WHEN WE REACHED THE GIFT SHOP in Kyoto, my parents whispered to each other furtively in Vietnamese before my mother turned away, flicking her fingers at my father dismissively. It was her signal for him to do as she wanted. She left and joined me on a bench outside.
On this particular morning, my mother was wearing a tan cardigan sweater layered over a black wool turtleneck, with an earth-tone pashmina wrapped around her head and neck. She had inventively paired this modest ensemble with a kimono-style jacket that she had purchased on this trip. She wore her hair short, as usual, and shaped like a bowl. Her complexion, which she moisturized daily with Oil of Olay, at least when she remembered, was even and free of age spots. Yet her hands, rough and coarse—the result of fifteen years of handling hot, fatty pork skin in the kitchen—betrayed her age. At sixty-one, she had spent more than half of her life in America and most of that time, seemingly, in the kitchen, cooking not only for our family of seven but also for others. Her brittle, stumpy nails no longer grew properly. She often remarked, as both a compliment and slight, that she admired her daughters’ “lady hands.”
Eventually, my father joined us and extracted from his red messenger bag a used water bottle, refilled with tea. Practical and endearingly frugal, he wore a uniform of sweats and white sneakers on most days, but my mother always insisted he dress up in our company. This morning, he wore a brown tweed newsboy cap over his salt-and-pepper hair, which I routinely trimmed for him with Bic razors. On his feet were the Tod’s driving shoes my husband had bought him. We sat for a moment before he said, on my mother’s behalf, “If we are near a telephone, perhaps your mother could make a local call to her father.”
With my husband and our two-year-old son, we were nearly halfway through a two-week trip to Japan for sakura, the cherry blossom festival. We had been near a telephone our entire visit, of course; every hotel we stayed in had a telephone, as did every restaurant and store. But my father meant they would like to make a coin call so we wouldn’t have to pay the hotel phone up-charge.
“Yes, of course,” I said, disconcerted. I had been slow to read my mother’s mind. She had secretly wished to contact her father ever since arriving in Japan but had not wanted to be a nuisance or complicate our travel plans. Like many Vietnamese immigrants of her generation, my mother communicated her wishes in secret, always through a liaison, and never in direct conversation. There was seldom a casual discussion. We were a family of understatement. My father was the translator.
“Do you have his information?” I asked. She carefully drew out a folded piece of celadon-colored steno paper. I looked at the address, printed carefully on the lines in her neat hand. Her father lived in Nara, the prefecture adjacent to Kyoto. On a tourist map, I showed my mother how close it was.
“So lucky.” She smiled.
“We could ask that nice concierge to make a call for us,” I suggested easily.
“Really? Then he’ll know our story,” she mumbled quietly. Concern marked her face. Her response was sweet and annoying.
“Who cares, Mom?” I said, perhaps a touch insensitively. She cared. But she must have realized there were few options left. Uneasily, she acquiesced.
THE REVELATION HAPPENED on a sunny winter day, years earlier, while I was visiting my parents at their home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Even in my thirties, my mother still spoiled me with her cooking. She made bánh xèo—crispy mung bean crepes filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork slices—and after we cleared the dishes, she settled herself on the floor of the family room, next to the sliding door. She delivered a remark so casually that her left eyebrow didn’t even lift. “I’m half-Japanese,” she said.
“What?” I blurted out, popping up from my parents’ white leather sofa.
“My father is Japanese,” she continued calmly, picking the lint from the carpet with one hand and collecting it in the other.
Growing up, I had been told my mother’s father was dead, but I always assumed he was Vietnamese. As she spoke, I thought back to my first trip to Japan, years earlier. At the time, I was twenty-five and had just completed my first year of design school. Captivated by the minimalism of Japanese design, I found myself on an abstract summer holiday—or so it seemed at the time—to further my understanding of the culture and people. As I roamed the rock gardens, sketching and journaling, and pointed to plastic replicas of food items in glass cases at restaurants, I was surprised by the sheer number of Japanese people who struck up conversations with me—at the inns, hot springs, and other tourist sites—to ask if I was Japanese. Surely, they insisted, I must be at least a quarter Japanese.
It shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I had been raised to appreciate my heritage, and I was proud to be fully Vietnamese. My people had endured war, impoverishment, and the betrayal of neighbors and nations, starting with Imperial Japan. As much as I appreciated Japan’s artistic sensibilities, I was unwilling to be affiliated with the country in any significant way. Now, it seemed, I had no choice.
