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Nikkei Chronicles #2—Nikkei+: Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race

Memory Says

Nearly every year my husband remembers that we got married on October the 24, 1998. We did not. Stereotypes aside, I, as the woman, and hence the one with the better memory, know for a fact that it was October the 17th, 1998, as I did nearly everything for the wedding. This is not something to be proud of; it is my biggest indictment. And it was my biggest mistake on all cultural fronts—I will get to that.

I remember the date clearly because I used beautiful Japanese purple silk kimono material around sage, clove, nutmeg, citrus, and cinnamon potpourri tied in shining string with our names and that date as wedding mementoes for those who attended. Whenever someone asks about our wedding I envision these two-centimeter-long scented memories and October the 17th on regular computer paper in an early tech-age font with a name that resonates a connection to beautiful.

I think if I were to mention this to him, my husband may or may not remember my long nights of wrapping and tying. Perhaps he helped me wrap. As Adrienne Rich says in the amazing poem from her collection, Atlas of the Difficult World: “Memory says: Want to do right? Don’t count on me.” My notes next to this first line, written in 1994 in the best poetry class I have ever taken, with Louisiana’s former poet Laureate Darrell Bourque, in scribbled pencil, read:

“Trust the mirror—history does not say it all.”

And so, side by side, we stand, shoulder to shoulder, eyes ahead. I look in the mirror. I look at my husband in the mirror, watching himself and us. At my son in the mirror as he wants to be done with it and go and play. And see that we are a new kind of history. Definitely 21st Century, if nothing else.

Memory is faded from the loss of the only picture my husband had of his grandparents on his father’s side. I saw it at his maternal grandmother’s house months before she died in Bagé, Rio Grande do Sul. It was winter and horribly cold; there is no infrastructure in the country homes in the deep south of Brazil. We had been living there in my husband’s “patria,” his homeland (poor translation), in his hometown, four months or so before we visited her. Me: hunched over, being polite in a tongue not my own but that I was now fluent in. Chimarrão—so like green tea—and a small tour. Crossed arms to save the Californian with blond hair and blue eyes from the chill that seeped through the windows and onto the skin and into the bones. The cold unrelenting, laughing against all the stereotypes of tropical Brazil.

Two Japanese, side by side, seated, newly married. Circa 1930s or 1940s. The photo from a large box, frazzling at the edges. Their eyes on us, on me as I looked and paused, lifting them to me. Every photo endlessly fascinating—my husband’s youth, beautiful, natural photos of landscape and early. Of later and taller and smiles and sudden. Animals and pampas in every photo. All my training told me to pay attention, right now! That I had to be HERE and not lose a drop of the moment, of the memory (I did well). This was the one I took far from the box and held up, breathless—excuse the cliché. I wanted that photo. I thought with palpable, physical manifestations, of scanners and copiers in that old, rumbling house. Computers and cameras. Bumps, thatched, vibrant settled, colored floor, and so rustic it was itself. Feijão on the stove. Must and fireplace and barking dog, oh please get me a fax machine. But there was nothing I could do. It was theirs. I watched my hand retreat slowly toward the box. Here was my husband, my father-in-law, the tapestry of Nikkei in Brazil. All that we had experienced in our many years in Japan, my future son, our heritage, his heritage, and my other, little, his’ heritage. Their eyes were so dark and sure and fixed and formal and organic to the moment of their own place in time and history. They could not fathom the Californian being in their photo, in their quilt of life experience, or even in their far future. They were married and now posing for their Japanese wedding photo. The lid went over their intent faces.

Regis’ grandmother died and we went to the velorio. I kissed her passed away forehead in a black skirt and an attempt at foreign formality not contrived. We walked to the cemetery and I saw death the way few Americans have seen it since World War II: standing too close and making you uncomfortable. Endless walking to the place up the hill, heels twisting a time or two. Dead body and wailing, family falling down in grief, more jerk and slide spontaneity than any American could handle for such a formal occasion. Dead body carried to the open tomb, her body in the cement, the crease-faced and poorly dressed caretaker covering the final resting place with wet cement and trowel and a final pat to seal the grave and walking away crisp and neutral. He’s done this one too many times for too small a pay.

I wondered what happened to the photo months later and felt guilty. Not trying to take the spoils but, did we not want to have a family heritage? It was the one and only.

No, it was not to be. The photo is long lost. I try to conjure the memory but Adrienne Rich laughs at me. Look in the mirror, she says, look in the mirror.

