Chick Sexing School or, How Our Dead Grandfather Summoned Us to Japan
List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
It was right after our grandfather died when my brother George suddenly started to resemble him. To be precise, George started to look like the portrait of Grandpa.
I never met my mother’s father, Grandpa Taketora, while he was alive. I’d like to pretend, at least, he was in his coffin, pale and all wrinkled up when I finally saw his face in December 1959. I could tell you details as if I had been at the wake, like, his gray hair sticking out of his nostrils bothered me; the tails of his eyebrows were almost touching his closed eyelashes. He was so big for a Japanese man of his age that the undertakers had to bend his knees to fit him into an extra-large coffin, et cetera.
But this is not true. I couldn’t see his real face, dead or alive. When I met Grandpa at last, he wasn’t Matsuda Taketora anymore. He had been given a protracted, incomprehensible posthumous Buddhist name. He had been cremated, put into a ceramic urn, and placed in his family grave on a hill, which commands the Omura Bay.
I have never seen Grandpa Taketora’s photograph, either. All I have seen is his oil portrait, which still hangs in our living room. He is in his mid-thirties in the portrait. I must admit, he is quite handsome. There he stands, flat against the velvety, gloomy background. He is lean and tall, wearing the Japanese Army’s uniform, which doesn’t exist on the earth anymore, thank goodness. Five decorations on his chest dully gleam in ocher. Grandpa Taketora’s prominent features are his wise-looking forehead, lean, lofty nose, and the stubborn-looking thick black eyebrows above gold-rimmed round spectacles on his long, clean-shaven face. My mother doesn’t look like him at all. She is a round-faced, button-nosed, short-limbed woman. I regret that I didn’t benefit from atavism. Though I inherited none of my maternal side’s features, I had been his favorite, his first grandchild.
My parents married against Grandpa Taketora’s will. Since then, Grandpa Taketora had never sent her a word, even a New Year’s card. The official excuse was that he could not admit that Ma had chosen to stay in America and marry Pa, a second-generation Japanese—a degenerated Japanese, Grandpa might say—who dared to volunteer to fight against his own people in the war. This is not true, by the way. Pa fought against the Germans in Europe. I think Grandpa had been simply difficult because his daughter didn’t come back to him. He insisted my mother’s stay in America with her aunt was temporary, but technically speaking, she wasn’t his daughter anymore.
Her mother passed away around 1920, leaving her and her three older siblings. Her father, Grandpa Taketora, was in service in Siberia and had no idea when he could come home. The Reds were so stubborn in Siberia. He had to give up his children to his relatives’ care. Three relatives in Japan looked after the three older children, and my mother was sent to her aunt Satoko in San Francisco. Auntie Satoko, who had divorced an Irish-American man, adopted Ma right away before the Anti-Japanese Immigration Law passed in 1924. This made it difficult for Ma to go back to Japan. Although Ma admits that she hoped to remain in America for her own interest, it was not only her fault that she did not return.
As California became a difficult place to live for the Japanese, Auntie Satoko moved to Utah with Ma. I know they moved a couple of more times afterwards, but from then up until I was born, their stories suddenly get obscure. I don’t want to ask what they don’t want to talk about, so they still remain obscure. All I know is that Ma met Pa before he went to Europe, and after he came back, they moved to Tacoma, where we live now.
Grandpa didn’t know my brother and I had been born until the war was over. I was two and my brother one when Grandpa learned that Japan lost the war against America, but that he gained two grandchildren in America. That’s when he sent his portrait to his daughter in America. My mother remembered the portrait well. It had been hung on his drawing room wall when she was little, over the leather chair where Grandpa sat and smoked while waiting for his patients. In the spring of 1946, when Ma tore open the brown parcel paper and saw the ocher medals revealed, she realized right away that it was her father’s sign that he would permit her marriage, her way of life, and accept the two of us as his grandchildren. She has treasured the portrait since then, and it will be my job to carry along the portrait in the future because my mother always tells me that my mere existence retrieved our extended family from our little diaspora.
