Monday, May 4, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Keiko halted and looked at Henry. She looked down at his button, the one his father made him wear. " You are Chinese, aren't you Henry?"
He nodded, not knowing how to answer.
"That's fine. Be who you are," she said, turning away, a look of disappointment in her eyes. "But I'm an American."


"I even got a little green-tea ice cream for dessert."
Marty's face was frozen in a polite grimace. Henry smiled and was grateful for such a kind and thoughtful future daughter-in-law, even if she didn't know that ice cream was Japanese. It didn't matter. He'd learned long ago: perfection isn't what families are all about.


"Go home, Chaz." The anger in his voice surprised Henry. He felt the blood drain away from his fists where they clenched the broom handle until his knuckles turned pale.
Chaz spoke softly, a mock gentleness to his voice. "This is my home, this is the United States of America--not the United States of Tokyo."


On the long walk home, Keiko stared blankly ahead. The joy of her surprise had popped like a helium balloon, loud and sharp, leaving nothing to hold but a limp string. Still, Henry held the record and tried his best to calm her down. "thank you, this is a wonderful surprise. This is the best present I've ever been given."
"I don't feel very giving, or grateful. Just angry," Keiko said. " I was born here. I don't even speak Japanese. Still, all these people, everywhere I go...they hate me."


They're taking them away, Henry thought. They're taking all of them away. There must be five thousand Japanese. How can they take them all? Where will they go?
A few blocks from the station itself, crowds filled the street. There was a mix of crying toddlers, shuffling suitcases, and soldiers checking the paperwork of local citizens-most of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, the one or two suitcases they were allowed packed to the point of bursting. Each person wore a plain white tag, the kind you'd see on a piece of furniture, dangling from a coat button.


His father pointed at the door. "If you walk out that door--if you walk out that door now, you are no longer part of this family. You are no longer Chinese. You are not part of us anymore. Not a part of me."
Henry didn't even hesitate. He touched the doorknob, feeling the brass cold and hard in his hand. He looked back, speaking his best Cantonese. "I am what you made me, Father." He opened the heavy door. " an American."


Ten thousand? It was a number that still seemed unimaginable to Henry. "With that many people, what's to keep you from just taking over the camp?"
Mr. Okabe poured his wife another cup of tea. "Ah, that's a very profound question, Henry. And it's one I've thought about. There are probably two hundred guards and army personnel--and there are so many of us. Even if you counted just the men, we'd have a whole regiment in here. You know what keeps us from doing just that?"
Henry shook his head. He had no idea.
"Loyalty. We're still loyal to the United States of America. Why? Because we too are Americans. We don't agree, but we will show our loyalty by our obedience. Do you understand, Henry?"


I love her. Henry paused at the thought. He didn't even know what that was, or what it mean, but he felt it, burning in his chest--feeling fuzzy inside. Nothing else seemed to matter. No the somber crowd of camp workers drifting to the barbed-wire gate. Not the machine guns in the towers above.
Henry began to wave, then lowered his hand slowly as the words, "I love you" rolled off his tongue. She was too far away to hear it, or maybe he didn't make a sound, but she knew, and her mouth echoed the same statement as her hand touched her heart and pointed at Henry. He simply smiled and nodded, turning back to the gate.


Walking home with Ethel, Henry knew he had much to do. He had to help his mother prepare a funeral. He had to pack for his trip to China. And he had to find a suitable engagement ring. Something he would do with a certain sadness.
He'd do what he always did, find the sweet among the bitter.



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