41: Grandma Fujikawa

41: Grandma Fujikawa

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

Grandma Fujikawa

The person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years, but the one with the richest experiences.

~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Every Sunday after church, Mama would have the car loaded with a picnic meal. We’d all hop in the car and drive off to the beach. But first, we’d stop by to get Grandma at her home in Nu’uanu. I’d be the one to run round the back and up the gray, wooden stairs two steps at a time.


“Olight, olight. Hai, hai, I coming!” (All right, all right. Yes, yes, I’m coming!)

“Hurry up, Grandma!”

“Olight, olight,” she’d laugh excitedly.

Grandma looked forward to our weekly Sunday picnics at Ala Moana Park. She came to Hawai’i from Japan a long time ago, but still couldn’t speak much English. I only heard her say, “Dinda, you gudu girl ne?” (Linda, you good girl, yes?), while she patted me on the head as if she were petting a dog. When I’d call for her in her tiny, gray room, she’d gather up her purse, slip on her shoes and roll the tops of her knee-high stockings until they were just above her ankles. I never thought they looked funny. I just thought that was the way she normally dressed.

She’d laugh all the way down the stairs and shuffle as fast as she could, all the way to the car.

At the beach, the older folks played Hanafuda (Japanese flower cards), but Grandma just sat and watched. I don’t recall anyone talking to her. She just sat all afternoon, watched the Hanafuda game, laughed and walked around the park. Come to think of it, every time Grandma was with us she sat, laughed and just watched what was going on. She always seemed so happy.

I never thought of talking to her except to say, “Hi, Grandma!” nor did I ever think of disclosing my private thoughts. I wouldn’t have known what to say because I didn’t speak much Japanese, and she spoke very little English.

When I went to my first prom, I never even thought of sharing my excitement with Grandma. And when I had my first boyfriend, I merely introduced him to her. She just laughed and said, “Ali su. You get nisu boyfiendo.” (Nice. You get nice boyfriend.)

When I graduated from high school, I just remember her stroking my arm saying, “Dinda, you smato girl ne?” (Linda, you smart girl, yes?) Later, when I graduated from college, Grandma came to see me. Her voice and the words were the same, and when I got married, Grandma sat at our wedding table. I didn’t really talk to her because I was so caught up in the festivities, but I still remember her voice, “Dinda, you guru girl, ne?” (Linda, you good girl, yes?)

Shortly after I had my first child, my husband and I moved to Japan. It was a strange feeling to be a literate, college graduate one day, and an illiterate henna gaijin (strange foreigner) the next. That’s when I began to understand what it felt like to live in a foreign country.

At first, I frantically thumbed through my little red dictionary to search for the right Japanese words to express myself, but thoughts came faster than my fingers could move so I put the book away. It was easier to just smile and laugh. I slowly began to understand how Grandma must have felt when she moved to Hawai’i from her home in Japan. Suddenly I knew why she laughed a lot.

The first time I went to the neighborhood market to shop, I couldn’t read the labels on the canned goods. They were all written in Japanese, so I had to guess what was inside by looking at the pictures on the cans. I wondered if Grandma shopped by the pictures, too.

I remember the time I caught the bus with my threemonth-old baby. I thought I had the directions down pat; however, when I got off the bus, the landmarks were different. I was lost and didn’t have a clue where I was. My heart pounded in my chest as I thought, Did Grandma feel as frightened as I?

Then there was the time when my baby was hurt, and I ended up at a small clinic where I couldn’t understand a word the doctor was saying. As he pulled out a huge hypodermic needle, I wondered if Grandma had ever felt as helpless as I did at that moment.

When I had a liver ailment and was referred to a Japanese specialist, I took a friend to translate. When I began asking the doctor questions, however, my translator refused to convey them. Later I was told it was disrespectful to question the doctors in Japan. I wondered, How did Grandma deal with a new culture that expected her to ask questions in order to get information, when the very core of her upbringing did not allow her to speak up?

One day I decided to find out. I wrote Grandma a letter: “Did you feel stupid, illiterate, lost and lonely, too, Grandma? You must have had feelings of humiliation, isolation and pain just so we could have a better life. You always laughed and seemed so happy. I didn’t know.”

My letter was translated and then sent. Four weeks later I received a reply and the translation read, “For the first time in my life, I am so happy, so much so that I cannot help but cry. You see, for the first time in my life, someone understands, someone in my family really understands me.”

I still have that letter. Every night as I lay in bed, I say a prayer and then gently slip Grandma’s tear-stained letter out from under my pillow and read it.

Her words have become my own. Someone finally understands.

~Linda Tagawa
Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawaii

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