We grew up hearing stories of Grandpa Taketora from Ma and Auntie Satoko. He was six foot four and could lift three hundred pounds. He swam across the Omura Bay when he was twelve. When he was a teenager, he used to dunk himself into the Saigo River at five every morning, snow or rain, dredging the water for sweetwater clams for his family’s breakfast. He won a national scholarship to study medicine at the Imperial University of Tokyo. He knew more than four thousand Chinese characters. He won two medals in the First World War and three in the Siberian Dispatch. But when we asked Ma and Auntie Satoko how he acquired those ocher medals, nobody knew. Ma and Auntie Satoko would assure me, whenever I asked, that Grandpa Taketora was an army surgeon, so he got the medals for saving people’s lives, not for killing them. I sort of bought it, but my brother George didn’t. He didn’t say he didn’t believe their stories, but I knew he suspected our Grandpa had killed at least a couple of pre-Nazi Germans and Red partisans in his years of service. Poor Germans and Russians, they had to play the role of expendable extras in our family epic. Grandpa Taketora was a mythic hero. All the more so for his bodily absence and his portrait presence in our house.
After the war was over, Grandpa Taketora wrote to us until he was hospitalized for cancer of the larynx. A few lines were devoted to his life in Omura: not only did he work in his clinic, he was the head of the municipal health center; we heard about vaccinations and nutrition education in his small town. His letters gave me an impression that Japan had a long way to go to improve its public hygiene.
I also learned things like this Japanese superstition: if you get poisoned by fugu, a poisonous blowfish, the Japanese will bury you alive with your head sticking out of the earth like a neglected winter squash. Grandpa had blowfish-poisoned patients a couple of times a year. Usually a stomach pump would save them, but once this poor middle-aged man, who illegally cooked blowfish that he fished himself, came too late to his clinic because he had been left in the dirt for half the day.
Besides his life in Japan, he spent many lines describing what he wanted George and me to become. That was the cream of his letters. He sounded quite authoritative, like any mythic hero. George would be a doctor, naturally, Grandpa Taketora asserted, and he had planned my life according to the years left in his life. In his old-fashioned imagination, he wanted me to do as much as a woman could do—which was not much—while he was still alive. After I finished my compulsory education, I would marry a good Japanese man on my sixteenth birthday—the legal age for a woman to marry in Japan—and bear his great-grandchild in nine months sharp. He would be seventy-eight by then. He would die, he wrote again and again, after he saw his first great-grandchild. He always wrote that he could wait only until I became sixteen.
Every time I thought of Grandpa’s obsession, an imaginary scene came into my mind—he would pass away at the peak of his delight, lying spread-eagled on the runway, upon seeing me descending the steps from the trans-Pacific airplane, landing on his soil with my newborn baby in my arms. “Grandpa! Grandpa!” My parents, George, and I would run up to him and jolt him, but his contented smile would be peacefully fixed on his long face. We would shoulder him back to the airport terminal, each of us holding a limb, since he was so big. I wouldn’t be able to hold my baby in my arms while I’d support Grandpa’s limb, so my baby would be laid on its belly on Grandpa’s belly. Then I’d suddenly come back to reality, asking myself, where is the baby’s father, where is my husband? He should be carrying my baby while I am taking part in the triumphant yet tragic end of our hero. Then I would finally realize how impossible the first premise of the scene was. How could I get married at sixteen? With whom? Frank? Takeshi? Or James? Can I scream?
In his letters, he always counted the years he had to wait. Every letter was a countdown. It sounded as if he couldn’t wait for his last day. I have felt sorry for Grandpa because I have known all the time that his dream wouldn’t come true. When I was ten, my dream was to become a head keeper of a zoo or an ostrich breeder. Even as a ten-year-old, I was aware that having a baby at the age of sixteen would be a great obstacle to my future career. My parents had their own expectations for me and George, and marrying me off at sixteen was not one of them. But Grandpa’s count-down letters kept coming.
The letters were written in Japanese mixed with many knotty Chinese characters I had never seen. Even after Ma read them aloud for us, we needed some words rephrased or interpreted. Sometimes all of us got lost in the labyrinth of his old-fashioned Eastern rhetoric.
And today, I am still sorry and confused because he did wait until I became sixteen. He died a month before my seventeenth birthday. Long enough to have a baby. Was he serious about his plans? If so, what could I have done for him instead of just feeling guilty and telling him nothing?
