Previously in Unbound Fiction:

The New Job (June 21, 2001)
"Each disciple—and Christ—had a pad, a pen, and a glass of water in front of him. At a small table off to the side, Mary Magdalene took notes on a stenography machine." By Sara Gran.

A Place of Safety (May 18, 2001)
"She recognizes a charred remnant of material, the thick corner of a book still smoldering, the twisted metal buckle of a baby's shoe." By Penny Feeny.

A Sign of the Times (April 25, 2001)
"If I wait long enough he's going to have to ask. He doesn't want to. Asking is like inviting cancer to eat out his insides." By Joan Wilking.

Points of Interest (March 21, 2001)
"I had no idea. How could I? It was just a homework assignment. Perfectly pedestrian. I've been giving the same one for years." By Robert Cohen

I Was Just Looking (February 21, 2001)
"Her scarlet djelleba was torn slightly at the hem. He gazed at the smooth, graceful curve of her calf, deliberately revealed, he was certain, for his eyes only." By Joe Kuhl

Daniel Wentworth (January 24, 2001)
"No one knows just when he left, only when they noticed that he was gone, and some of us don't even remember that." By Rachel Carpenter

More Unbound Fiction

More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly

Atlantic Unbound | July 11, 2001
 
Unbound Fiction
 
Learning Japanese
.....

Mother decides we are to learn Japanese. It will better us, she says. A teacher is swiftly procured. She lives in Block 48, two buildings away, the wife of a Japanese bank executive, the mother of two small children, a housewife. She comes over on Tuesday afternoon, at two. It is summer, and the apartment is air-conditioned to freezing. Water beads on the windows.

Mrs. Yamazaki is petite and small-boned, like a quail or a Cornish game hen. She has close-cropped hair and a soft, melodious voice. We sit around the dining-room table. She gives us photocopies from a textbook and asks us what we want. Mother wants to fit a whole year of Japanese into a summer; Min Hee wants to be at the pool; I want us all to get along. We all say we want to learn Japanese. We will meet twice a week for three hours at a time. Do you have anything better to do? Mother asks when we complain. Yes, says Min Hee. No, I say.

There is an alphabet, Mrs. Yamazaki says. Learn the alphabet. We learn the alphabet. Actually, she says, there are two alphabets. Learn this second one, too. When she returns, there will be a quiz. Mother gets a 100. Min Hee gets 53. I get 89. Good, says Mrs. Yamazaki. We will continue. She says continue like kon-tin-yu, with the emphasis on the first part. I repeat the way she says it, under my breath. I like the way it sounds.

Maria, our Filipino maid, wants to learn Japanese too. I promise to teach her, and one afternoon I do. After an hour she loses interest. I have to make dinner, she says. She makes us salted cod and kimchee. We are Korean. In the past, Mrs. Yamazaki's people invaded our country and treated us like servants. Mother says not to hold it against her. Mrs. Yamazaki is foreign now, too. We live in Hong Kong. We speak English to Mrs. Yamazaki when we are not speaking Japanese.

There is the Hiragana and the Katakana. The alphabet for Japanese people, and the alphabet for foreign words. Typical, my father snorts when we tell him. I practice the strokes and shapes of the letters. Goody two shoes, Min Hee says. I hide my homework.

I'm fifteen, Min Hee screams. She is fighting with my mother. I don't want to learn stupid Japanese. I need my own time. Get your own time, Mother says. Get your own house, and your own money, and then you can have your own time. You are on our time. She speaks in Korean. Min Hee speaks in English. We are learning Japanese.

Min Hee says her name is Minnie. No, it isn't, says Father. That's the ugliest name I've ever heard. Someone calls for Minnie. There is no Minnie here, Father tells the caller, and hangs up.

Mrs. Yamazaki returns. She brings us Japanese cookies. We pour tea and eat them. I can tell Mother is wondering if this is on the clock. Today we are to learn to count. We chant the numbers. We learn them up to a hundred. At dinner Mother asks us how many chopsticks we have, how many dishes are on the table, how old she is. This is so bogus, Min Hee mutters. What did you say? Father yells. What did you say? Min Hee gets up and storms out of the room. I count the grains of rice on my spoon, ichi, ni, san, shi. I trace the characters on my lap.

Japanese are very polite, Mrs. Yamazaki says. She makes it sound like a rebuke. There are polite ways of saying things, and familiar ways. You have to be polite with strangers and elders. Min Hee tells her that Koreans have the same thing. Ah so, Mrs. Yamazaki says. I did not know that. Please excuse me. I can tell Mother is pleased that Min Hee told her.

Although it's summer, Min Hee and I have to go to Korean school on Saturdays. The school is in an office building. On the weekdays, it is an office for import/export to and from Korea. We cram into small rooms and have tests on spelling and vocabulary every week. We learn about Yi Sun Shin, the patriot, and the turtle boat. I hate Korean, Min Hee says. During the school year we go to the International School, which is really American. I don't need to learn how to write Korean, she says. At recess, she and her friends go down and smoke cigarettes on the street. Don't tell Mom, she says, inhaling. I'll get you if you do. Her friends call her Minnie.

There are actually two ways to count numbers in Japanese, Mrs. Yamazaki tells us at our next class. Min Hee groans. Why is it so complicated? she says. And there are actually four alphabets, Mrs. Yamazaki says. But we will worry about that later. Rater. She pronounces later with an "r" on both ends. We will have a quiz on the second number system next time. She leaves with some expensive Fuji apples my mother has pressed on her.

I'd rather have a job, Min Hee says. All my friends have summer jobs. Your job is to study, says Father. Study. I won't, she says. And then she starts to cry. No one understands me, she says. What are you talking about? says my dad. I don't understand what you're talking about. When I was your age, I was dreaming about being able to study without working. You are spoiled. Min Hee runs out of the room.

That night, I am tapped on the forehead. I'm running away to Kowloon, Min Hee says. Don't worry about me. I'll be okay. You're my little sister. She kisses me on the cheek, and she's gone. The house is very quiet after she leaves.

In the morning, there is chaos. Mother is weeping, Father is yelling and his face is very red. Did you know? he asks me. Do you know anything? You better tell me or you'll get spanked. I don't know anything, I say. I know I can't fink Min Hee out. Father gets on the phone because Mother can't speak. Her throat and face are swollen. He calls Min Hee's friends and talks with their parents, British, American, Indian. He speaks English to them all. Have you seen my daughter, he asks. His lips are thin. He feels great shame.

In the middle of this, Mrs. Yamazaki arrives. Mother comes out with a wash cloth over her face. We are so sorry, she says. She is indisposed, and we cannot have class today. Mrs. Yamazaki leaves, but not before everybody apologizes at once. Father leaves the house. Mother lies in bed. We eat dinner. Oishi, I say. Oishi means delicious. No one pays attention to me.

Father finds Min Hee at her friend Holly's house. He goes to get her. When she comes home, Min Hee is pale and silent. She goes into her room and shuts the door. Father doesn't say anything. Mother sips tea. I study Japanese.

Mrs. Yamazaki comes on Thursday. Today we will learn about family, she says. Otosan. That means father. Okasan. That means mother. We are learning about family.


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Janice Lee, a former book editor at Elle and Mirabella and winner of an Asian American Writers Workshop and A. Magazine award, was an intern at The Atlantic Monthly ten years ago. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College.

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