“Who is he? Are you in touch with him?” I asked my mother, who sat across from me, still gathering lint.
“His name is Mr. Fujimoto. He said he didn’t want to know me, so why should I stay in touch? He has his own family in Japan,” she said nonchalantly.
I heard pain quivering in her voice. I knew there was nothing to be ashamed of, that the only people whose opinions mattered were her husband and children, but I didn’t say any of that.
“Why did you keep it a secret all these years?” I asked.
My mother sighed again. “There are so many reasons.”
MY GRANDMOTHER WAS A GOOD-TIME GIRL. Back in the 1940s, Hanoi nightclubs routinely employed young ladies like her as dance partners for their international male clientele. There were few other occupations available to young women her age, and desk jobs were mainly given to men with high-level degrees.
My grandmother lived in the moment, indifferent to what conventional young women of the time did with their evenings or to what village elders thought. In the final days of World War II, when the Japanese were feared and despised throughout much of East Asia, many Japanese men came to Vietnam pursuing business opportunities or snooping for intelligence. My grandmother reveled in the fantastic tales of espionage that her dance partners told, dined on exotic cuisine chinoise, and swayed to foreign music. She took people’s words at face value. One man in particular told her he was a successful businessman from Tokyo. She trusted him. They had an exciting, passionate affair, which resulted in a baby girl—my mother.
When it was time for the businessman to return to Japan, he invited my grandmother, along with their infant, to come with him. Whether it was a proper marriage proposal or some obligatory gesture is unclear, but my grandmother declined. Perhaps she thought it would be challenging to raise a baby by herself in a foreign land, or maybe she didn’t want to leave her family and friends in Vietnam. What if his mother wouldn’t accept a Vietnamese daughter-in-law? Whatever it was, they parted ways, and my grandmother raised her daughter alone.
My grandmother understood the deep stigma inherent in having a child with a Japanese man. She never volunteered information about my mother’s father, but as my mother grew older, her smaller, wide-set eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and creamy skin tone became more distinct. Once it was apparent that my mother was of Japanese descent, there was plenty of whispering about whether her father was a spy or a huckster. Either way, it was a scandal.
During those lonely years, my mother cherished a black-and-white photograph of her father standing with another man in front of a train. He was well-groomed and dashing, his hair slicked back with a center part. Standing confidently, he looked slender but not especially tall. He wore a smart-looking European-style vest suit, with a tailored coat draped over his left arm and a fedora in his right hand. No smile. Lips relaxed. Some letters were exchanged throughout the years but no money. He never offered. My grandmother was proud. Mother and child got by.
For years, that picture was about all she had from him. Then one day, when my mother was ten years old, she received a package wrapped in printed kimono paper, with Japanese characters and exotic postage stamps. Thrilled, she ran to her private space at the armoire and carefully, so as not to tear the paper, unwrapped the parcel. She found a letter written in her father’s handwriting on delicate rice paper stationery, along with two small boxes. She could not read Japanese, so she opened the white velvet box first. Breathless, she paused and pulled away her hands to uncover a strand of pearls, the most stunning, most luxurious thing she had ever seen. The white pearls were generously sized, with blue-gray and silver undertones. When held to the sunlight, their deep milky hue cast her in a dreamy trance. The beads felt like fish roe under running water as they slipped between her fingers.
The second box, made of navy-blue leather, held a crimson fountain pen on white silk. It was a Parker fountain pen, famous for its velvety ink and effortless strokes. She could already imagine the poems and letters she would write with it.
Later that day, she asked an older gentleman in her village to translate the letter. It read:
My dear daughter Hanh,
I hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits. How are your studies? Remember, if you study hard, then your future can be bright. I hear that you can ride a bike now and have been taking your mother’s bike around the neighborhood whenever it sits idle.
By now, I am sure you have found enclosed a few early birthday gifts, dear Hanh. I will be quite busy around your birthday and wanted you to know that I will be thinking of you this one last time.
My daughter, you are young, so I do not expect you to understand adult complications. So I ask you to just know that this is the best thing for us to do.
In short, I have met a lady, and we are to be married this spring. Your mother felt it best that I tell you myself. I’m sorry, Daughter. I have a new family now. I think it’s probably not a good idea for us to continue communicating anymore, do you? You have your own life, and I have mine.
Besides, my new bride would be jealous. You understand, don’t you? I know that in time you will see that this is for the best.
So please, from here on, no more letters.
