The Glorious Awkwardness, in Which 26 Letters are Arranged in Praise of Being Ourselves
(A response to a prompt from Jon Batiste, who said as he accepted his Oscar, all musicians work with “the same twelve notes.”)
One evening in Evanston, Illinois, I went to a small gathering at my friend Linda’s place. I remembered what her elegant home looked like, so I didn’t bother to look at house numbers when I parked my car on the street. In fact, I was so sure I had the right house, I knocked lightly and walked right in the front door.
I called out “Hello! Linda?” and started looking around at the colorful art in the foyer. It didn’t look familiar. A petite, white woman appeared. My friend, Linda, is tall and Black. It turned out it wasn’t Linda’s house.
“Hello,” the stranger said warmly. “I’m Anya. Are you looking for Linda? She lives down the block.”
Embarrassed, I said, “Oh, my gosh, I just waltzed right into your house and it’s the wrong house. I’m so sorry!”
But you know what? Anya was so articulate and kind, I was soon introducing myself and having a lovely conversation with her. Such a gracious hostess to me, her unexpected guest, she even got my address in order to invite me to her annual winter party. Eventually, I left and found my way to Linda’s house, where we had a good laugh about my mix-up.
I attended Anya’s party in December and enjoyed getting to know her and her guests. One of the guests was Tony, who then invited me to his annual party, which involved sitting in his basement with our beverage-of-choice, taking turns reading Walt Whitman’s entire poem, “Song of Myself,” aloud. Which takes two hours. My kind of get-together! As Walt wrote in his poem, “In all people, I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,/And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them,” adding, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
You never know where our awkwardness and curiosity will lead when we are being ourselves. Now that many of us are vaccinated against COVID, daring to show our bare faces, and venturing out to socialize again, it feels awkward at times. It’s an adjustment. But being awkward is not always a bad thing.
(With thanks to Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste for the topic suggestion.)
Who gets to marry whom? Should your skin color, genetic makeup, or country of origin matter? We’ve seen tremendous progress in legalizing gay marriage, but how far have we really come? I wonder about these things as we conclude a year in which we’ve struggled more than ever to understand each other. Many of our assumptions about our fellow human beings and our relationships are too flimsy to withstand such changing times. The 2002 World Book Encyclopedia (the edition I have on hand) has an entry on marriage that states, “if a man and woman are of a different age, nationality, religion, or background, their chances of a successful marriage drop significantly.” According to more recent research, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher found three particular capacities associated with happy partnerships: empathy, emotional self-control, and focusing on the positive (what you like about your spouse) rather than the negative. These could apply to anybody! Fisher’s subjects were in the United States and China, indicating that some measures of marital success are not culture bound.
I hardly considered limitations on whom I could marry, largely because of the systemic racism of white privilege whereby I didn’t have to think about such things. Where love and compatibility are not the main criteria in choosing a life partner, political and religious leaders have, historically, tried to intervene in people’s love lives, telling them whom they can and cannot marry. Until I was eleven years old, many states had laws banning interracial marriage. Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia anti-miscegenation law, thereby making it illegal for any state to prohibit interracial marriage. The court decided that such laws violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Sixteen years after that court decision, I married my husband, who is among the third generation of his Japanese family to live in America. We’ve been married more than thirty-seven years. Are we mismatched? Yes, in many ways that have nothing to do with ethnicity or skin tone. We have some cultural differences, for sure, but doesn’t everybody? We have two so called “mixed race” daughters and celebrate a mix of cultures. I like the old saying that variety is the spice of life. And, biologically speaking, variety makes for stronger communities, such as plant diversity in ecosystems.
In scientific terms, race is a social construct. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, “Despite myths to the contrary, biologists tell us that the only meaningful racial categorization is that of human.” Still, we persist in categorizing groups and highlighting supposed differences among those groups. Socially constructed boundaries defining my European ancestors broke down over the centuries. Partly due to intermarriage, the significance of identities, such as French or Dutch, diminished. It is easier, and widely acceptable, to say I am European American rather than list the half dozen countries from which I am derived.
