I was able to get the word koishii out of her. I raced for my Japanese-English dictionary to look it up. It was the word for “missing” as in “missing my mother,” not as in “missing a sock.”
Just as I thought—she was homesick. When I asked her if she knew the word for “homesick” in Japanese she told me that they say the exact same thing, except with a Japanese accent. It was cute. I’d much preferred the way they said it. We share more language than I thought.
I’m a big fan of manga and anime, but all the books I had were the English versions, and all the DVDs I owned were dubbed as well. It did absolutely nothing to advance my Japanese skill, and did even less to soothe Motoko’s homesickness. When I showed her anime dubbed into English she said it was “hen,” which means “strange.” So, she just admired the pictures, even though she wasn’t able to understand anything going on.
Recently, some of my friends from school had told me of a trip they took to Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles and how wonderful it was. They told me of all the little snacks they bought and all the manga they read at a Japanese bookstore called Kino…something or other. That is a place I wanted to go to and that would be the place to take Motoko out of her funk. So, I tried to hit my dad up for a ride.
“Dad, Dad, I’m soooo glad to see you!” I said to my father as I ran into the living room when he came home.
“You’re never this happy to see me after work. What do you want?”
“I’m shocked, dad. Can’t a girl just be happy to see her own father?”
“Carrie,” he said as he looked at me suspiciously.
“Okay. Okay. Well, seeing as how Motoko only has three more days here, I was wondering if you could probably take us down to Little Tokyo. Probably. Maybe.”
“And when would you like me to do that?” he asked me.
“Um… Now?” I said with a voice so filled with hope.
“No can do, I have some work to finish up here.”
“Daaaad! Come on, she’s homesick,” I said.
“Oh, that’s what the crying was about,” said my mom, who had come in from the kitchen.
“You heard? So you know how sad she must be,” I said, as I grabbed Motoko close to me. I felt sorry for her. I could tell by the confused look in her eyes that she had no idea what we were talking about.
“Yeah, I feel for her.”
“Then you’ll take us?”
“I just started dinner and by the time I’m done it’ll be way too late.”
It wasn’t looking good. I pushed ahead.
“Tomorrow then, dad?”
“Sorry, honey. I just started this project and I’ll be busy ’til the end of this month,”
I looked at mom with sad, adorable teenaged girl eyes, but she anticipated my question.
“Same here. I’m lucky I was able to come home early enough to make dinner today.”
I pouted, to no avail.
“How about dinner Sunday night downtown?” mom said.
“Awww, but all the shops will be closed by that time. I looked up some places I wanted to take her to. And that’s the night before she goes back."
“Then there’s only one thing to do,” my dad said.
“You’ll take us?” I asked with plenty of pep.
“No. You’ll just have to take the bus and the trains there,” he said. I gasped in horror.
“I can’t believe you would suggest a thing. Do you know what they do to little girls like me on the bus?”
“What, take your money and give you a ticket?”
“You won’t be joking when they call you down at the morgue to identify me.”
“Stop being so dramatic,” my mother said to me.
Clearly worried by my attitude, Motoko tugged my sleeve.
“Doushita?” she asked me; it was the one word I was very familiar with.
"Densha, densha,” I said as I tried best as I could to explain, with my arms and hands, that we might have to ride a train. Then, suddenly, her eyes grew wide and she became very excited.
“Densha ni noritai,” she said and clapped her hands. My dad understood her excitement, if not her words.
“That settles it. Tomorrow morning, you two are riding the train to Little Tokyo.”
“But, daaaad,” I tried to protest, but he just looked to Motoko, who then looked at me with her own set of adorable Japanese teenaged girl eyes, and I knew what I had to do.
“Just stick together and you’ll be fine,” he said as he dug into his pocket. He gave us each a hundred dollars to do with whatever we wished. Motoko tried to protest in a very Japanese way, but he would have nothing of it and pushed it on her. Me being American, I would have never refused free money; such are our differences.
The next morning, Motoko and I got dressed and headed out on our trip to Little Tokyo, our pockets full of money, our hearts full of enthusiasm—and mine with just a touch of fear.
We took the Redline, an underground subway system. Motoko looked so happy to be there at the station.
When the train came I stood directly in front of the door. But, as the doors opened, she pulled me to the side and, with hand gestures and Japanese I couldn’t possibly understand, showed me that the proper way was to stand on the sides and let people off the train, Japanese-style I assumed.
Once on the train, she pulled out her travel guide and began looking through it. We noticed a Japanese couple with the exact same guide. They noticed us and struck up a conversation with Motoko all the way until our stop. Truthfully, I felt a little left out, but it was interesting to see them interact.