Looking back on my past, I was always more concerned about my career than romance. I became acquainted with my first uninspiring date when I was fourteen, while I acquired my first chickens at the age of ten. Aspiring to be a top ostrich breeder, it was natural that I started with a smaller kind. I bought the chickens from the old Chinese man who used to bring chickens in baskets to our grade school. He was trying to sell chickens to school kids. Kids liked to finger the chickens, but they weren’t selling well. Bringing a chicken back home was a different story from buying marbles on our way home from school. There were two baskets of chickens: one for hens and one for roosters. He sold a hen for a quarter and a cock for a nickel. He would appear one or two times a month and squat at the edge of the yard lawn near the school entrance, smoking a long Chinese pipe. His chickens were busy tweeting and pushing each other. Sometimes they were so loud they sounded like rain falling upon a tin roof. Their feathers were different shades of chicken yellow: some were almost creamy white and some were sunny yellow, and there was every possible shade in between. Before spring break every year, his chickens were dyed pastel with food colors. Orange chickens, pink chickens, blue chickens. Once Easter was over, the chickens would go back to the normal gradations between ivory and yellow.
The first time I touched the chickens, brushing against the flock of them squeezed in the basket, I wish I could tell you, “Electricity thundered from the tips of my finger through my spine and limbs and I felt my hair bristle up; and right away I realized that it was a predestined encounter, me and chickens.” But this is not true. My fingers stroking their feathers, I actually chuckled; the surface of the fidgeting bunch of warm down tickled me amusingly. Then the Chinese man grabbed one chicken and held it out to me. I offered my palms side by side. He put the chicken in the narrow ditch between my palms. I curved my palms and shaped two hemispheres to form a round cage for the chicken. The interior of my hand cage felt a scurrying sunny ball of fur, and I was still chuckling, feeling lemon-yellow airy feathers filling me up and warming me up. I put the chicken back into the girl basket and hurried home to persuade Ma and Pa.
This is how I obtained my first three chickens and how I got into the whole business about chickens. Before they were large enough to stay outside, they lived in our room. I kept them in a worn-out corrugated box. I held them in the round cage of my palms, one by one in turn. I could do it all day.
I called my chickens Chicken-one, Chicken-two, and Chicken-three, because as much as the feeling of those little yellow down balls in my hand, I liked the sound of “chicken” in my ears. The two jumpy sounds followed by the comforting grounding of a nasal sound pleased my tongue. Chicken, Chicken, Chicken. I kept repeating their names while I played with them. Chicken-one, Chicken-two, Chicken-three. I was very happy. But my mother found a need to intervene between me and my chickens. She didn’t find Chicken an aesthetic name for chickens. She thought I was playing the role of an oppressive jailer with my chickens. “Eleanor, don’t call your pets by numbers,” she said. “They are not prisoners. They are your friends, Eleanor. Give them nice names.” I tried, but I had to tell her I couldn’t find any more suitable name than Chicken for them. “Okay,” Ma said nonchalantly. “Let me name them for you.” Then I realized she had been longing for this moment, and it was too late to stop her. She had their names in her mind already. She named Chicken-one, the white girl chick, Tosca; Chicken-two, the only boy, Tristan; and Chicken-three, the yellowish girl chick, Isolde. Before I knew it, it became our family rule to name my chickens something like Aida and Ladames, Carmen and Don Jose, Rodolpho and Mimi, and Papageno and Papagena.
My mother always wanted to become an opera singer. That’s why she didn’t want to go back to Japan even after Grandpa Taketora came back from Siberia. She wanted to go to a music school in San Francisco. But soon it turned too difficult for her to pursue her dream for various reasons. I think it was a good idea that she gave up the prima donna thing because even if she had made it, what roles could she play as a prima? Not much choice. The frustrated Chinese empress who kills men and the neglected Japanese geisha who kills herself. That sounds like a monotonous prima life.
My love for chickens caused me some hardships, too. I was so much into my three chickens, I couldn’t eat any kind of poultry anymore. At the dinner table, I would poke the bumpy skin with my fork, thinking of death and my chickens, until tears welled up in my eyes. This habit drove my parents crazy. The fuss snowballed as my thing infected George, who is a bit more sensitive than I. We wept in chorus, poking the plump poultry in pity for the poor birdie together until we were sent to bed in disgrace.
This symptom lasted for three months until I found twin baby owls in the woods in Washington Park. Two fat piles of gray down were cuddling together at the base of an oak tree. They must have fallen from their nest. They were too little to fly. I couldn’t keep them as pets. Ambitious as I was, skipping from chickens to raptors was a leap too sudden. I asked Ma for help. She found a veterinarian in Forrest Creek who took care of injured big birds. We brought the baby owls to his clinic, which was full of big falcons, old kites, and grown-up owls, all sick and hurt. They were motionless and sullen in the cages. I smelt their wounds and diseases. I heard the air vibrating with shame, shame for their disgraceful scars.