Our daughter, Emily, and I both had our genes tested by 23 & Me, with predictable results. My ancestry was said to be 100% European and Emily’s was half European and half Asian. But one of the fascinating things about those tests is that, as they become more refined, they yield new and more specific results. I was notified the other day, for instance, that my genetic testing now shows that my ancestry is only 99.8% European, with a bit of “trace ancestry,” glimmers of unknown forebears outside Europe. (And, if you are wondering, I have a little Neanderthal, too.) Also, I can now say that I’m 22.4% British and Irish. My Irish ancestors likely came from County Donegal, County Dublin, County Cork, and County Kerry. That’s how precise the tests can be. (I’m not sure why my mother’s Manx roots were not similarly specified. I’d like to know more about my ancestors from Isle of Man.)
While genetic information is illuminating, it is not the whole story. I would never want to erase or even blur any of the ingredients that make up a person. In other words, I don’t want to be colorblind. How bleak that would be to overlook something as intrinsic and gorgeous as skin color! Lethal and divisive problems arise not from acknowledging differences, but from our attachments to what those differences mean. I am not saying we should ignore our identities or histories. Rather, I want to respect what identity means to each person, and honor loving, egalitarian relationships, regardless of gender, culture, or other human variations. Maybe the categories of people will continue to get broader and broader, as happened with European Americans, until I can simply say, “Me? I’m of the human race.”
As for marriage, it’s about time for it to be about love, first and foremost. What other force is strong enough to hold us together through thick and thin? Along with humor, I suppose. Fisher calls laughter “the elixir of survival – it evolved to get us through hard times.”
May we be in good health, good spirits, and good humor in the coming year! All the best to each of you. (I felt obligated to find photos of couples for this post. If any of these are not okay to share, I will gladly remove them. Except the last one. That’s me and my husband!)
I love wild rice. It’s delicious. I grew up eating it at Thanksgiving and for other special occasions, with turkey or made into soup or pilaf. I also like the fact that wild rice, called manoomin by the Ojibwe, is grown in the lakes and rivers of Minnesota where I grew up. We’d buy local wild rice at Mille Lacs Trading Post after it had been harvested by canoe and parched with wood smoke.
Manoomin and white rice are both seeds of aquatic grasses, yet wild rice is a different species of grain than white rice and has its own distinct, nutty flavor. It is just as easy to cook as rice, if not easier, and has more protein and other nutrients than “regular” rice.
I bought my last wild rice from Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota, online at Bineshii Wild Rice & Goods. The White Earth Nation also sells their food and gifts online. It is easy to find black, shiny, commercial wild rice in grocery stores, cultivated on farms in California and Minnesota, but I prefer the hand harvested variety. Heid Erdrich quotes an Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) statement about the sacredness of indigenous food in her book, Original Local: “As Anishinaabeg, we have a duty and responsibility to protect our manoomin. It is part of our interconnectedness to the Four Orders of Life and in accordance with the original instructions given to us by Gichi-Manidoo (the Creator).”
Preserving what is healthy, harmonious, and beautiful is to be celebrated on this day, October 12, which is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Euro-Americans like me have a history of squandering the natural resources that were enhanced, honored, and protected by First Nations people for thousands of years before we got to North America. We benefited from Indigenous Peoples’ efforts, at great cost to them, displacing them from their homes. As I enjoy my hearty cornbread, spicy beans, and delicate wild rice today, I wonder how far the tables have turned.
Louise Erdrich, who is Anishinaabe, wrote, “Every Native American is a survivor, an anomaly, a surprise on earth. We were all slated for extinction before the march of progress. But, surprise, we are progress.” Sometimes looking back is the best way to move forward. We may have missed some lessons along the way. We thought we invited the First Nations to our tables, but, in truth, we’ve been dining from theirs since first contact. It may be too late to recover the bounty of the land and the water, but it is never too late to learn from others and from the land itself. For instance, I can savor indigenous foods with appreciation and awareness of their origins, and treat the foods and their sources with respect.
Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” It is a relationship to be fostered.
“It’s morning, swan, wake up, climb in the air, follow me!” Kabir
“Will the highs ever be as high as the lows are low?” asked a woman who had been dragged under the waves once too often.
There are many reasons to feel down and out lately. The lows can feel very low indeed. Yet, is it our goal to always be riding a wave? When I reframe the question from ease and pleasure to one of learning, I see value in whatever I experience, because I can learn from just about anything. For instance, I like sweets, but I don’t eat pie and pudding all day long. It may be pleasant for a while, but sometimes I need garlic, broccoli, and wild rice. It’s a matter of nutrition. I choose what nourishes me in the long run and allows me to grow.
In a similar way, suffering can help me grow, as it carves out space in my heart for more compassion. I’m not always in a place of light and peace. My friend sent me a beautiful essay she’d written about her aunt. Then she sent me a note, regretting it. She worried I’d be troubled by the account of her aunt’s brutal cancer treatments. Yes, the story evoked emotions and yes, it did remind me of how weak and ill chemotherapy made me feel when I had treatment. But I assured my friend that she need not hold back in sharing such things. These stories are about my people; they are where I find fellowship with those who know what I’ve been through. It is not a morbid interest; it is a kinship. And it’s not just cancer. We’re all struggling with something.
I’ve read that the densest clumps of matter in the Eagle Nebula become stars. The cloudy bits become bright, shedding light that will reach the Earth in a millennium or so. I’m learning through all the highs and lows, days and nights. They can all be useful to me. The black pumice stone of sorrow polishes my rough spots until I glow once again – softer this time, with ears to listen and tears for your pain.
When I’m feeling cloudy, I know it’s time to call on my Better Self. Her resources are fresh air, loved ones, and prayers. Sunshine, when available. Naps help, too. I recharge both my super and subtle powers. How do I reactivate my hope muscle? Sometimes with quiet breath and sometimes with noisy dancing. And by visiting the trees. You come, too. The morning star is up.
Here’s something I wrote for Storied Stuff about the west coast fires and smoke. As all the Storied Stuff pieces do, mine was inspired by a treasured object that brings back memories.
Huge swaths of the West coast are on fire. It’s that time of year in the Pacific Northwest when we are advised not to breathe the smoky air. The sun hides its face and ferries leaving Whidbey Island blow their foghorns over and over so as not to collide with each other in the haze. Stuck inside, I feel like clutching my Smokey Bear teddy bear and going straight to bed. To live in a beautiful place and not be able to go outside seems like a hardship, until I think of those who are battling the fires or trying to save their homes and loved ones from the flames.
WWSD? What would Smokey do? As a child, I was touched by the story of Smokey, a cub orphaned in a forest fire, so my parents gave me a stuffed Smokey Bear. I’ve kept him to this day. I also kept a U.S. Forest Service coloring book about Smokey, the honorary forest ranger who helps prevent wildfires. “Protect our forest and friends!” Smokey implores. He used to ask children to “never play with matches,” because even small sparks can start wildfires. He still does, but now he adds a modern message, “Watch your campfire, NOT your phone!”
I’ve internalized his message to protect nature and try to prevent problems before they get out of control. He has deputized each one of us: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” And he’ll give you a hug whenever you need it.
Barbara Terao grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, raised a family in Evanston, Illinois, and is now writing a cancer memoir and other nonfiction on Whidbey Island in Washington.
Recurrence of cancer can be hard to predict and difficult to detect. Some doctors do follow-up tests and scans after cancer treatment to look for new, spreading, or recurring cancers. Mine do not. Since my first breast cancer treatments three years ago, they send me on my way with a quick check-up every six months and a mammogram of my remaining breast once a year.
