Our homes were full of plants. Our mothers were responsible, always coming home from the market with new lillies or bamboo grass bundled between the melons and fresh bread. Their habits were regular, so regular we had it down to a science. Every Sunday they drove south where the sales were, and every Thursday night they scurried into the city to craft beautiful arrangements. They staged their creations across the house as if to remind us of their skillful hands and unmatched patience. Arrangements changed with the seasons, and so we were pleasantly surprised each spring when chrysanthemums appeared beside the bathroom sink or when plum blossoms replaced peonies on the tansu in the winter. Their flowers were objects of dignity and pride yet a secret to be shared among themselves and no one else. They were stories, beautiful tales of happiness and loss, marriage and death, war and country. Our mothers shared their lives through violent reds and somber whites, spoke to us and each other with petals and water and vases, the language of flowers.
Hanakotoba, flower words. Our mothers learned them at a young age, so by the time they became women, they were fluent. They were familiar with the nuanced codes. A yellow camellia represents longing, not to be confused with the white camellia, which represents waiting. It was a generational art and traditional pastime passed down from mother to daughter and to their daughters after. Our mothers came from everywhere, from the bustling cities of Tokyo to the vast countrysides of Kobe. They were little girls living in two-bedroom houses with their brothers and sisters working on rice paddies until their hands and feet hardened into stone. They were teenagers idling around narrow avenues of restaurants stacked like blocks of steamed tofu. They were young women perming their hair at local salons to look like Momoe Yamaguchi. They lived through thirty years of stories before bottling them up and carrying them across the Pacific to bring to us, their daughters born from new soil. We did not speak their language, yet we were still enchanted by how they spoke. We were intrigued by the vibrant colors and fluid vases of all shapes and sizes. We gazed upon their arrangements as if trying to peel back the secrecy of their words one petal at a time. We peeled and peeled, but all we turned up were tiny buds.
It is a strange thing, feeling foreign to your mother. You love her, yet you cannot really speak to her. You cannot understand her when she desperately needs you to. When she wishes to shower you in words and gestures different from yours, there is something lost between. Translation is never accurate. We are Japanese, but we are not Japanese like our mothers. We were raised for a place that did not include them, can speak enough for casual conversation but not enough to express ourselves the way we want to, the way we want our mothers to hear us.
Admiration is imitation, so we imitate our mothers to the best of our abilities. We walk as they do, backs straight with small steps. We talk as they do, teasing each other with witty remarks and laughing into the palms of our hands. We slurp our noodles and clear our plates and shout mottainai! when someone leaves without finishing. Imitation is like wearing your finest clothes and showing them off to anyone who wishes to see before taking them off for bed. It is only when we are truly alone that we let language fill our mouths like marbles, our words falling from our lips in clumsy syllables. We do not understand the meaning behind the little things—why we cross our bathrobes left over right, never right over left, or why we offer bowls of rice to shrines of relatives who have long passed—because these things do not happen in America. We can copy and paste culture onto ourselves, stamp it right on our foreheads, but we can never amount to its authenticity. We can master every fine art and learn every linguistic nuance, but those things will never really be ours. What we have is different.
We are American girls with Japanese faces. We know our way around this town and its people. Its topography is ingrained in the soles of our feet, its language rolling off our tongues in smooth waves. On the Eastside are the empty parking lots where we tear through grease-stained paper bags full of fast food in our hatchbacks and watch planes take off. On the Westside is the hilltop park where we tell each other our secrets under the shade of palm trees as the sun washes the city golden. We drive from the strip malls on the Northside to the beaches on the Southside even though we can’t afford the gas. Here is our home. Here we are confident, understood, real. Our mothers are the ones trapped beneath the surface. They are the shadows clinging to our feet, black silhouettes on cracked pavement. At night they practice English sentences, weighing each word in their mouth like melons in the market downtown. They paint their eyelashes with extra coats of mascara and add a stronger touch of rouge to their lips. They make friends with the women who cut their hair by spending empty compliments on their new outfits or their sons’ birthdays. And when they speak to us, they remember these things and hope we will love them for it.
You see, we do love our mothers. But how do you tell your mother you love her in a way she will understand? “I love you” holds a different meaning than “aishiteru,” and even though she knows both, she will only hear your slacking tongue and flat vowels. In our dreams, our mothers speak to us without refrain under great wisteria trees and in rice fields and over clear city skylines and kiss our Japanese faces. They hold us in their slender arms and cherish us as the beautiful flower girls we were meant to be. We waited for the day our mothers would open our bedroom doors, kneel beside our beds, and speak to us like this. We waited until we exhausted ourselves with waiting. We waited, and then we stopped.
When our mothers take the train into the city one Thursday night, we go with them. We follow them over bridges of stone and brick, between battered buildings with barred windows, through old shopping districts coated with years of rust. Little Tokyo is at the heart of all this, a small plaza of polished wooden restaurants and boutiques. Our mothers lead us through pathways sprinkled with red and white lantern light, past the Aratani Theater and museum to a small glass building tucked away in the far corner. Other women who look like our mothers shuffle about in the lobby carrying buckets full of flowers and tall grass. We are the only girls here, but we are too curious to be afraid. We follow our mothers into a classroom on the second floor, where an old woman sits at the head of the room. Her face is brown and wrinkled like an ancient oak tree, the wispy white hairs escaping her bun drooping like low-hanging branches. She is a small woman, even smaller in her chair, and her lips are curled upwards in a permanent expression of subtle amusement. When our mothers come to greet her, she takes each of their hands in hers and bows her head. Each of her movements are slow, as if swimming in molasses. She greets each of us next.
“Youkoso,” she says. Welcome.
We bow our heads but do not speak. We are little girls in the shadows of our mothers, who stand confident in the space they occupy.
Class begins, and we are led to tables beside our mothers. We watch their hands examine each leaf, each blade of grass, each flower with the concentration and composition of a doctor. Again, we imitate their movements and choices in our own arrangements. We craft crude arrangements from cacti and ferns like forming puzzle with pieces from the wrong box set. Our mothers work in silence beside us, but we are not blind to their casual sideways glances and soft smiles. They dote on us with their eyes, guide our hands with their demonstrations. So we adjust. We use simpler materials, remove excess blades of grass or arbitrary flowers, and although our creations are not perfect, they are our own. They are Japanese.
We keep our first arrangements on our nightstands. They are the last things we see before we sleep and the first things when we wake. Soon we will have made too many arrangements to fit on our nightstands. So we expand. We stage them across the house as if to remind ourselves of the progress we have made. Seasons come and go, and so do our arrangements. Our mothers will find sakura beside their chrysanthemums in the spring or snowdrops accompanying their plum blossoms in the winter. They will think it sudden. They will wonder where this all came from, why we American girls make these arrangements, but we’ll never tell. Our mothers tell us there are more beautiful things than words. We think this is what we will tell our daughters too.
Leah Chase is an Asian American writer from Long Beach, California. She is a 2017 California Arts Scholar, and her work has appeared in publications such as Counterclock Journal. When she is not writing, Leah enjoys listening to podcasts and watching her favorite ‘80s sitcoms.