“Let’s see. Hum. The birdies are quite meek!” Dr. Cheyenne peeped into the box of owls we put on the counter. The baby owls were still stuck together like Siamese twins. “How come they are so down?” the doctor cheerfully said, rubbing his hands. “They are not hurt or anything. I wonder if they are hungry. Let’s see.” He opened the maple wood drawers under the counter in a businesslike manner. Standing behind Dr. Cheyenne, the contents of the drawers jumped into my eyes. The drawer was full of fluffy yellow things. They were freshly dead chickens. There were about thirty of them, cleanly dead, lying in the drawer, riveting my eyes. Seeing my paralyzed face, Ma’s eyes reflected great regret. She must have thought, Oh no, this is the last blow; Eleanor won’t eat chicken for the rest of her life; what should I do with the chicken left in the refrigerator?
The doctor pinched out two chicken corpses, and put them under the owl’s noses. The birds squeezed against each other even tighter. They didn’t seem to understand the furry balls were their food. Dr. Cheyenne sniffed at this sight, whipped a knife out of his laboratory coat, and started to dress the tiny chickens. This made me weep. Ma touched my shoulders, but she was also amazed at my stupidity. The chickens didn’t bleed. The doctor nimbly peeled the feathers and skin off, and I saw the tiny chicken breast flesh, about the size of my thumb, but otherwise the same fresh, skinned chicken breast I had seen in the market. I don’t remember the details which followed that. I don’t recall whether the owls ate the meat or not. I was devastated, yet the image of the tiny, pink chicken breast led me to come to terms with the relationship between man and chicken. The fragile chicken, cute to look at, nice to play with, good to eat. From that day, I resumed eating poultry. I could chew and swallow chicken again.
Meanwhile, my three chickens, Tosca, Tristan, and Isolde, had passed the cutest phase of their life and became ugly, angry adolescents. Their cream feathers were mixed with yellow down; their little cockscombs didn’t match their baby faces. In short, they looked like vertically stretched chickens somebody created by mistake. And poor Isolde, she turned out to be a rooster!
The old Chinese man had told me she was a girl! Of course, I waited for him to reappear in front of the school and complained to him. He promptly apologized for his mistake. To my surprise, he said that this kind of mistake would happen sometimes, and gave me a newborn girl chicken, and a boy chicken in addition. He put a red rubber band around the girl chicken’s leg. I timidly asked him if I had to return Isolde to him. He waved his hands and shook his head, repeating, “No. No.” So I was very happy, getting two more chickens for free. I named them Romeo and Juliet on my way home. Romeo was a rooster and Juliet was a hen.
Two years passed. Carmen and Don Jose, Aida and Ladames, and Papageno and Papagena joined my flock of chickens. As I learned more about chickens, as chickens became a part of our family life, including the fresh eggs on our breakfast table every morning, my vision of becoming an ostrich breeder started to take a different shape, a more realistic shape. I couldn’t say it aloud to anybody else. The more serious your dream becomes, the more fragile it appears. If I’d said it aloud, the spell would no longer be good, and the dream would never come true, I felt.
I frequented the science museum to see the chicken incubators. On weekdays, I would squat in front of them and watch the activities inside for hours without being disturbed. They let me in for free because I sometimes brought in fertilized eggs for the incubators. No matter how many times I saw the scene at home or at the museum, the spectacle in the incubator overwhelmed me. The newly hatched chickens especially caught my attention. Their down still damp and bloody, exhausted from the tedious labor of coming out into the world, the baby chicks tottered along the glass walls, tweeting weakly. Due to their bloody appearance, they looked as if they were dying, instead of just having been born. And there were about two dozen other bloody chickens, reeling and staggering, or tweeting and pecking or lying and resting. The resting ones actually seemed quite dead. With their little chicken batteries dead, they were flat on the floor, their short legs and little wings sprawled in every way, their tiny tongues sticking out, their eyelids half-closed showing the whites of their eyeballs, with clotted blood all over the body. Gosh, they’re dead, I first thought. Almost a quarter of them are dead; I didn’t know they had to risk their lives to come out into life.