But then I was diagnosed with a regional recurrence of cancer a year ago, requiring radiation treatments. Now my oncology team wants me to have a CT scan of my chest. Specifically, they want to look at some nodules in my lung that showed up on my last scan about a year ago. If the nodules grew, that’s a bad sign. The scan is also a chance to look around my entire chest and see if there’s any sign of cancer in there. I’m grateful to have this CT scan as a follow-up to my latest cancer scare.
As I wait my turn in a little room at the medical center, I look out the open door at a life-size Elvis in the hallway. The cardboard cut-out wears hospital scrubs that inexplicably have HANGRY written all over them. Is the King hungry and angry? I try to think of one of his song lyrics that would make this relevant and can only think of hound dogs and blue suede shoes. Elvis is also sporting green beads and a fuzzy, red Santa hat, which are at least somewhat seasonal. I appreciate a little hospital humor to ease the tension.
Once you’ve had cancer, any scan can be a cause for anxiety, or “scanxiety,” as it is sometimes called. How do I handle my fear during this cancer journey? Strangely, it’s not the tumors I dread most, it’s the treatments and their damages and side effects. I’ve never felt even a twinge from the cancer itself, not at this stage, though there is always the knowledge that it can kill me at some point.
I remember a horse in Tucson, Arizona named Checar. He was a little wild and could probably kill me in certain circumstances, but I was not afraid of him. Part Palomino and part quarter horse, he took my breath away when I saw him in the stables at a resort. I signed up for a trail ride in hopes I could get to know him or at least stroke his long, white mane. Before heading into the sagebrush and saguaro, we gathered in the barn for instruction. The trail guide, Nina, asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you of horses?”
“Eleven,” proclaimed a young man. I was surprised that he would rate his fear that high. With nervous laughter, all the other riders said high numbers as well.
When it came to me, I wanted to say zero. I’ve been around horses off and on all my life and I knew you had to be careful not to get kicked or thrown. In fact, our daughter Emily had recently had an accident when she and her horse went over a jump. They both fell. Emily broke her arm, requiring surgery and a metal plate. That was scary. But am I afraid of horses? No, I have a healthy respect for them. That’s different.
I said, “One.“
Maybe Nina assigned horses based on those numbers. For whatever reason, she gave me my favorite, Checar. I settled into the saddle in a dream-like state and savored that ride into the desert. Allowing a little distance between me and the other riders, I crooned songs of awe and gratitude to my horse. Patting his warm, strong neck, the color of butterscotch, and running my fingers through his frothy mane, I was enchanted and content. The cacti along the sandy trail saluted as we walked by and the sky went on forever above us. At the end, I dismounted and Nina took the reins to lead the horse back to his stall. He lingered by my side and resisted her pull. She harrumphed that he’d never done that before.
“It’s because I sang to him,” I said.
What is my cancer song? I do not love this sneaky disease. But I don’t have to let it overtake my life with anxiety. Cancer has its power and I have mine. I have a friend, an extraordinary man in our community, who found ways to communicate with his brain tumor with peace in his heart. Perhaps my song, in honor of Checar, can be about the power of life, love, and courage rather than death, defeat, and despair.
The scan I had almost a year ago showed a “metastatic enlarged lymph node” under my right arm. That was alarming! But this scan doesn’t have to be. I try to keep my nerves in check and focus on my breathing until I am called into the imaging room. I lie on my back and let the machine slide me through the donut hole of the scanner.
I was told the results would show up as a message from my doctor in a week. They came in that very day when we got home. The nodules hadn’t grown and there were no signs of cancer or other concerns. I’m all clear at the end of the year. The work to stay clear lies ahead.
Barbara Terao is a tree hugger and people hugger living with her husband on an island in Puget Sound in Washington. Their two daughters and their families live nearby. Barbara’s writing about nature, psychology, and life appears in magazines, journals, and on her blog, Of the Earth. She began treatment for HER2 and hormone-positive breast cancer in February 2017 and had a recurrence in 2019 which was successfully treated.