What do I see there? I see a lost photo that just today my husband says I remember incorrectly when I bring it up.

Where is the photo? he asks me, his voice showing earnest. Do we have that photo?

I explain what I remember.

No, he says, that was at my parents’ house.


There was water infiltration and it became terribly mofado (moldy). We lost many important photos and documents.

I know this sort of thing happens all the time in Brazil. I experienced it. Flooded houses, humidity. Lost: well, everything. I remember running from waves that gushed under the front door—with a newborn, in a blackout. Regis was at work. Now what? Trying not to panic. I got the milk heated somehow.

My brow furls. I don’t remember this, I say, feeling lost as he loads the dishwasher and my hands come to my head. No, it was at your grandmother’s house, I know for sure. The photo was…also on the wall. But how could it also be on the wall? I think. Something is out of sync. How could I not remember this correctly? Where is the photo now?

It is lost, my husband says. We don’t know where it is. Like listening to a favorite song on record or cassette tape, I will take it as it is, I think. Just as it is, scratchy sound, skipping, water stained, frazzled, anything. Please? I feel my hand lift it from the box. But it is gone.

I go to look in the mirror as I write. Right now. I see nothing but California and blue eyes. European parents, nothing but Gentile: my mother survived occupied Holland and would have been taken to a concentration camp otherwise. Her windows had to be completely blackened. Her first piece of chocolate was from an American soldier liberating Amsterdam. My father from England, blue-eyed. And wide-eyed as his neck craned to watch British and German planes fire at each other from his yard in London and on his way to school. This does not last long. My son, sleepy and fussy, yanks my hand to help him sleep.

Yesterday some new Japanese friends I met at a Japanese-American child’s birthday party had watched him, double-taking. They were discreet. The eyes, I thought. They are noticing the eyes, as he climbed into the jumpy. They wonder. I explained us. Us. My husband, I said, slowly, to the language school student, without preface, is San-sei, half (My hand sliced my other hand like I was cutting something. Later, on the drive home, 405 to the 5, I realized this was ridiculous). They were intrigued and I talked about how my husband, having lived 11 years in Japan, is quite Japanese at times. I explained how. Their faces brightened. I lived there for five, I say. Sometimes, I said, watching to make sure my son didn’t climb over the little girl, I feel so Japanese, especially in the workplace. I am too formal, I say, it stuck with me. Something changed. I have to watch Americans and see how they are with bosses, I say. “How are you with your boss?” I ask with acting affect, indicating my feeling. I feel I am understood if only for a moment, the mirror reflecting clearly. Clearly for now and clearly for a life I left but that never left me. My son navigates the jumpy without incident.

Our wedding took place on October 17, 1998. Like in most weddings, too many poignant and nutty things took place to explain them all here. My husband cried silently next to me at the high point of the ceremony and I glanced at him just long enough to be appropriate and knew I had been blessed with an unusually wonderful man. He is Brazilian, born in the small town of Bagé, Rio Grande do Sul, in the deep south of Brazil, close to, as I say over and over, Uruguay-and-Argentina-and-it-gets-cold-there. His father is second generation Japanese; his paternal grandparents are Japanese. His mother is European-Brazilian, but, interestingly, his grandmother on that side is one-quarter native. You can see it in the nose. Sometimes my husband looks Greco-Roman because of that nose and it gives him an air of nobility. That means my son is 1/32nd native.

So, what did I do wrong? I lost track of photographs. I want a family tree but a piece will forever be missing. But for the wedding, against all American rules, I went solo and made all arrangements myself for flowers, dress, and venue. Where was my sense of BFF and girly friendship? Against all Japanese rules I did not plan elaborate arrangements for the guests and for superb thank you presents, and did not involve anyone or humbly ask for help. Against all Brazilian, geez, that is where I really went wrong, against all rules Brazilian I did not proceed to involve a whole bunch of others and make it fun, allowing others to relish my moment with me. American individuality at its worst.

Hamamatsu Kirisuto Kyokai is a wonderful, rare church in Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-Ken, Japan. To make an epically long story short, there are—or were—tons of Nikkei Brazilians in Hamamatsu and there are quite a few Brazilian churches there. I started in the Japanese church in the morning. Then one day two Nikkei Brazilians had come to the Japanese church the same time I did, we struck up a conversation, and they told me about the Brazilian church that met at 3:00 PM every Sunday. I said I would go. I walked in the doors one Sunday and never left. Heart and soul never left like a Brazilian Certaneja song, hopelessly in love, sappy, idealizing, cram-study Portuguese in love. I had found my home. Two years later, by the Grace of God, I also found my husband. As a side note, for the anthropology student I was, it was true living-my-major bliss.