But I found out, after a while, in five minutes or so, those dead chickens rose up like zombies and started to waddle about to explore their little world as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, those who had been toddling would pass away in a flash, boom, like drunken old hobos falling asleep in the gutters of graveled road.
This repetitive cycle of newborn chicks’ life—tweet and toddle, boom, drunk dead, up, toddle and tweet—never bored me. These gory creatures were full of life! And they constantly reminded me of my father’s father, Grandpa Tomizo, so-called Grandpa Tom, who died during my incubator years, when I was thirteen.
He showed his first sign of a drinking problem after he had moved into a hospital for nephritis complicated by gout, a half year before his death. Grandpa Tom had been drinking since he was twelve, but, mind you, always moderately. He had never caused trouble to others because of his love for liquor. If you could just listen, at his wake, how his friends and relatives praised the way Grandpa Tom used to drink! They would lament his death as they filled each other’s glass with Grandpa Tom’s favorite English vodka, calling his drinking style noble and humble at the same time. He was always quiet, smiling occasionally, sitting at the corner with his glass of vodka and a piece of fresh chili pepper in his hands. He would nibble the pepper and lick the liquor; lick the vodka and nibble the pepper. Thus he would sit for hours. His relatives talked and laughed at his funeral about the way Grandpa Tom had been happy as a clam during Prohibition with his handmade little distillery in the basement, making his own liquor from sweet potatoes.
But at the end of his life, Grandpa Tom behaved like a wicked alcoholic just because he had never lived in a place as dry as the hospital, even during Prohibition. He really didn’t know what to do. The nurses treated him like an alcoholic, and this made us really sad. We pleaded with his nurses to let him have a drop of vodka and he would be contented, but they would just nod and smile with their eyes saying, “Sure. That’s what they always say.” So finally one day, Grandpa Tom sneaked out of the hospital and toddled across the eight-lane boulevard on his gouty feet to a liquor shop. He bought a mini-bottle of vodka, and restraining his excitement, he toddled back across the eight lanes to the hospital. He later told Ma it had taken him an hour to cross the street twice. He waddled up the stairs and climbed up on his bed, again, on his seventy-six-year-old gouty feet. Now he put his hand into his bosom and took out his mini-bottle when a nurse came into his room.
When we heard this story from another nurse, we all blushed in shame and exclaimed in protest. “How dare you, tyrants! He’s finishing his life! A drop will do him good, no harm!” The nurse gave us a dirty look as if we were grumbling nonsense, so we decided on our way home, the next time we would come visit him, we would bring him vodka in a coffee pot.
Grandpa Tom could not even finish a spoonful of vodka. Three drops were enough for him. He blushed like a bride and said thank you to us. After we talked a little about the weather, school and the nursery, he became drowsy so we left. He died two months after, and we managed to smuggle in the coffee pot every other week in his last months. Every time we walked into the hospital with his coffee pot hidden in the bottom of Ma’s tote bag, I glanced back at the street where Grandpa had crossed twice for his vodka, and then I thought of the chickens in the incubators. If Grandpa Taketora is a titanic hero in our family epic, Grandpa Tom is an old friendly fairy in our family fables.
After Grandpa Tom died, I stopped visiting the incubators. I was not only busy with my ever-increasing chickens—now there were a dozen of them—but I had also started going out with this eighth grader, whose name I don’t want to mention. Well, I didn’t hate him or like him, but I went out with him only because that’s what everybody was supposed to do, and he wasn’t as bad as the rest of the herd. School had turned into a strange place when I became a seventh grader: suddenly, all the girls started to flirt like crazy. They were blinking their eyes harder than ever. I could hear them tweeting coquet, coquet, coquet. The boys appeared like half-grown chickens with their tiny cockscombs and their ill-proportioned, stretched bodies in mixed feathers. They were ugly and angry like my half-grown chickens. I wished I’d had a garbage lid at school to protect myself from those half-chicken, half-rooster boys. That’s what I used at home to shield myself from the young roosters.
Ma became frantic when she found out I had a date, not because she thought I shouldn’t, but because my brother had none. She insisted that George must be secretly popular at school. I said no. Being such a short, ugly, clumsy, shy thing, how could he interest those half-chicken, half-coquette girls? Then Ma would accuse me of not introducing nice girlfriends of mine to him. “Since you are the big sister, Eleanor,” Ma went on, “you have to take care of your little brother for the rest of your life. It’s your duty to introduce him to nice girls. They must like him.” The idea of taking care of my brother for the rest of my life depressed me.
