A fourteen-year-old boy named Chosuke Gima crouches in a cave. For three months, he stays there in the darkness, fat dissolving off his bones, joints poking through papery skin. The earth shudders with another bomb strike. He ventures out into the light with a single toothpick, crouching above the rubble to pluck grains of rice from the pavement. This is the only thing he will eat for weeks.
Not too far away, aboard an American naval ship, a man named Ted Barbee looks out across the Pacific. He is fighting for his country: for freedom, for victory, for his family. He is fighting alongside those who bomb Okinawa, who reduce cities to rubble in the name of patriotism.
At home, Ted’s daughter Susan is only a baby, blinking blue eyes into the Iowa sky. One day, many years from now, his daughter will meet the fourteen-year-old boy in the cave. They will have four babies, and the fourth baby will have me. But for now, Ted is still fighting for the United States in the Pacific Ocean theatre, and Chosuke is crouched in a cave. Another bomb rattles the earth. The cave shudders around my grandfather, spitting dust from the ceiling that irritates his reddened eyes and dried nose. A few miles offshore, Grandpa Ted walks on the ship’s deck. He is not even aware of the blast.
Chosuke, who now goes by Dick Gima, walks into the town hall of Mexico, Missouri, with a tall blonde woman. The war has been over for a long time now, over two decades. The three ladies working at the town hall look at Susan, then back at Dick, then back at Susan.
“You can’t get married. You’re different races.”
Although my grandmother insists the state of Missouri has changed its law on interracial marriage, the women refuse. They don’t care about the law. What they mean to say is, You are the daughter of a Midwestern farmer, and he is the son of village fishermen. He is the sea, you are the land. He is a foreigner, and you, my child, are from the heart of our nation. It does not matter if the law has changed. Two worlds can never become one.
My grandmother has been moving boxes all day. She is pregnant, belly swollen beneath her floral-printed shirt. She wipes her forehead in the driveway, one hand on her brow and the other pressing her back for support. Although she is not due for three months, she goes into labor, and much to her surprise, she delivers twins.
It should have been joyful. Two babies instead of one, nearly doubling the size of the family. But in those cold, sterile hallways, the harsh white lights reflecting off dull metal, the doctors decide that mixed-race babies do not deserve the same medical attention as white babies. My Aunt Keiko died at less than a week old, and my Uncle Lewis has lasting disabilities from the lack of oxygen he received at birth.
My mom says it makes her sad to see adults who were born prematurely living healthily and happily. It is strange to think of what life would have been like if her sister had survived, if my uncle was not premature. But that is not reality.
My grandfather and I sit in the sun room. Big windows overlook the lawn, the trees curling over the pool. Next to the driveway we have a red-leaf Japanese maple. Its leaves brush the ground, creating an alcove that I like to crawl under and sit in. But in this moment, I am sitting on the rug as my grandfather reclines on the blue couch.
Today is the Fourth of July. As the sky turns from light blue to deep navy, my parents begin to rustle items in the kitchen, filling bags with all the essentials: quilted blanket, Lays potato chips, hot dogs, glowsticks.
“Come on,” I say, tugging at my grandpa’s sleeve. He just smiles and shakes his head.
As we drive down the driveway, the red-leaf maple now shrouded in darkness, I ask my mom why we leave Grandpa at home.
“The fireworks are too much for him,” she says. “Because of the war.”
I am too young to fully understand. Year after year, my grandfather does not come to the beach with us. Instead, for three hours he stays there in the darkness, drowning out the noise with the TV. The air crackles with the sound of another firework. He ventures into the kitchen and makes himself a bowl of rice, crouching over the counter with a glass of water. This is the only thing he eats for dinner. Not too far away, on a beach with American flag–themed plates, we watch the sky erupt in awe.
The pale yellow walls cast a dull glow on the beige carpet. Great aunts, great uncles, nieces, nephews, and all different types of cousins cram into the hotel reception room. My grandfather is the youngest of seven children, so cousins multiply exponentially with every generation, splintering into innumerable veins and bloodlines. Relatives speak to me in Japanese, and I stare back at them, not understanding.
My Aunt Niya gives a PowerPoint presentation teaching English words. “Cactus,” she says as the screen flashes with a picture. The crowd repeats, “Cactus.” She explains that there are lots of cacti where she lives, and the screen switches to a map of Arizona. “Arizona,” she says. “Arizona,” the crowd replies.
My memories of the trip are admittedly fractured. What I do remember from Okinawa: walking on the beach and seeing a giant chunk of coral wedged in the sand. Finding a blue charm with a tiny cross at the bottom of a hotel pool. Stray cats by dirt roads and going to the fish market. Tomoakisan’s house and how it was so hot and there was no air conditioning—only fans blowing hot air and sweat and thin floral dresses. The Japanese yogurt drink we slurped from a little pouch. The palace and the Okinawan cultural festival with drums and red spray-painted bags. Eating miso soup by the window. My mom telling us she is pregnant with my sister. Going to the reunion and feeling lost within my own family.