More Posts on the I Had Cancer website by BarbTerao
I feel a lifelong connection to the United Nations because of the book, Three Promises to You by Munro Leaf (1957). It summarized, at a child’s level, the purpose of the United Nations. The Three Promises of the book’s title are: No war, Fair treatment for all human beings, and Better living for everybody by sharing what we know. With Leaf’s cartoons, we learn that “whatever you look like, YOU are an important human being – a person.”
Inside the front cover I wrote in childish print, “Do not take this Book. Please because it is Barbara’s Book. Thank you.” The irony of my less than generous request and my tight grip on a book about sharing and caring only occurs to me now. Later in life, I happened to formally begin my Buddhist practice, with its goals of both inner and outer peace, on October 24, which is United Nations Day.
How are the global promises of the United Nations fulfilled? We can make progress toward peace, equality, and shared knowledge day by day. Perhaps the promises are a direction more than a final destination. This simple book is the primer we need right now, getting back to the basics of compassion, science, and democracy. “The United Nations belongs to YOU as much as it belongs to anyone else in the world.”
With my father, who gave me the book, I marched against war and stood up to bulldozers. Now that I am an adult, I can, at the very least, open my tight little fist to share the wisdom of the book’s message. This is the legacy of my parents and my promise to my children. We can work together for peace, happiness, and a more healthy, harmonious world.
The spread of the novel Coronavirus has made me realize how nuts I am about scientific method. A friend tells me her church is people. I like that. The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness. I like that, too. My philosophical perspective nowadays includes both humanism and kindness, leaving plenty of room for science. Including empirical evidence is important to me because I was brought up to respect science and admire scientists and engineers. My parents’ idea of a fun vacation was to attend a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). My father was a mathematician and liked to have his information verified, preferably by empirical, scientific methods. Even watching television commercials, he’d demonstrate a healthy skepticism for the misleading statistics of four-out-of-five-dentists type claims and taught me to be skeptical, too.
With the rise of COVID-19, it’s clear that scientists are constantly working behind the scenes to understand viruses, prevent outbreaks, and deal with contagions. It was a woman named June Almeida who first identified the human coronavirus under a microscope, though she wasn’t taken seriously at first. It’s easy to sit back and speculate about an illness and its origin. Tracking it to its source, whether it is a chimpanzee in the case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or bats in the case of recent viruses, takes diligent, painstaking effort over the course of years.
Our neighbor, M.C. Kang, is a chemist who developed drugs for the treatment of AIDS. He noted that, “In a rough sense, it takes thirty years or longer to deliver a medicine from the first understanding of biology to the market. Identification of biological mechanism takes twenty years or so through basic research in biology in academia.” For instance, M.C. worked for ten years to bring a drug called Fuzeon (T20) to market for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Such breakthroughs, along with the work of Anthony Fauci, M.D., virologist David Ho, and others, save lives.
Dr. Fauci says that lessons learned while working on the AIDS virus were useful in tackling the novel coronavirus. “Viruses cause disease by binding to receptors on cells in your body, be they in your upper airway or in your lung, in the case of COVID-19. They then replicate at a rapid rate that triggers a variety of pathogenic processes. Targeting drugs to interfere at one or more vulnerable sites within this replication cycle is something that we learned with HIV.”
Now people all over the world need tests, vaccines, and treatments for COVID-19. Scientists and doctors are developing them as fast as they can. There will be mutations of the virus that require new vaccines and treatments. And there will be new viruses emerging. As M.C. points out, that’s part of nature. Scientific evidence indicates that the novel coronavirus came not from a laboratory but from nature. And it’s part of human nature to try to understand and cure viral illnesses and, when possible, prevent them. Like the AAAS, we can advocate for evidence and its integrity and hasten our victories over the virus.
