SPEAKING JAPANESE AMERICAN
Explain personally what 'gaman' means to you.
My grandmother’s stories pertained largely to a world I could never appreciate. Not at thirteen-years-old, inured to what I thought was her ‘baachan’ morality; nor at sixteen, both precocious and pretentious. Certainly, independent of any family obligations—they could take care of themselves! My grandmother always shook her head, her lips pursed in silent disagreement. Her bright pink lipstick would crease and gather when she did this, and I could see the dark skin of her true lips underneath, like a dirt road glossed over with candyfloss.
In Hawaii, she always began, “I cared for all of my little brothers and sisters. When I came home from school—we always walked, the adults would be working in the fields, too busy for us children—I would help them all with their homework. And I had more little ones than you do.”
“I have more homework than you do,” I interjected sourly, textbooks in hand to emphasize my point. With the petulance of a child who feels she is on the brink of being reproached, of being proved wrong, I made ready to storm out of the kitchen at any moment. They didn’t have Honors courses back then—not there. They didn’t have Advanced Placement, SAT scores to fret over. I had to make something of myself! There simply wasn’t time for old-fashioned, pre-feminist ideals like cooking supper and family time, mosquito nets and sugar cane fields and macadamia nuts and myriad other little details from my grandmother’s stories.
In my mind, these thoughts were not any great betrayal of heritage. I knew that my great grandparents emigrated from Japan, but my grandmother was raised in Hawaii—America. Her blood was full Japanese, but she was not. She was as separate from her mother’s native homeland as I was from hers. Not really Japanese at all. The only things left were small endearments—“Mika chan”—and simple recipes. Misoshiru, musubi—and SPAM musubi, at that. I had never heard her speak Japanese. Her stories were not ‘heritage’; they were didactic anecdotes. I’d learned of these in school—had scorned them then, and scorned them at home as well.
“When summertime came, I worked with my grandmother in the fields,” said my grandmother, as though my interruption were nothing. “It was always hot, hotter than anything. And so tiresome! But my grandmother never wavered. If we children fell and scraped our knees, began to cry, she only said ‘gamanshite, keep going.’”
‘Gaman’ was a word I didn’t know. It never even occurred to me that it was Japanese, nor did it occur to me to ask. I was thirteen, fifteen, sixteen, and very arrogant, and I did not care. I assumed she meant, ‘come on.’ And there, my grandmother, telling her stories for which I had no ears, never grabbing me by the earlobes, forcing me down, forcing me to understand.
I may never have understood. There was no definite chain of events, no momentous occasion that declared, ‘Grandma, this is what you’ve been waiting for! Everything is clear!’ No indication that all of her patience, all of her dignified silences, would be worth anything at all. Sometimes, maturity comes gawking, slow-moving and stilted, yet inexorably out of the mists of time. Others, it hides forever.
This, more than anything, is gaman. My grandmother waited for me, suffered through me, with no promise that her investments would be worth anything. To persevere through any ordeal, knowing that incontestably, rewards await you at the end, is only exchange. To swallow your frustrations, silence your fury, and wait for a day that may never come—that is faith. That is strength. That is gaman.
I’d never heard my grandmother speak Japanese before, and I likely never will. Japan is not hers. But Hawaii is—small quiet agrarian Hawaii all through World War II and after. Hawaii is hers, because she is Japanese American, and this, truly, is her native tongue.
Every time my grandmother tells her stories, in her low-gravelly, soft-syllabic voice, she is speaking Japanese American. ‘Come on’ does not carry with it all the implications of attitudes of ‘gaman,’ but at their core, they are the same. It’s the spirit of them that carries over in my grandmother’s voice, transcends hapless misinterpretations, links my world with hers.
Come on, gamanshite. Seal your lips, still your hand. The worst is over. Maybe that which you seek will come on the cusp of the next horizon—or the next.
Never lose hope. Gamanshite.
The other thing I will never forget is the scholarship on the whole. It's not an astounding amount of money ($700), but it was very intimate, in a way that other scholarships probably aren't. I cannot read--out loud or otherwise--the seventh and eighth paragraphs without crying. XD This is the first time I've ever written something that felt real to me. And while I don't know if it will mean quite as much to anyone else, I know that it did for the Nakayoshi Club. I've never had anyone thank me for writing something. Tonight, an entire room did so.
Tonight, I read this essay aloud to a room full of old Japanese men and women--and their sons and daughters, grandchildren. My own were among them.
(And true to form, they stayed silent.)