Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In honor of my grandmother's 95th birthday

Her birthday was actually March 1, but it's the thought that counts, right? And...action!

The Japanese have a saying that reflects the importance of conformity and harmony in their society: “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.” Don’t complain. Don’t make trouble. Don’t be too different. But this never stopped my grandmother, Miye Sakata. She was a troublemaker if ever there was one. “I’m a fighter,” she would say proudly. “If you want to be true to yourself in Japan, you have to stick up for yourself, because no one will stick up for you.”

Some of it was beyond her control. Her family was different to start with. Her father was the illegitimate child of a Shinto nun (I don't think they have the same constrictions as Catholic nuns), adopted by a Buddhist-turned-Christian, samurai-turned-merchant couple; he looked so unusual that people speculated about the Russian sailors who often spent weeks in his coastal hometown. As an adult, he built a synthetic textile mill, traveled the world, and developed a passion for all things Western.

Born in 1915, Miye inherited his curly brown hair, his Christianity, and his pro-Western views. In Japan’s deeply conformist, Buddhist, anti-Western society, this meant social ostracism—even her teachers picked on her. Luckily, she also inherited her father’s quick wit, iron will, and fierce resilience or I’m sure she would have been pounded right down like the proverbial nail.

“The girls in my class teased me because of my hair,” she told me once, “and because I was smarter than they were. But no matter what they said, I could think of a good comeback. And they couldn’t catch me to hurt me because I was faster, too,” she chuckled, as if the joke were on her classmates. This was one of the only times she hinted at how difficult it had been to be different. No wonder she saw herself as a fighter.

When she was a new mother in 1943, American bombing runs over Osaka had become so destructive that everyone who could began fleeing for the countryside. My grandmother strapped her baby—my mother—on her back and went to the train station. “Your mother was all I had,” she told me. This was true: her three brothers had all died in the war, two of her little sisters had died of tuberculosis, and her husband was with the army in China. “I saw an old woman near me on the platform, and I told her, ‘I know that you are old and I should allow you to go ahead of me, but if that train only has room for one of us, I’ll shove you aside if I have to. My baby is more important to me than you are.’” She may not really have been quite so rude (she is notorious for embellishing the truth), but my grandmother loves to tell this story because it never fails to shock people.

Miye lived in the mountainous countryside with my mother for two years, and according to her, when news finally came that Japan had lost the war, “I cheered and cheered. Everyone was shocked—they asked me how I could be happy. I said that I didn’t care if we had lost—it was a stupid war, anyway. Only an idiot wouldn’t be happy that it was finally over and our soldiers could stop dying for nothing and come home.” She lost friends over this one. But she never apologized and she never backed down.

Now, ninety-five years old and fighting her final fight against Alzheimer’s disease, Miye remains a troublemaker, absolutely certain that she is smartest person in the room. The caregivers at the home where she lives send polite reports full of euphemisms describing her escapades:

“Mrs. Sakata always thinks of others. At yesterday’s lecture, she generously reminded the speaker to speak loudly, and offered her candid opinion about his speech. She called out several times, ‘Speak up! I can hear you, but the others here are almost deaf!’ She also remarked, ‘You’re not very well-organized. Even I can’t follow you.’”


“Mrs. Sakata loves to help people. Today, she paired and folded socks with Mr. Tanaka. She is very quick, and perhaps she felt that he was having trouble. She assisted him many times by finding the mate to the sock he had his hand and throwing it at him.”

This last “helpful gesture” led to an altercation so unruly that the two had to be separated by the nurses.

As Miye loses her memories of me, I sift more often through my memories of her. My favorite is one of sunrise walks with her on my family’s occasional summer visits from the United States to Japan. She would take my siblings and me on walks around her neighborhood during the first few jet-lagged mornings, and reveal secrets she said no one else knew. “Listen to that bird,” she would say, “Can you hear the way its call is different from the others? Its nest is in that tree.” She would point out herbs she’d discovered growing behind this wall or in that crevice. An incorrigible rule-breaker, she showed us the gap in the fence around a golf course where we could wiggle through and run on the grass.

Miye is sharp and observant, but she has never been wise. It has never occurred to her that defiant confrontation is sometimes not the best choice. She was always a terrible know-it-all and she has no patience for anyone’s opinions but her own. I know that she told her stories not to encourage me, one of the only Asian children in a mostly-Caucasian town near Chicago, but to boast about how strong she herself had been as a Western-influenced girl in traditional Japanese society. And even in sentimental retrospect, I know that she took us on those walks as much to show off what she knew as to share her secrets with us.

And yet, how can I not admire her spirit? If I could say one thing to her, it would be this:

Thank you, Miye. You have taught me through marvelous example that it’s okay—good, even—to be different. That there is value in being unusual, in growing where you’re not “supposed” to grow. That being different can be hard, but that those of us who are different owe it to ourselves to stick up for ourselves and to find a way to be proud of what sets us apart. “I never apologize for my beliefs,” you’ve always said, “I am who I am, and too bad for everyone else if they don’t like it.” You may not be everyone’s favorite person, but you’ll always be one of mine. You are one of a kind, and I love you.

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