I made quinoa peanut butter cookies one day. They contained no wheat, which meant I could eat them without upsetting my stomach. I thought the cookies were buttery and delicious, so I took some to our daughter, Emily who lives nearby. When I later asked her over the phone how she and her fiancé Alex liked them, she told me, “Mom, we don’t need to eat gluten-free. We can eat regular cookies.” That seemed silly to me. A cookie is a cookie. Then, as if to take the sting out of her rejection, she said, “The sheep liked them though.”
“Wait. What? You fed them to your sheep?” On their farm, Emily and Alex have a small herd of Tunis, an ancient breed of sheep with coppery-brown faces and bodies billowing with creamy wool. I didn’t know sheep ate anything besides grain and hay.
“Yeah,” she said, “they were climbing on top of each other to get them, they liked them so much.” After that, I started calling the cookies “sheep treats.” At least I had some four-legged fans of my baking.
In February, I went to the farm to see some newborn lambs, which emerge a cinnamon brown color, so adorable. I had a plastic bag in my pocket with some of my homemade sheep treat cookies inside. No matter that it was tightly sealed. As soon as I went through the gate to the hilltop meadow, the ewes stopped nibbling grass, raised their heads, and laser focused on me. It was a little eerie how quickly they clustered around me. My attention was so much on the sweet, new lambs that I forgot I had treats for their mothers. Emily, however, noticed the adult sheep nuzzling my red, wool coat. “Do you have something in your pocket, Mom?”
“Oh, yeah.” When I pulled out the bag and opened it, that’s when I was in the middle of a sheep riot. Bleating and grumbling, a dozen or so woolly clouds bumped into me, begging for a cookie. The sheep in the back climbed onto the plush bodies of the ones in front to get closer to the treats. In their haste and my nervousness, it was difficult to feed the sheep. Emily managed to get a couple cookies in their mouths, but all the treats I offered crumbled at their assault.
That was a little crazy. Nevertheless, a bad day getting mobbed by sheep is still a pretty good day. Sheep are a treat for me and I’ll keep on making treats for them, my biggest fans.
QUINOA COOKIES, aka, Sheep Treats (from my box of Ancient Harvest quinoa flakes)
Preheat oven to 350 F
Mix: 1/2 cup butter, 1/3 cup brown sugar (or a dash of maple syrup), 1/2 cup honey, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 cup peanut butter.
Add: 3/4 cup quinoa flakes, I cup rice flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix well. Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 12- 15 minutes until golden brown. Cool for a couple minutes before removing from sheet.
Shio lived in the seaside village of Nakanohama, Japan. Her husband was a fisherman and she expected her three sons to become fishermen, too. Her two daughters would become wives of fishermen and stay close to home.
That’s how it was in Japan two hundred years ago.
Could Shio see a different destiny for her second son, Manjiro? Ever since he was born, Manjiro glowed like a firefly and he was always curious.
“Manjiro,” she’d say, “it’s up to you.
There’s nothing you can’t do.
If you keep trying, you’ll see it through.”
When Shio’s husband died, nine-year-old Manjiro started going to work every day. With no father and an older brother too sick and weak to work, it was up to him to provide for the family. Little Manjiro may have looked skinny as a rice stalk, but he became strong as bamboo. He helped empty the nets on fishing boats and brought home fish for the dinner table. At least they had something to eat with their rice.
Every morning, Shio told her little son,
“My dear Manjiro-chan,
try your hardest again today
and remember: Gaman!
Gaman means to stay strong
like a tree stands in a storm.
Don’t give up and don’t give in.
Have patience and go on.”
Manjiro’s two brothers and two sisters depended on him. Sometimes they called out to him as he left for work,
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
At this time in 1836, Japan had hundreds of rules, like the rule that children always grow up to work in the same jobs as their parents. No Japanese citizen could leave to visit other countries, and no person from another country could visit Japan. People who broke the rules were punished and imprisoned. That’s how it had been in Japan for a long time.