In the translator’s blue-gray room, the heavy scent of sandalwood incense hung over his ancestral altar table and mingled with the dust coming through the wide-open door and windows. The heat was stifling. She managed a few breaths but kept still, waiting for it to pass, the need to faint. She slumped against the back of her translator’s armchair, her legs feeling as though they would buckle beneath her, her body strangely boneless, a loose sheet. She thought of the roast ducks that hung from racks in the market she passed on her way home each day.
The translator returned her letter, and she forced herself to thank him. Then she folded it methodically and placed it back into its envelope, staring at the cursive lettering of her name, the fanciful way the letter H in Hanh— the only word she could recognize in a river of Japanese kanji characters—was written in blue ink, probably by a fine fountain pen, a Parker fountain pen, like the one he’d given her.
She thought of her father’s face in the photograph in front of the train. How could he be so cruel? She still had questions—questions only he could answer. What was his life like in Japan? Had he loved her mother? Was she like him in any way? Suddenly, she couldn’t bear the thought of his face anymore. She furrowed her brow, forming a tree trunk between her eyes. Lids shut. She decided she would treat him as though he were dead. It would be easier than having to explain.
When she opened her eyes again, she caught a glimpse of Buddha on the translator’s ancestral altar. Her eyes shifted to the door to find her mother arriving to collect her. Her mother made polite conversation with the translator, inquiring about his family. As they chatted, they observed her carefully, delicately. Her eyes looked everywhere yet nowhere around the room, settling, at last, on her own bare feet. She sat like that for what seemed to be an eternity and waited for the next thing to happen. She longed to be alone.
“Well, shall we excuse ourselves so the translator can get back to his calligraphy?” her mother declared at last.
As they walked home, her mother drew her close. “No worries, Daughter,” her mother tried to reassure her. “Would you like to write one final letter to your father?”
“No. He said never write to him again.”
My grandmother eventually married another man, and my mother gained a stepfather, half-brothers, and a half-sister. She understood implicitly that she was no longer the center of attention—that her mother’s loyalty was to her new husband and his children. Perhaps fearful of being sent away, she was ever so cautious not to cross her stepfather and was exceedingly grateful when he included her in the family’s plans to migrate south to Saigon. Otherwise, she would have been left in Hanoi with distant relatives when the Communists took over. At that point, she decided never to look back.
For years, my mother kept this private yearning to herself, seldom contemplating it. As she grew older, she determined to move forward with her life. Life was full of detours—children to be raised, money to be made—but in truth, she had no one to confide in about her journey. In her Vietnamese community, it was unusual to consult professionals. My father suggested Buddhist monks, but their conceptual ideologies seemed poorly suited to her unique and modern circumstance. She remained ravenous for answers but simply buried her desires.
Decades passed before unexpected news prompted her confession to me that winter day. A rare phone call had come from relatives in Vietnam, who explained that her father had come around to Saigon, asking for her. He had no idea whether she had escaped the war, so he went to my grandmother’s old street and found her old house—a decrepit chateau occupied by relatives who had failed to escape overseas in 1975. On a wall was a photo of my family, an informal snapshot taken at my sister’s graduation from the University of Virginia. The photo hinted at the unique personalities of the daughter, granddaughters, and son-in-law he never knew: the proud graduate, in cap and gown; Minh, with an exaggerated smile standing distantly next to a coy, youthful Anh; Tina, the youngest, making monkey faces; me, the oldest, the leader, trying to hold myself with appropriate elegance. My father appeared docile and doting. His sports jacket’s simple tailoring suggested that meager wages supported our family.
Finally, he saw my mother, his perfectly lovely adult daughter, bearing a striking resemblance to his own mother, the grandmother she never knew. He thought she looked well, protected, perhaps even thriving. Did he feel relieved to see his daughter’s family looking fine? Did he feel any shame in not shaping her life? He couldn’t have seen, in this single photo of a joyful moment, the deep sadness usually present in her eyes.
My mother’s relatives passed along her father’s address in Japan, his telephone and fax numbers, and a passport photo. Examining that photo, my mother realized her youngest daughter looked very much like her father. She learned he had four daughters in Japan; my mother made five in all. My mother, too, had five daughters. Their lives seemed parallel, an auspicious coincidence. In Vietnamese culture, a family of five daughters is regarded to be particularly auspicious, and for two generations to repeat this configuration is especially intriguing.