Ma had her own theory. She insisted that George had no date because of his hearing problem. He had been hit by a Sunday school bus when he was six. I saw him tossed up like a volleyball on the bonnet. After the ambulance had carried him away, the neighbor kids who had been watching the accident from a distance rushed to me, their faces all glowing in excitement.
“Did he die? Did he die?” That’s all they wanted to know. No, he didn’t. He didn’t even break his leg. But the shock to his head caused this hearing problem—he could not catch high-pitched tones very well, especially when the sound came from behind him. So according to Ma, George must be missing the pretty chicks tweeting behind him at school every day; the chicks must be desperately curious about him.
I knew that this was not the case, but I had no good counter-argument, so I just let her believe in her theory. I had no time to check the chicks tweeting behind my brother. I was already busy with my chickens: Romeo wanted to monopolize all the hens, and poor Don Jose was always getting beaten up by Romeo. Carmen would flirt with Romeo openly. I had to put Romeo into a separate cage before jealous Don Jose stabbed Carmen with a dagger or innocent Juliet stabbed herself.
There were more sexual confusions. When I was sixteen, Papageno turned out to be a hen and Papagena a rooster. Again, I thought about complaining to the Chinese man. They were the last chickens I bought from him. I actually went to see him. By then I knew where he lived. In his shack, I saw the same two willow baskets, one for girls and one for boys. Since he couldn’t always keep an eye on the chickens, some of them would jump out of the baskets. He grabbed them and put them back, but sometimes he couldn’t tell from which basket the chicken had sneaked out. And he had no way to tell whether the chicken was a boy or a girl. Only the chicken farmer could tell. The Chinese man just bought chickens from him.
I returned home without telling him what had happened to Papageno and Papagena. I couldn’t tell whether Papageno was a boy or a girl, either, when (s)he was a baby chick. I had a lot more to learn about the creatures. On my way back, I became more determined about my future plan. Now I felt I was ready to tell my parents what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to college to become a veterinarian. I thought it was a matter of course.
So I told Ma and Pa that I wanted to go to college to become a vet right after I reached home.
“What?” Pa grimaced at my confession and lost his word. Ma interrupted him, “I’m sorry, Eleanor. We don’t have money. I’m sorry. We can’t even afford to go back to Japan. I mean, for the funeral. Grandpa Taketora died. We’ve just got a telegram.”
It was a remote death. He was my mythic hero, but I didn’t know his face, and I hadn’t heard his voice. Somebody had died far away on the other side of the Earth. Somebody I knew only in stories and in letters. He had a big wish for me. But the wish was very remote from my real life. Ma was crying. I tried to cry not to be rude to her and dead Grandpa. But tears just didn’t come. I had to give up crying. My eyes got tired from too much squinting.
A week later, I had to face a close death. Romeo died, having been bit by a weasel. I found him cold and stiff in the little corner behind Pa’s lily greenhouse one morning.
Two weeks later, Tosca died. I suspect the December chill did it. My first chicken. Chicken-one. This time I didn’t have to try to cry. It was disturbingly easy.
We sort of avoided talking about Grandpa Taketora. I noticed my parents were exchanging letters with Ma’s relatives. But it was too sad to think about him and not to be able to go to his funeral, or his burial, or even to see his grave. We all tried to concentrate on our business, chickens and college in my case. Then good news came in. Some girl asked George to go out skating with her. My brother got a date! See, it wasn’t because of his ears! We just needed some patience.
Ma was ecstatic. She had known the day would come, but she couldn’t believe her eyes. Christmas came and my brother got presents from two girls he didn’t even know. He was becoming popular. Now freed from the duty of introducing nice girls to my brother, which I never did actually, I focused on my future. I had to manage to go to college all by myself. I had to put my chickens into one of Pa’s chrysanthemum greenhouses so that they wouldn’t freeze to death. I had to go out with my date. I had to study, especially biology.
