Love in Translation
WHEN I FIRST SET EYES ON TAKUYA, MY IMMEDIATE INCLINATION WAS TO take him in my arms and kiss him like he'd never been kissed before.
Such impulsive, reckless behavior, though, was never my style. And, besides, taking such a course of action would have been inappropriate for several reasons: (1) we had yet to be officially introduced; (2) he, at twenty-eight, was five years younger than me, a fact that would be considered rather scandalous in Japan; (3) I had a kind of a boyfriend back home in San Jose; (4) Takuya was my homestay "brother."
It had been his mother, Mrs. Kubota, who first referred to him as my homestay brother. And the fact that I was experiencing more than sisterly feelings toward him was probably against one of the rules stated in the Kubota Homestay Handbook, if there'd been such a thing.
Takuya was lean and lanky, but solid, and towered over his parents. He had just returned to his family home in suburban Tokyo from working for two years in Seattle for the Japanese food products company Sunny Shokuhin. He was far better-looking than in the outdated family portrait in the living room where I first saw him, the one where his conservative hairstyle, school uniform, and studious expression gave him the look of one of those dorky people in the Young Professionals Club I remembered from high school, the types who were seventeen going on thirty-five.
But at twenty-eight, Takuya was quite the stunner, the kind of manwho, if I'd seen him on the train, I would have had to keep from staring at so as not to be too obviousunlike the people who gawked at me, albeit for quite different reasons.
I tried to make my gaze as unobtrusive as possible, while still taking in the scenery.
Takuya's hair was a natural black, not dyed cinnamon or tangerine like so many of the young people in Tokyo, and it hung thick and silky below his collar. His smile was friendly, his nearly black eyes warm, his demeanor easygoing. This was made all the more attractive because I knew how exhausted he must have been from his long trip and how overwhelming it had to be to return home after two years overseas. I'd been the sweaty Saint Bernard cooped up much too long in her carrier when I first arrived in Tokyo, after enduring a ten-hour ride in an airborne sardine can. And the heaviness of jet lag weighed down my neck and shoulders like a sack of bricks. Yet Takuya seemed composed, relaxed.
Once he got settled and I sat down with him and his parents at the family's dining-room tablea setting of fancy take-out sushi and a Domino's squid-and-corn deluxe pizza worthy of a state dinnerMrs. Kubota finally introduced me. "Celeste Duncan-san," she said.
Takuya extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Celeste."
Shaking hands, I smiled, but felt nervous. It had only been six weeks since I left San Jose for Tokyo and my Japanese was poor, though I had just started taking free lessons from a teacher named Mariko who, with her penchant for English swear words, was unusual to say the least. I'd asked her what I could say in Japanese to welcome Takuya home so I would make a good impression. In my mind I carefully went over the phrase she taught me. I was ready. I took a breath, and in a slow and clear voice said, "Takuya-san, kekkon shimasen ka."
Each member of the Kubota family sat frozen, and the uncomfortable quiet lasted much too long.
I turned to see that Mrs. Kubota's expression was not unlike the one she'd exhibited when I walked into her living room wearing toilet slippersone of abject horror. I waited for her to say one of the few English phrases she had mastered, "Not good, not good," but she didn't utter a word. Still, I seemed to have done it again, committed another culturalfaux pas. I yearned to turn into a potato bugto curl up into a ball and have someone step on me to put me out of my misery.
What on earth did I say? Was my pronunciation so poor that it came out plain wrong? I knew by now how easy it was in Japanese to leave out a syllable and completely change the meaning of a word. Mariko had warned me about that. If you were sick and needed to go to the hospital, but asked to be taken to the biyin instead of the byin, you'd wind up at the beauty parlor. The crunchy yellow pickle slices I liked that Mrs. Kubota served were called oshinko, but leave out that n and you'd get something close to oshikko, which was what kids said when they needed to pee. I was relieved to know that I at least hadn't said penischimpowhich was one of the first words Mariko had taught me when she explained (without being asked) about the differences in sexual performance techniques she'd noticed between Japanese and American men.
The lugubrious atmosphere at the Kubota dinner table began to dissipate at the sound of Takuya's laughter. His father smiled, but Mrs. Kubota remained repulsed.
"Did I pronounce something wrong?" I asked.
"No, Celeste," Takuya said, his eyes shining. "You said perfectly."
Takuya could not stop laughing. By then Mrs. Kubota had left the room. Mr. Kubota drank the remainder of beer from his glass. Takuya put his hand on his chest, giving me an earnest, adorable look. "You asking me very important question, Celeste," he said in his slightly cracked English. "I will have to think hard about my answering."
"Question? It wasn't supposed to be a question." I found his teasing endearing, even though at the same time I wanted to scream, What the hell did I say? I looked straight into his beautiful face. "Takuya-san, what did I say to you?"
He smiled. "You asked me to marry you."
My first reaction was to laugh, then curse Mariko, but neither seemed appropriate. I turned to Mrs. Kubota, who had come back to the dining room with another beer for her husband and still appeared greatly flummoxed. "I'm sorry, Takuya-san. And please tell your mother that I was told by my Japanese teacher that I was saying, 'Welcome home and nice to meet you.'"
Takuya laughed. "What kind of Japanese teacher is that?"
"One who seems to want to get me into trouble," I said. "Sumimasen," I apologized to Mrs. Kubota, which I knew for sure meant "I'm sorry."
After an explanation from Takuya, Mrs. Kubota seemed to regain some of her composure.
"She say it hard to believe that a Japanese teacher would do that," Takuya said.
"Tell her I feel the same," I grumbled, wondering about the best way I could pay back Mariko.
Although Takuya seemed to have made it clear to his mother the reason for my mistake, I sensed a continuing stiffness from her throughout dinner. When I tried to catch her glance, to give her an apologetic smile, she would turn her head the other way.
With this latest development I knew that the surest way to receive another black mark on the Kubota homestay test would be if my secret was discovered: that I harbored incestuous feelings toward my homestay brother.
But I needed to keep on my toes and hope that I would be allowed to continue to stay with the Kubotas. Because I wasn't in Japan on a lark to study Japanese, or Zen, or the tea ceremony, or even to conduct research on the sexual habits of Japanese males. I was here on an important journey: to search for a long-lost relative, who could possibly tell me the identity of my father, and to fulfill an important family obligation.
And for someone who didn't have any family, this was a unique opportunity.
LOVE IN TRANSLATION. Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.