When we got to our stop we waved goodbye to them and we made our way.
The first place we went to was Starbucks. I figured we should have a drink and make our plan. As we sat down at the outside tables I motioned that we should look at her guide again. But, as she pulled it out of her bag, she accidentally dropped it. Suddenly, a hand out of nowhere picked it up for us. The man attached to the hand was American, which was weird because what came out of his mouth was not English—he started speaking perfect Japanese to Motoko. She looked at me, her eyes big as two moons. I was curious as to what she was reacting to so I asked him.
“She’s so excited. What are you guys talking about?”
“Just general stuff. I’m a black guy in LA speaking Japanese. They tend to be surprised by that,” he said.
In my research I found out that the bookstore we wanted to go to was in a place called Weller Court, so I took a chance and asked him if he knew where it was.
“We’re in it, sort of,” he said.
“Oh. Do you also know where Kino… Kino…”
“Kinokuniya? Yeah, I know,” he said, and he pointed off into the distance. “You see that giant rocket over there? Go there and make a right and it’s on the second floor.”
We said our thanks, mine in English, Motoko’s in Japanese, and did just that.
When we got there we ran through the aisles and marveled at the large selection of manga and anime figures that they had. We looked through magazines and played with markers; we danced as Japanese pop flowed through the speakers up above; she showed me all of her own recommendations for manga, and I looked for the English-translated ones and bought five of them.
I remembered seeing a Japanese market just below Kinokuniya called Marukai, so we headed there and bought all the Japanese snacks and drinks we could; I bought old-fashioned Ramune, while Motoko bought something called C.C. Lemon.
When leaving, we saw a group of kids around our age hanging around the courtyard. That in itself wasn’t strange, but the funny thing was they were dressed as anime characters, some of which I instantly recognized. I walked up to them and asked them who they were, and they explained to me that they were part of an anime meet up group that met there every weekend. They invited me to join them sometime and I said that I would. They also fawned over Motoko and called her “kawaii,” the Japanese word for “cute.” She blushed so hard she was glowing red. I guess they had about as much experience with native Japanese people as I had.
After that, we explored an area called the Japanese village. She squealed when she saw the Yamazaki bakery; I think it’s a chain in Japan as well. We bought a couple of pastries for later; I bought a couple for my mom and dad, too. We walked by a place called Mitsuru Café that looked like it had been there for years. Motoko introduced me to “Imagawayaki,” a sort of Japanese pancake with red bean filling, and I was in love at first bite.
Next door there was a place that was the Mecca of many Japanese and American girl alike: a Sanrio store, home of everything Hello Kitty. We ran through it like a couple of tiny tornados. We bought tiny mirrors, Hello Kitty shaped erasers, and small Hello Kitty plushes. We were in Hello Kitty heaven.
On our way back through Weller Court we came upon a large white statue that looked like two entwined cigarettes. It was named the Friendship Knotaccording to the plaque under it. We tried to imitate it the best we could. Motoko threw her arms and thighs around me, but that looked awkward. When that didn’t work we got on the ground and tried it that way, and it worked much better. We laughed and laughed; people must have thought we were crazy, but we didn’t care. We had the time of our lives. A nice passerby even took our photo like that for us. It was one of my most fun memories.
It was getting late and all that running around made us hungry. I asked her what she wanted to eat in more badly pronounced Japanese.
“Nani tabetai desu ka?” I said, but she looked at me disapprovingly.
“No desu ka. Kazoku dakara do not say desu ka,” she told me. “Kazoku” means family and what I said was too formal. She finally told me that she wanted ramen, and I agreed.
We went on a search for ramen, and a trip to the koban, a police station doubling as an information center, sent us to a place called Shinsengumi.
We got there and placed our order, and as soon as our customized ramen came to us, we ate it like it was our first meal ever. When we got both got down to the soup I looked over to see drops of what I thought were water falling into Motoko’s bowl. I looked up thinking there was a leak in the ceiling or something, but the leak was coming from Motoko’s eyes: she was crying into her broth.
“Doushita, doushita?” I asked, frantically.
She shook her head and said, “Tada ureshii dake. Kono aji wa Nihon mitai na aji. Nihon ni iru mitai.” The only words I could understand were “ureshii” and “Nihon,” which meant “happy” and “Japan,” and I got what she was trying to say. They were tears of joy. She was reminded of home.
The next week came and it was time for Motoko to go home. At the airport she gave my dad a big ol’ American hug, Japanese-style, and did the same for my mom.