CH 5 A KOREAN IN JAPAN (Hanako)
She had anticipated it. Hadn’t the Korean nail salon in LA, prepared her? Hanako had been going to the same place in Koreatown forever, and it wasn’t until the very last visit before her move to Japan that the women there had tried speaking to her.
“Japanese?” the woman painting her nails asked, her English better than most of the other women Hanako had seen in the past.
Hanako was surprised. All this time, she had thought they’d known, snubbing her a little because she didn’t speak Korean.
“I’m like you,” she wanted to blurt. “At least, I want to be.”
But now, she thought, maybe she wanted to be Japanese. But she said instead, "Korean,” knowing she sounded apologetic. Hanako always felt sorry about these outcomes.
No, she was not Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese. Hawaiian? No. She was not from Hawaii.
Korean. I’m Korean. Did she speak Korean? Anyoung haseyo? A shake of the head. "I’m sorry. I don’t speak Korean, either." Sometimes, she couldn’t help but say, "sad, I know. Pathetic, really," depending on how insecure she felt about it at the moment.
There was now a very likely chance that Hanako would speak Japanese before she spoke Korean. Jiro was practicing his Japanese daily. He was as usual, unafraid to try it out on everyone and anyone: The barista at their neighborhood coffee shop, the bilingual cashier at the grocers. Never mind that his pronunciations might be mushy. His words all wrong. He would, he must, connect. It didn’t hurt that he was endearingly charming and could use his smile like a salve to smooth the rough edges of stilted conversation.
Hanako grinned at the thought of her very white husband speaking Japanese before she did. Oh, the injustice of it. Jiro only knew a handful of words more than her, but currently, he was unafraid to use them, whereas Hanako felt very gun-shy. She had already seen a glimpse of the ridiculousness of all this on a recent outing.
A sales girl had approached them at a mall in Shinjuku, speaking rapidly, with an eager smile into Hanako’s face. Friendly fire sure, but Hanako had felt the heat. She tried not to physically back away, hands up in surrender. She had smiled shyly, shaking her head.
“Sumi masen...I’m sorry,” she had said as the native continued speaking, making Hanako feel more uncomfortable by the moment. She had started to sweat. She knew what came next but she couldn’t quite eek out the words.
“Nihonga wa hanase masen (I don’t speak Japanese),” Jiro stepped-in and pointed to her--just wait until he can say,'she doesn’t speak Japanese but I can, isn’t that funny?', Hanako thinks.
Although Hanako had the advantages of looking like everyone else (for once she felt like she blended in…could disappear…could be anyone else she wanted because she wasn’t just Asian. What a relief!), but she had all the disadvantages of looking like she belonged as well. People looked at her quizzically when she didn’t respond right away. They must think I have a hearing impairment, a visual impediment…am possibly a bit slow.
Hanako avoided too, telling people she was Korean. It was often, “I’m from California. Los Angeles, actually.”
Hanako had been adopted when she was seven-years-old from an orphanage in South Korea. That explained the Korean who didn’t speak Korean bit. This summer, she had met her biological father (her Apa), and they texted back and forth. Mostly photos or emojis. Google translate was their mutual best friend. Major updates were sent when there was news to share. “I’ve moved to Tokyo, Apa,” she texted, the week she arrived.
“Be careful, daughter,” he wrote back. “Japanese ignore Koreans. Be careful of everything.”
Hanako had laughed, but then, then she had sobered.
A new friend had told her that the Japanese would have less patience for her than for Jiro. “You look like you are Japanese. So, it will be more challenging for you.”
Hanako’s compulsion to immediately follow and adopt all rules and customs heightened. While Jiro would be someone who simply didn’t know any better, she might be perceived as ill-bred, thoughtless. This was a horrifying thought for someone who never wanted to offend or be misunderstood.