When Manjiro was fourteen-years-old, he was working on a small fishing vessel with four other fishermen when a storm came up and blew their boat far away from Japan. When her son did not return, Shio had to accept that he was either drowned or shipwrecked somewhere. After a while, the family even had a funeral for him. Shio was very sad, but she told herself, “Gaman. Stay strong like a tree in a storm.” She had to keep going and take care of her family.
Manjiro’s family didn’t know he was still alive.
Almost twelve years later, on October 5, 1852, they got a big surprise. Guess who was coming to their door! Shio heard someone calling “Okasan” and went outside her little house. A man who seemed somehow familiar was coming towards her, walking very fast. “Mother, I’m here! I’m here!” he said. Then he stopped and bowed his head low. “I’m sorry I left you for so long.”
“Manjiro? Could it be you?” Shio said. Tears came to her eyes. Then her son hugged her and cried along with her. His brothers and sisters came running to see what was happening and stopped short in surprise. Shio drew herself up and said, “It is your brother. He has come home.”
Their shock gave way to joy as they shouted, “You’re back! Hurray!” And then, “Manjiro! Where have you been?”
“Yes, Manjiro, what happened to you?” asked his mother. If she had known, she would have been a wreck herself.
The family gathered outside on straw mats with cups of tea. It was a warm autumn afternoon in their village between the mountains and the sea. “Manjiro, we thought you were dead. You left here a boy and now you’re a man. Where did you go?” his mother asked.
“I’ve been around the world and back,” Manjiro said. Then he realized that his family would not understand what that meant. They knew as little of the planet as he had twelve years ago when he was shipwrecked. He decided to start at the beginning of his journey.
“I was fishing on a boat with four others. A storm broke our mast and oars. The cold rain and winds lasted for seven days and blew our boat far, far out in the Pacific Ocean. All we could do was hang on.”
“Gaman,” said his mother, glad that her son had remembered what she taught him.
“Then we used planks of wood to row ourselves toward a tiny island. Our boat broke to pieces on the rocks, so the five of us swam to shore.”
“Oh,” said Shio, with a sharp intake of breath. “You didn’t give up.”
“There were no people living on the island, only albatross birds. We ate their eggs. We also found shellfish to eat. We saved rainwater and allowed ourselves three sips a day. That’s how we lived for five months! At night we slept in a cave.”
A tear rolled down Shio’s cheek as she thought of their loneliness. “So much for a boy to endure!”
Manjiro’s sisters remembered the words they’d shouted to their brother as he went to work. Now they chanted them again in order to cheer up their mother and to help Manjiro continue telling his story.
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
Manjiro laughed, remembering how their high spirits had lifted his mood so many years ago. He decided not to dwell on his trials as a castaway, such as the earthquake that almost buried them in their cave, and jumped ahead to a happier part of the story. “We always looked for boats to come take us home. One day while I was looking for food on the shore, I saw a ship. I shouted and the others came running, waving their clothes until the sailors on the ship saw us. We were rescued!”
Manjiro’s mother, brothers, and sisters leaned toward him with their eyes wide. “By Japanese?” asked his sister.
“No, they were Americans from far away, hunting for whales in a big ship. They rowed a small boat to our island and picked us up. Then they took us on board the big ship and fed us rice and soup. They gave us sailor clothes to wear and washed our old things for us. But they could not bring us home, because Japan does not allow foreign ships to enter its ports.”
“Weren’t you scared, Manjiro?” asked his littlest sister.
“My four fellow fishermen were very scared. They expected to be killed. I was too curious to be scared, so I followed the sailors around to see what they were doing. Some of the men were friendly even though they laughed when I tried to repeat the words they said. Then one of them touched the tall tree trunk holding their sail and said mast. I repeated it and this time I knew what it meant. I learned new words every day and soon I could talk with the crew and even the captain.”
“The whaling ship took us to the island of Oahu where there were many good people. The four other fishermen decided to stay there. The ship’s captain, William Whitfield, asked me if I’d like to go home with him to America. I said yes.” Manjiro took a chopstick and sketched a map in the dirt to show how far he traveled. “In America, in a place called Massachusetts, I lived with Captain Whitfield and his family. I went to school and learned many things.”
