Where is Home
My grandmother was born in a year of famine, a hunger she never knew.
A hunger she hungered for in missionary dreams. Starving in a heartland whose pulse, it seemed, had stopped; beat on in the hearts of those who could not return to it. A pulse in the burnt and sweated temples of bent-over coolies. A rhythm in the steps of my great-grandmother, deliberate and defiant dances at the Wahiawa Korean church. Her howls pierced the silence of the temple where the Japanese prayed, her neighbors in this country, her overlords in the other.
Where was home for her, my grandmother, who ate rice and sucked the juice from cane stalks that grew wild around her house? The girl whose parents first made home in Bloodtown, by the river where the souls of coolies killed by cholera sucked strangers into the thickening mud. Those same yobos (Koreans) had made good, cashed in on the growing military presence with a tailorshop out by Schofield barracks, held the franchise to sew uniforms for the same men who lurked in the fields around their house and whistled at their daughters.
Where was home for the woman who ran that shop into the ground? They said she was stupid loaning money out to the poor Hawaiian workers. They cashed in on her kindness, the dumb girl who went to Bible college and not business school. Brought home a husband just as worthless as she, a dark-skinned pake (Chinese) whose Korean mother didn’t count, except in his drinking habits.
Where was home in that house of suffering? Exiled from her parents and stuck with a man who was really just a boy in uniform. She followed him through the Ozarks and Appalachia, a growing line of children trailing, some she stuffed in drawers to fit their family of seven in the off-base last-pick houses the military sent them to, the family of the Chinaman they would have called John.
Where was home for her, my mother’s mother, who learned to make kimchi from sauerkraut? I wonder if she asked herself that question, standing segregated in the middle of the bus, wondering where the line was in her body that split her slanted eyes and melanin from her permed hair and perfect manners.
Where was home for my mother, born in the Territory, brought to the mainland as her family snaked across the Pacific, and carried through the coils back to Oahu? That was the only home she knew, but still remembered sitting in the laps of haoles (whites) who taught the little brown oriental child that sunflowers were called black-eyed susans and brazil nuts were called nigger lips.
Where was home for the girl whose father talked like one haole, whose only Korean words were the curses muttered by her grandparents at the dark-skinned girl who chased her brothers through the house? Where was home after the tailorshop was gone? She came home every day to a house transformed, the manic workings of her mother who smelled of turpentine the way her father smelled of liquor.
Where was home when the curtains were taken down to make the girls’ dresses? Summertime her arms were burned by the acid of pineapple juice, fruits she cored and cut for haoles who did not like to see their eyes. Her brothers worked in the fields. A boy she knew, Korean, got electrocuted by a truck when he bent down to wrestle a crown from the earth. At the funeral his sister chased after his coffin, jumped into the grave, wanting to make her home there. All around her everything was changing. The Jiso statues that her grandmother had barely tolerated were defaced by the men that her grandfather had once uniformed. They stole the offerings with the same hands that reached through the seats at the five-cent movies and grabbed at girls barely budding.
Where was home after her sister bloomed into a flower no one had ever seen before, and the same men picked that too? Home for her was a place of screams, where her parents saw the ghosts of their mothers and her brothers remembered the people they’d been sent to kill in the war. Those people looked like us, she thought, and remembered the time she’d found herself standing in front of a tori gate, in the fields behind her house, chasing her brothers out by the barracks. It was a village the military had created to teach the uniformed men how to destroy a home.
I come from a long line of exiles. My mother, whose conscience told her to speak for the brothers screaming in their beds and the ghosts in the villages across the sea, the little girls whose backyards became enemy territory. Her radicalism embarrassed the family. They tried to silence her voice, called her a communist—those yobos who’d been forced to watch from an island while their heartland was torn apart.
My grandmother, who made her parents poorer and her children darker and knew nothing but to love life in all its forms, who’d spend her last cent buying hotdogs for poor Hawaiians while her family picnicked on leftovers. Her siblings stared at her heart with daggers and wrote her out of the will. And I wonder if my love can fit the shape of home, or if, like my mothers’, it will mark me as a stranger.
My love is a secret I keep from my grandmother, who has receded too far from this world to hear it. When I visit her I kiss her forehead hard to remember the feel of her skin. She begs me to forgive her for not having food to offer, apologizes for her mokteongu water.
I watch her draw pineapples and hum to herself. They are songs I do not recognize. One day her nurse told me that she likes to sing. She stands up and sings in her loudest voice, songs in Korean that few today would remember. Songs from when she was a young girl, who fell in love with a married singer. These are stories she does not tell me, only divulges to her nurses. I will never work up the courage to ask her about her lost flame—could not bear to interrupt her dreaming—but admire her glow from the embers of memory. She will never ask me about my love, only knows I have a song to sing.
yobo=Hawaiian term for Korean
pake=Hawaiian term for Chinese
haole=Hawaiian term for white
Julia Katz is the proud descendant of coolies and picture brides. She is working towards her PhD in History at Rutgers University, where she researches Asian belonging in the Hawaiian Islands and accommodation to American empire. Her creative writing explores family, history, and the permeability of all things.