It was one afternoon before Valentine’s Day when a book parcel arrived at our place. Pa had ordered the 1959 Directory of Japanese-Americans from the Daily Japanese-American Times in Los Angeles. It was as thick as Pa’s hardcover Bible. He paid the publisher to have his nursery’s name in bold letters. I had just come home from school and, munching on toast, I watched him thumb through the directory. After checking Suzuki Nursery in bold both in English and Japanese and browsing other names like Auntie Satoko and other Japanese friends, he went back to the greenhouses. I reached for the Persian blue book to see what it was like and got bored right away because there were so many Chinese characters I couldn’t read. I discovered there were many Suzukis all over America, even in a city called Boring, Oregon, where only three Japanese families lived.
My eyes stopped at the advertisement section in the middle of the book. They were full of photographs: banks, many Mount Fujis, Tokyo Tower, airlines, rich farms in California, exotic places in Japan, girls in kimonos, etc. There was a full-page photograph of President Eisenhower, too, with the title Supporter of the World Peace in Japanese. Then there was this photograph of diligent-looking young Japanese men and women, all dressed in white lab coats, with smiles on their faces. A man in the center was joyfully examining something blurry in his hand under a lamp. He seemed to be examining something very curious. Two women were smiling and watching him courteously on his sides. The caption screamed on the top, A Secure Future in a High Paying Job! Earn $50 to $150 a Day! That’s a lot of money, I was surprised, but I couldn’t tell what sort of job the three people in the photograph were performing. Smaller letters under the caption itemized the job’s merits: “Job guaranteed upon graduation. Technicians are urgently needed. Servicing hatcheries in 42 states. Oldest & largest school. Write today for free catalog.” Under the photograph the advertisement read, American Chick Sexing School, Long Beach, California.
I studied the black and white photograph closer. It was hard to distinguish against the man’s white lab coat, but he was surely holding a chicken upside down, checking the underside of the chicken’s tiny wings. I could barely see its pointy beak and dotty eye in the blurred photograph. Under the lamp was a large wooden box divided into partitions, whose insides the photograph didn’t show much, but now I could recognize a couple of little fluffy nodules peeking out of the box.
I nervously searched through the book for more chick-sexing schools. There were at least four other schools listed in the directory, including the one in Washington. One of them put a small ad which explained that evaluating a chicken’s sex was very critical to determine its market value, but sexing newborn chickens required a trained, professional eye. Only a certified “chick sexist” could tell hens from roosters from their appearance. This chick sexing technique had been originally developed and systematized in Japan, and the trained Japanese’s observant eyes and delicate hands were in great need in the chicken farming industry. The certified chick sexists were living proof of how Japanese immigrants could contribute to tomorrow’s American society, etc.
My head was throbbing. I regretted that I grew up in a suburban nursery, not on a rural farm where I would have learned all about certified chick sexists. The scattered pieces of my future vision came to fit neatly together in my future perfect life. I could make my living by handling yellow, fluffy chickens every day. I would save the money and would go to a veterinary college, or I could even go to college while sexing chickens every day. This was what I wanted in life! To become a vet, sexing chickens. I had to tell my parents. But I had to calm down first. I had to choose the best time and place to propose my wonderful plan. No mistake was allowed. The mission must be accomplished with discretion and precision.
That night, I dreamt of myself sexing chickens in a chicken farm in the clouds. It had all the highlights of my life, my life with chickens. In the dream, I could somehow tell chickens’ sex by gently holding each chicken in my palm. My palms sensed their sex intuitively through the sensation of the fluff’s fidgeting in my hands. I grabbed the chickens one by one, exclaiming Chicken-one, Chicken-two, Chicken-three, and I could see at least a thousand chickens lining up to the edge of the cloud patiently waiting to have their sexes determined by me. This mere sight put me into total euphoria. Even the clouds, tinted sunny yellow with patches of creamy ivory, felt furry. I was putting chickens into a pink willow basket or a blue one, exclaiming, “Chicken-one! Girl! Tosca! Chicken-two! Boy! Tristan! Chicken-three! Girl! Isolde! Chicken-four! Boy! Romeo! Chicken-five! Boy again! Papageno!” and so on. The old Chinese man was smiling, squatting and smoking his long pipe by the two baskets. Behind him were ostriches curiously peeping into the baskets with their necks curved, wowing at my dexterity.
When I reached Chicken-ninety, I felt a new, yet familiar kind of sensation in my hands. I couldn’t tell its sex. Gradually opening my palms to uncage the chicken, I saw its beady eyes on the yellow ball of down. It had a somewhat longish face for a chicken and strands of longer, whiter feathers above its ebony eyes. Our eyes met. “Hello,” I said to the chicken, and the chicken replied, “We finally meet.” Right then, I opened my eyes.