My best friend is a girl named Christina. We do everything together. We have the same light brown hair, pale skin, and outfits from Crewcuts. Our whole friend group looks like this; the long brown caramel hair is our signature. If you braid it all together, you can’t tell whose hair belongs to whom.
Christina’s house is big and yellow with a wraparound porch and an expansive lawn. Christina will be the maid of honor in my wedding. I’ve already written this down in one of my numerous half-finished diaries.
Today, Christina and I sit in one of her many living rooms. This one has big white couches and a soft leopard-print blanket. On the wall hangs a decorative world map, framed in silver metal. We begin to point out where our families are from. My fingers trace from Connecticut to Massachusetts to Iowa to Missouri. She shows me where her parents grew up: New York City, Long Island. I then reach across the map to the Pacific.
“This is the island my grandfather is from. It’s called Okinawa.”
“Okinawa. It’s in Japan.”
“Stop lying,” she laughs. “I know you’re just trying to trick me.”
I look at her, my brow furrowing with frustration.
“So you’re really trying to tell me that your grandfather is Japanese?”
“You’re my best friend. How do you not know that?”
“No, seriously Christina,” says our friend Griffin, overhearing our conversation from the sink in the bathroom. “It’s true.”
Suddenly I’m mad. My voice croaks out from my throat, hot with anger. “My mom’s name is Mariko. It’s a Japanese name.”
“Griffin is a girl and she has a boy’s name. Your mom doesn’t have to be Japanese to have a Japanese name,” says Christina. “Besides, you don’t look Japanese.”
Even with my insistence, Christina still refuses to believe me. I pick up the landline and dial my home number. Over the phone, I make my mom say she is Okinawan to prove my point. Christina just shrugs and moves on with her day, forgetting about the whole ordeal.
New Canaan is 95 percent white. Less than 1 percent of families are more than one race. I’m only ten years old, so I do not know these statistics yet. What I do know is when I look at myself in Christina’s bathroom mirror later that day, I see Christina’s features staring back at me. I see her light brown hair and pale skin. I see my light hazel eyes and my freckles and understand that there is no Asian on my face.
My dad and I are at a YO! Sushi, a Japanese restaurant in the London Heathrow Airport. The food comes out on a conveyor belt, the rolls and rice encased in a rainbow of plastic spheres. The containers snake around the restaurant like a river dotted with bright buoys, serving eager customers as they crouch by the riverbank.
I do not yet know how to use chopsticks. My fingers fumble as I try to pick up a roll, but after my dad shows me his own technique, I pick up a piece with only a few falters.
Maybe it is ironic that my white father is teaching me to use chopsticks in Europe. Would it be more genuine if I had learned in Okinawa or been taught by my mom? Would I be more Okinawan then? There are aspects of my childhood—such as trips to the Japanese food store, furikake sprinkled on rice, and a thousand paper cranes littering my house—that connect me to my grandfather. But what I’ve found is that most of my family’s Okinawan culture is slipping away. It becomes diluted with each generation, blood mixing with white, and then more white, until the color is lightened and nothing remains.
I get into a cab in front of the Louvre, my hair long and brown, the same light color it has always been. The cab driver does not speak much English. He tells me, in halting English, that he’s from Haiti. He asks where I’m from.
“America. The United States.”
“Ah,” he says and nods knowingly. He then looks at me in the rearview mirror.
“Half Tokyo? Beijing?” He says a few other words and then makes a motion with his hands. I don’t understand.
“I’m from the United States.”
“No, no, no. Ah … 50 percent mother? Father? Tokyo? Beijing?”
I realize then that he’s asking if I am part Asian.
“Oh! Yes, my mom is half Okinawan. It’s in Japan.”
“Yes,” he says. “I can see it in your eyes.”
As I watch the river flow beneath the stone bridges, the car whirring through the city, I feel oddly content. My identity often seems to be defined by how others view me. If I look white, then I am white. But in this moment, the taxi driver can see something else in my eyes. I know that Okinawa is still alive within me, even if just a little bit, a pulsing beat just below the surface of the skin.
The truth is there is no simple answer as to which world I belong. I think I’ve come to peace with the contradiction. I can be the death of my infant aunt and the confusion at the family reunion. I can be Fourth of Julys without my grandfather and an American watching fireworks. I can be the girl in the cab and that day at Christina’s house. I do not have to choose being the naval ship or the cave. I am neither. I am not my mother or my grandfather or my grandmother. I can be everything and nothing all at once, my whole self, unabridged, free.
Alexandra LeBaron is a writer and an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. She received an honorary mention for the 2017 NSPA Multimedia Story of the Year. Her work has previously appeared in 805 Lit + Art magazine and The Phillipian, among others.