For seven years after that phone call, my mother attempted to contact her father. She wrote him letters. She sent faxes. She even had her correspondence translated to Japanese. There was no response. The phone calls proved useless since the person receiving the calls did not speak English. The pearls had long ago been sold, the pen lost, but the question of who my mother was remained. She admitted to me on that day when she shared her secret, “He had his reasons for severing ties with me. I don’t resent him.” Perhaps, with the wisdom of time and experience, my mother forgave her father. She merely hoped to fill him in on the missing years, beginning with her immigration to America after the war. If he cared to know more, she would offer to meet him, knowing that, even though theirs would be a muted visit, they would be able to understand the kind of people they had become by seeing each other face to face. I should have known, when we invited her to Japan, that she would try once more.
The next morning, I approached Mr. Saito, the genial concierge at the Kyoto Royal Hotel. “My mother wishes to meet her Japanese father, whom she has never known. Will you be able to speak to him for us?” I asked.
“Of course. It will be my pleasure,” he said.
“Thank you. Will you tell him that his daughter from America, my mother here, is visiting Japan? She is in Kyoto and would be so happy to meet him for a visit. She could meet anywhere that is easiest for him. Here in the hotel, perhaps.” I continued to instruct him before we all headed out for a day of sightseeing at the Katsura Imperial Villa.
The ancient villa and grounds were impressive, the most extraordinary example of traditional Japanese architecture and landscape design we’d ever seen. Thoughtfully trimmed branches made my father, a seasoned amateur gardener, ponder the endless hours it must have taken to make the trees appear so natural. He shared his wonder with my mother, only to be met with a cordial nod and an absent hum. My mother wandered through the teahouses in the garden, each with its own moments for spring, summer, autumn, and winter meditations. At the spring teahouse, she rested her arms over the handrail of the footbridge, gazing deep into the water, beyond the darting koi fish. I saw her lips move as though in conversation, a conversation with herself.
Earlier in our excursion, she had been buoyed from the sense of accomplishment and possibility after our meeting with the concierge. But as the hours passed, her expression turned sullen, her eyes glazed. Only the occasional exchange with my toddler brought the brightness back to her eyes. It seemed that even in the midst of this Zen atmosphere, my mother was like those koi fish below, aflutter. She smiled for numerous photos that my camera-happy father took, but I overheard her say to him, “I wonder if his children will let him meet me?”
She recalled for us that when she was a child, before her father’s letter, she had daydreamed of his return. In this fantasy, he would carry her off to live with him in magnificent, faraway Japan. What might her life be like there? She imagined that the streets in Japan were swept and the confections were colorful.
When we got back to our hotel that evening, Mr. Saito had left a message in our suite on Kyoto Royal Hotel stationery:
Mr. Fujimoto has passed.
My mother sat down on the edge of the bed, the energy gone from her shoulders and limbs. Her lips wilted. She took one long, shaky breath, her hand pressed against her heart. The recycled air in the room was heavy from the permanently sealed windows. She examined the hotel’s gold embossed graphics and type with her forefinger, and then, gently, the black text, only to discover that the ink smeared. I watched her study the words as if she could find a different message leading to a different conclusion. I saw her brow furrow and her eyes close, as if to picture in her mind her father’s face, aged with spots and sparse white hair, stern pride now softened. With those brief words typed on cream-colored paper, he was forever lost to my mother. There would be no more attempts, no more searching, no more questions, no more fantasy. She turned her head away from us, toward the nightstand against the wall, to avoid our scrutiny, our pity.
My father broke the silence. “Well. That’s all right.” He scanned the room for someone who could help him bury the disappointment. He looked uncomfortably at my mother, then me, my husband, before finally settling on our toddler, who was playing with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains.
“Would you like to visit his grave, Mom?” my husband suggested after more silence. “We could call his family to see where it is.”
“Yes. Yes, we could do that. Do you want to, Mom? We’re here already,” I offered, wanting to comfort her, do something for her.
She thought for a moment. “No. It’s too much trouble. It’s OK.” She managed a half-smile. “It’s just not in my destiny to meet my father.”
Nothing more. Instead, she put on her brave face and convinced us that she was fine, keeping our spirits up so we could continue with our travel plans. No reassurance would be enough. She wished to be alone in her sadness. We retreated to our own room to let my mother mourn in private.
Unable to sleep that evening, I snuck out of bed and looked into my parents’ room. I found my mother sitting by the window with her forehead pressed against the glass, the letter still in her hand. I thought of those ducks in the window, head crooked down. In the stillness, she stared down on Kyoto by night. She never spoke of him again.