Connections Across Cultures

by Cindy Graham


Her name was Kiku—Daisy—but by the time I met her, she was in her eighties, and everyone addressed her by her family title, Obaa-chan—Grandmother, or Obaa for short.

The first time we met, I knew it would be difficult to communicate. I was a Nova Scotia girl teaching English on Japan’s southernmost main island, Okinawa, and she spoke mainly in Uchinaa-ben (Okinawan dialect). So I tried to show my utmost respect by kneeling properly in front of her, legs tucked under, hands palm-down on my thighs. I bowed low from the waist with my eyes directed to the floor, but Obaa immediately admonished me. “Enough with that foolishness,” she said. “I’m just a silly old woman.”

But I knew her history. She was anything but.

In the last year of the Second World War, when Okinawa was razed by Japanese and American forces, Obaa’s only hope for survival lay in fleeing to the island caves. For weeks, she foraged in the jungle struggling to feed herself and her three small children. Her husband and two elder brothers were already dead, having fought in Manchuria, China. Of her three children, the two eldest—both boys—would survive the siege with her. The oldest son would become my father-in-law. Her youngest, an infant daughter, would die of malnutrition.

When her oldest son had grown and married, Obaa’s new daughter-in-law had four children, whom Obaa helped raise while her son worked to provide for his family. She was a fixture in their lives. By the time I was introduced as my husband’s fiancé she didn’t walk anymore, but her face was bright and full of spirit, as was her mind.

I spent my first two years in Japan living on Okinawa. The other ten my husband and I lived in or near Tokyo. But every January we flew down to celebrate New Year’s with his family. Upon entering the genkan (entryway) of his childhood home, we looked down the hallway for her, the long, gleaming hardwood floor leading to the spot where we knew she’d be: sitting by the patio window with her legs tucked under her. Upon hearing our commotion, her head would lift up from her newspaper, her magnifying glass in hand. “A-ra!” she’d cry, sharply, when she spotted us standing there, like ghosts she hadn’t been expecting. “Kita neeee…!”(Oh! You guys have come!)

Obaa always took my hand when she spoke to me. She looked directly in my eyes, and she gave a single, emphatic nod for each point she made. She never acted as though I couldn’t understand. Sometimes, I actually did: when she spoke using Japanese words I knew, or recounted how many pieces of sweet bread and candy she’d slipped to my nieces and nephews that morning.

When we made the decision to come back to Canada years later, I left not being able to communicate with her much better than I could when we’d met eleven years earlier.

But three years in, having finally settled in to a new community and new schools, I woke up one night and immediately started ruminating. Why hadn’t we been putting aside money each month to make a trip back to Okinawa before too long? What had I been thinking?

A second thought immediately replaced it, and wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t stop wondering what the news on Obaa was. We hadn’t heard anything about her for what felt like a long time.

The thought took on greater urgency in my mind, so I woke my husband to ask if he’d spoken to his mother recently.

“I spoke to her a couple of weeks ago. Why?” He couldn’t believe I was rousing him in the middle of the night for this question and answer session.

“I’m just wondering if Obaa’s all right. We haven’t heard anything about her in a while from anyone.”

“My mother told me she’s doing great,” he insisted.

I continued to harangue him a little more. I remember telling him that I was going to ask him about her again in the morning. I felt a strong need to make sure we called his home, and soon.

The next morning, Monday, as I got the kids ready for school, I asked my husband if he remembered me waking him in the night.

“Yeah,” he said, “and I told you that I spoke to my mother a while ago and that Obaa’s doing really well. Why do you keep asking me about it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I just feel like I need to. We haven’t heard anything about her for so long. Would you please call your mother tonight when you get home from work, and ask about her?”

I was in the entryway when my husband walked through the door that evening from work. He came in with the strangest look on his face, a mixture of bemusement and acceptance.
“Cin…” he said, with a kind of quiet incredulity.

I instantly knew what he was going to say, but I covered my mouth in shock because over the course of the day, I’d forgotten about everything. He proceeded to tell me that Obaa had died almost a week earlier.

I don’t know what it means that I woke up with her on my mind that night; I don’t know what it means that his family tried to reach us the preceding week for days by phone, and couldn’t. And I don’t know what it means that my husband didn’t check his email for a couple of days, which thereby prevented him from getting the message about Obaa’s death until that Monday afternoon.

But I do know we had a connection when she was alive. It was something that flowed between us, like ties that bind in spite of, or because of, our mutual language barriers. Many days I take comfort in knowing that somehow, her connection got through to me in the most vital of ways.