(Please note that I am trying a new format for my blog. Those of you who read it as an email will see a Read More link after the first paragraph. When you click it, you will be directed to the blog website, so that I will know how many people are reading my blog. All these months I haven’t known because you haven’t been counted. Some days it has looked like I have 0 readers and that has made me a bit sad! So thank you for letting me try this new format. Please let me know if it doesn’t work or is inconvenient. Thank you! – xx, Meher)
Today, I had lunch with Dawn and three other dear friends. Often she will talk about an aspect of Japanese culture – the language or the food – in a way that seems familiar yet distant, reflecting her status as a third generation Japanese American. After we had eaten, our friend Toshi (see May 7), who was born and raised in Japan, was explaining different ways to drink steeped green tea and Dawn was asking her for advice about consuming some powdered matcha she had bought recently. Even though she is ethnically fully Japanese, it is not really her culture, and she was just as intrigued by what Toshi was explaining as the rest of us were. After I returned home, I decided to send her a book about Japanese food as a thank you gift for lunch. Written by a wonderful American commentator on Japanese culture, Donald Richie (!), the book explains various Japanese foods and drinks and their cultural contexts in a way that she might enjoy – as someone who is both Japanese and non-Japanese at the same time.
I met Dawn shortly after I started working at Pacific Asia Museum almost 18 years ago. Around that time, her husband tragically passed away. He was a doctor. I never met him, but Dawn soon struck me as very composed and gracious to others even during what must have been a time of tremendous grief for her. I remember her always bringing fruit from her garden and leaving them in the staff kitchen for us to enjoy – just weeks after he died. A very slender and petite Japanese American woman who has a daughter a few years younger than I am and grandkids around the same age as our son Theo, Dawn appears delicate at first, but she is one of the toughest and feistiest people I know, and the twinkle in her eye seems to be gaining brightness as the years go by.
Before I met her, Dawn had worked in her husband’s practice for years while raising two children. She had also been a docent and trustee at the museum and was particularly interested in Japanese art, although she grew up barely speaking the language of her ancestors. She and her husband collected Asian art and she was particularly interested in old, hand-colored photographs taken by photographers in Japan in the late 19th century. For a while I didn’t realize that she is actually a talented photographer herself, a skill that was revealed to me when I saw her exquisite photographs of fungi on display in a gallery in Downtown Los Angeles. Her choice of subject matter surprised me as much as her skill in capturing the many textures and colors of these under appreciated plant forms. Just as I was beginning to get to know her, I was shocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Again, like when I first met her, she rarely showed her suffering and was always warm and friendly even as she was undergoing treatment. Thankfully, she recovered well from the cancer and picked up her life again. Soon she was pursuing her photography, traveling, enjoying golf, and regularly visiting her own mother who lived over 100 miles away. But just a couple of years ago, faced a third family tragedy in the time that I have known her. Her daughter, who was working as a successful news anchor in San Francisco, suffered a stroke and has lost her ability to speak and use her right side. She now has to stay at home, undergo physical and speech therapy and try her best to be a mother to her two young children. Dawn visits her regularly and helps as best she can. Again, her attitude is loving but very practical and accepting.
When I lived in Japan over 20 years ago, an expression I heard regularly was “Shikata ga nai,” which means, “There is nothing one can do.” This is often taken as an admission of defeat, or a sign of weakness, and at first, that’s how I understood it too. However, over the years, I have come to understand it as an acceptance of one’s fate, and in fact a refusal to be defeated by it. To me, Dawn, a woman who has never lived in Japan but has Japanese blood running through her extremely resilient veins is a personification of this admirable aspect of the Japanese spirit.