“You learned another language?”
“Hai, Okasan. Yes, Mother, I learned to speak, read, and write in English.” Manjiro scratched in the dirt to show them. He wrote John Mung, the name the Americans gave him because it was easier for them to say than Manjiro. Then he continued with his story. “Some people did not like me at first because I was different. I was the first Japanese person they’d ever seen, so, of course, I was strange to them. But I made many friends and learned from everybody. I even learned to ride a horse.”
This was astonishing to Manjiro’s family, because the only people who rode horses in Japan were samurai who served the shoguns and nobility. They did not expect a boy from a poor fishing village to ever have that privilege.
His mother looked confused. “How did you get back to Japan from the other side of the world?”
“There was something called a Gold Rush on the west coast of America. I went there and found gold.”
His brothers and sisters pumped their fists in the air and cheered him again. “And what did you do with the gold?” his mother asked.
“I sold the gold and made enough money to buy my own small boat, the Adventurer, to put on a big ship. The captain of the ship brought me close to Japan and I went the rest of the way in the Adventurer.”
“Where is your boat?” asked his younger brother. After all, a boat is a good thing to have for a fishing family.
“Naturally, I was arrested when I got here, because I have been out of the country. Local officials took my boat away. Then they locked me behind bamboo walls and questioned me for more than a year. Finally, I was released so I could visit you. I hiked ninety miles to get here.”
No one could speak for a few moments as they thought how far Manjiro had come. His brother patted him on the back a few times. Then Shio wiped her eyes on the cotton sleeve of her yukata. She was so grateful her boy who was lost at sea was alive and well. With a smile for Manjiro she said, “I must get you something to eat.” She hurried to the cooking fire. Her son, the firefly, was home at last.
Manjiro stayed at his childhood home for three days. After that, he was taken to a castle in Kochi for questioning and then to Edo (now called Tokyo) for more questioning.
Fortunately, he did not have to stay in jail again. The more Manjiro talked to officials, the more they realized that he could be a valued advisor to the Shogun and other leaders of Japan. A scribe wrote down and illustrated what the traveler told them. Those writings and pictures became a book called Drifting Toward the Southeast that is still available today.
Manjiro became a teacher and taught English and other subjects to samurai.
In December 1853, Manjiro was given the rank of samurai himself. The young fisherman from Nakanohama received payment, two special swords and a new name, Nakahama Manjiro. (Only high-ranking people in Japan had second names. Manjiro named himself after his village.) He could finally help support his family as he’d tried to do as a child.
Manjiro was often asked to tell people about America. He told the Japanese leaders how helpful and friendly the Americans had been to him. Manjiro’s words helped the leaders consider being friendly, too, and in 1854 Japan entered into a treaty of peace, friendship, and trade with the United States. They opened two ports to ships from the United States of America and other countries. After 250 years of closed doors, Japan was open to the rest of the world.
Manjiro had gaman, guts, and grit. He did more than endure his difficulties. He took action, made friends, and changed the world.
JAPANESE WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS
Gaman = Endurance, strength, and perseverance
Hai = Yes
Okasan = Mother
Oni-chan = Brother (informal)
Oniisan = Brother (formal)
Samurai = Warrior in service to the shoguns
Shogun = Head of the samurai government
Yukata = Cotton kimono
Bernard, Donald R. The Life and Times of John Manjiro. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Blumberg, Rhoda. Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts & Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Humanity Above Nation: The Impact of Manjiro and Heco on America and Japan. Honolulu: The Joseph Heco Society of Hawaii, 1995.
Manjiro, John and Kawada, Shoryo. Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways. Told in 1852 and translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai. New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, Inc., 2003.
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Nakahama Manjiro’s Hyosen Kiryaku: A Companion Book. Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum and Library, 1999.