And we married a year later. My husband insists that our ceremony took place in Japanese and English but with my better memory I know that it was Portuguese and English. It had been our conundrum, the type of ceremony we would have; we opted for Brazilian. The breakdown of attendees was approximately as follows: American: 10%; Brazilian: 50%; Japanese: 30%; Other: 10%. My family and language school people represent the English speakers and other foreigners, the church members most of the Brazilians, and the Japanese consisted of church members and some of our Japanese students and friends. We decided majority rules and had a Brazilian wedding.

We had madrinhos and padrinhos, our American equivalent of bridesmaids and groomsmen, but in Brazil they sit in “casais,” couples, and do not wear same dress. Regis’ pastor from Tokyo, completely trilingual, being an American whose missionary family moved to Brazil when he was still an infant (he got lost in the Amazon for a day, my husband just told me as I write), and who later moved to Japan to start a church, spoke in Portuguese while his wife Christine translated into English. Neither Regis nor I remember if there was headphone translation for the Japanese. Why didn’t we have that, if we had it for the Brazilians during communion service every first Sunday of the month, as they sat upstairs looking through the window into the sanctuary?

Memory is lost because for years I could not find one of the most important photo albums of our wedding, taken by a Japanese friend who took it upon herself to get her beautiful camera and arrange her own photo ops for us all ceremony long. They are photos of a quality unmatched. After moving to the States, while looking for a toy car for my son, I stomped through my parents’ computer room closet, almost fell down in all the clutter, saw the ribbon, and in a flurry of movement, pulled it out just before righting myself outside the sliding doors. There it was in my hands. Silent glee amongst rows of books and computer hum.

I see Adrienne Rich point to her temple, tap a number of times, smirk, and turn back to her writing.

My son says “piman,” Japanese for the red peppers he loves for snacks, and still calls his flip-flops the Portuguese “chinelos.” When he does something wrong he says he has been a “sem vergohna boy.” This is a mix of Portuguese and English for, “No-shame boy,” a boy of mischief. Our son has autism (another essay) and we have opted for one language to help his language delay. The other foreign words are fading as we teach him the English words for these things and so he can communicate clearly with others here in America, as he cannot differentiate languages well. Not yet anyway.

“Memory says: Want to do right? Don’t count on me.”

I always see Adrienne Rich under a quilt in a rocking chair, looking somewhat sidelong at the camera. That is the last photo I remember of her, or something similar—I do not recall the details.

“Trust the mirror—history does not say it all.”

I cannot help but to think, “What is to become of us? What is to become of my son, especially when we are gone?”

Our story, so singular. With our son, a story of the future. We can only see the mirror and not beyond, but that is okay for now.

I wish I had that photo.

Mirrors have new meaning for me since moving back to the States.

Caleb has a stellar memory and he has spontaneous recall. He is outlandishly good with technology; who knows what he will invent. I know, one day, he will recall the lost words and call a pepper a piman and his slippers chinelos when he—and we—least expect it. He will look at a boy up to no good years from now and think, “sem vergonha.” He will look in the mirror and see everything. He will look at the old wedding photograph of his parents—one European-American, one Japanese-Brazilian—a photo he has carefully preserved—and see himself in our intent gazes, with all of life and opportunity ahead of us, our smiling faces, there in the Japanese church, a Biblical passage from Matthew written vertically in Japanese in the background, Regis and I walking into the then-future, his own mirror.


© 2013 Roxzana Sudo

21 Stars

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

Brazil Chronicles family hapa Japan marriage memory Mixed nikkei-plus photographs wedding

About this series

Being Nikkei is inherently a state of mixed traditions and cultures. For many Nikkei communities and families around the world, it is common to use both chopsticks and forks; mix Japanese words with Spanish; or celebrate the New Year’s Eve countdown with champagne and Oshogatsu with ozoni and other Japanese traditions.

This series introduces stories explore how Nikkei around the world perceive and experience being multiracial, multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational.

Each piece submitted to the Nikkei+ anthology was eligible for selection as our readers’ favorites. 

Here are their favorite stories in each language.

To learn more about this writing project >>

Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series >>