I walked into the living room in my pajamas, still in a dream state. What a happy dream. I hadn’t had such a nice dream for more than a year. My footsteps were light. Maybe today is a good day to bring up my plan to Ma and Pa, I thought. The dream must be a good sign.
Passing through the living room to go to the kitchen for breakfast (and notice how kitchen sounds similar to chicken! I said to myself), I glanced at George, saying good morning, which I don’t do very often nowadays. He was standing in front of the fireplace, yawning and stretching. He nodded at me and relaxed himself, resting his right hand on his hip and looking outside through the lacy curtain. The pose looked familiar to me. I looked at him carefully again.
Oh my god, I said to myself, Oh my god. I stood gaping, quivering and trying to scream, but I was choked, and all I could do was let pitiable sirens of strange vowels out of my trembling throat.
George had accidentally posed the same way Grandpa Taketora does in his portrait hung above George’s tousled head: the right hand on his hip, his face slightly averted. The two identical figures made me realize that they also had identical faces. Lean noses, thick eyebrows, long faces—if you’d take off Grandpa’s glasses, pluck off several sprouts of hair from George’s chin, smooth out his dark pimples all over his face and neatly comb his thick black hair, they would look like the same man in the future and the past. Furthermore, I realized that the last chicken, the ninetieth chicken in my dream, had the same face as well in a chicken sort of way. Now I knew why George had suddenly got dates after Grandpa’s death. Looking back, I thought George’s face had started to change slightly about three months ago—about the time Grandpa had died. Before that, George hadn’t looked like Grandpa Taketora at all.
“Oh no,” I said to myself, this time aloud, “Oh no. Grandpa’s summoning us from the netherland. We are dead!”
“What are you talking about?” George cried.
Our parents came into the living room from the kitchen. “Enough, kids,” Pa said. “My Eleanor!” Ma ran up to me. “What’s wrong? You’re so pale!”
I told them George looked like Grandpa. They looked at the portrait, George, and back at the portrait again. They seemed amazed at this discovery but didn’t get what I meant. They took it as something wonderful: George was becoming a mature man. I had to add, still choking, “And I saw Grandpa Taketora in my dream this morning.”
They fell silent. “You know what,” Ma opened her mouth after a long silence, “It’s been ninety days since Grandpa died.” This fact chilled me even more, but she was smiling at me, sorrowfully, but smiling. I couldn’t tell them about the details of my chick-sexing dream. How could I? So I suppose they imagined Grandpa Taketora in his shroud, standing on the cloud, beckoning the two of us to heaven.
“He’s calling you two,” Ma continued. “You’ve never met Grandpa, and he couldn’t see you two, either. He must have longed to see your faces, don’t you think?”
Grandpa Taketora always counted the days left before I turned sixteen. Every letter was a countdown. He could wait only until he could see his great-grandchild. But he hadn’t met me, either. He had to see me and George first before he saw his hypothetical great-grandchild. We were his first grandchildren.
Pa put his hands on our shoulders and said, “Do you want to visit Japan? Do you want to say hello to your grandfather in Omura?”
So we went to Japan, me and George. My parents could afford tickets only for the two of us. Everything went like a dream. The earth was curved in a smaller scale in Japan. Mountains, rivers, fields, houses—everything was steep and tiny. We were in a miniature country. My mother’s cousins and siblings were gentle, but neither of us understood their dialect. We were clumsy, not knowing how to sit on the floor, to take off our shoes, or to use the toilet. Our Japanese was awkward. They watched us behaving like aliens with curious and persistent smiles. Grandpa’s house smelled salty and smoky. We saw his leather chair above which his portrait had been hung before it came to our house. We didn’t say anything about the portrait. I found many things surprisingly familiar and dear, but also many other things remote. Probably everyone finds any foreign land this way: familiar and odd.
The day we visited Grandpa’s grave on the hill which commands Omura Bay, cherry trees were blossoming. Many folds of hills surrounding the bay had started to blush in pale pink. The bay, where Grandpa swam across as a twelve-year-old, formed a circle almost. It was much smaller than the titanic bay I had pictured when I had heard the epic. We heard the engines of fishing boats coming home. I couldn’t see the boats because of the diffused reflections on the water. I could only hear the sound.