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Thanksgiving: food, family, but hold the ‘chong chew’ turkey

An American recounts a trip home to the U.S. colored by his new life in Tokyo

by Matthew Chozick

We are flying what seems like dangerously low over Boston Harbor. From my window seat, I see waves crash into rocks, spraying foam, and colorful boats with flapping sails. After touching down safely in the city, the pilot wishes us all a happy Thanksgiving.

Unlike Narita, Logan Airport does not have Christmas decorations up yet. Instead, in a small display case, there are children’s hand-traced Thanksgiving turkeys, decorated with glitter and macaroni. How, I wonder to myself, would the drawings look if done by Japanese kindergartners? Might the birds have big eyes and spiky hair?

My younger sister Jackie, a schoolteacher in the area, waits for me in her car. I toss my backpack in and we hug stretched over the armrest. I notice her T-shirt doesn’t have any ungrammatical English and her curls are a little blonder than last year.

“You up for a pizza-party party?” she asks.

“Yes yes,” I tell her.

We drive off and the sun is setting. The Prudential and Hancock towers poke out over Boston’s skyline. The Prudential reminds me of Yukari, a woman in her 60s who used to take me as a student to one of its clubs for jazz and to teach me Japanese.

I look over towards my sister. She pushes her dirty blonde curls out of her eyes and jokes, “So your friends are coming from Tokyo for the holiday? Ha-ha, let’s remind Grandpa not to do his Japanese impression!”

I recall my grandfather’s brief tongue-in-cheek “chong chew chang” gag from last year. “My friends,” I tell my sister, “would either find that funny or, far more likely, just not get it at all.”

We arrive at the pizza party and park. There are about seven pizzas for as many people and there’s an old Belle and Sebastian record playing. Maybe because I flew in an hour earlier from Tokyo, this average Boston apartment feels bizarrely luxurious: multiple fireplaces, a room with no obvious purpose, expansive hardwood floors, wallpaper with blue lighthouses, large American books.

People chat and there’s a bit of dancing, and in more people come, and then suddenly someone’s little girl sings and we all clap for the child. Living in Japan, I’m oblivious to new U.S. pop cultural references: What’s “Jersey Shore”?

Somehow I get to my parents’ home in Connecticut and sleep snuggling with Lucy, their cat. I wake with Lucy swatting at my toes. Sunlight’s glaring in from my old double-pane windows and I look from my childhood bedroom outside at the yard. There are no clothes drying on Japanese balconies, but instead deciduous trees, so many trees. Their barren branches reach into the sky as they do every year when I fly home for our family’s annual Thanksgiving reunion.

I check the time. It’s almost noon. I pick up the phone and dial my grandfather’s number.

“Hello?”

“Good morning Grandpa! I hope I’m not calling too early and waking you or the missus,” I say jokingly.

“No, no Mr. Matthew,” my grandfather ironically replies, “we were back by three or four last night. Anyway, what could I do for you?”

“Well, what does your schedule look like tomorrow afternoon?”

“We might be jet-setting or we may be home doing laundry. If it’s the latter, do you want to come over and eat?”

“Yes, but would it be OK to bring a couple of visiting Japanese friends? They arrive tonight.”

“Sure thing, I’ll drive to the shore and see if I can’t find some seaweed to make sushi with.”

“Perfect! See you tomorrow then. Can’t wait.”

I hang up the phone and think to myself that when I’m my grandfather’s age, it’d be nice if I were a quarter as entertaining.

All of a sudden my father knocks on my bedroom door. We hug. He wears a fleece vest and his stubble is grayer than it was months ago when he visited Tokyo. We make breakfast omelets, pouring free-range egg whites from a carton into a frying pan. He asks when I will move back to America and if I’ll get married anytime soon. “Those two subjects,” I say, “are taboo this morning!”

We eat around the kitchen table, briefly discussing politics and then the accuracy of my grandfather’s Japanese impression. My father knows a great deal about Japan after visiting. He shows me photographs: the two of us in front of Kinkakuji, us garbed in yukata sipping beer in Nikko, us filing my taxes in Suginami Ward, us at a publishing event in Shibuya. It pleases me to know that living abroad has given my father a reason to get familiar with a foreign culture, but I wish more family members would visit.

I borrow the Toyota and leave to pick up my Japanese friends in Boston. I drive through Hartford, passing the Mark Twain Museum and its “Tale of Genji”-inspired restaurant, the Murasaki Cafe. I cruise down Interstate 84 and up the Massachusetts Turnpike.

I was never any good at driving, and it’s been a while, so I go slowly. Cars pass on the left. I listen to The Smiths and then National Public Radio, but my thoughts fixate on my grandfather’s “chong chew chang” gag from last year.

It doesn’t make sense to me why he and so many others find bad Asian impressions funny, but I’m not a very sensible person.

In the case of my grandfather, he served in World War II alongside a cohort of men inculcated with propaganda comics and posters. Although my grandfather underwent training for deployment to Japan, the nation surrendered before he could relocate. He then continued to guard Paris, where he had spent most of his military career after liberating it from Nazi Germany.

When my grandfather returned to America, the G.I. Bill paid for his university courses, which he continued until finishing his Ph.D. in education. For decades after, he worked to eradicate illiteracy among minority groups in the Connecticut school system.

My grandfather is not racist and only ever makes fun of himself, so I wonder why it didn’t occur to him last Thanksgiving that it might be offensive to do tongue-in-cheek “fweez ya arr foo” sounds? I also wonder why so many others get pleasure out of this trite trope.

Mickey Rooney, who was born in the same decade as my grandfather, had no misgivings about exploiting Asian character stereotypes for cheap laughs as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). Even for my generation, films such as “Sixteen Candles” (1984) and “Goonies” (1985) perpetuated Rooney-esque gags. More recently, the movies “Norbit” (2007) and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (2007) rely too on vapid Asian stereotypes. Outside of film, Rush Limbaugh’s radio “chop suey” act this year and Rosie O’Donnell’s television “ching chong” impression serve as egregious reminders that Rooney’s “yellow minstrel” humor is not relegated to the past.

Lost in thought, I remember that I’m driving. I pay a toll, get off the Massachusetts Turnpike, meet a friend for dinner, and find my two Japanese guests. We sleep at a friend’s house in Cambridge, go out for breakfast in Harvard Square, visit the Institute of Contemporary Art, and then drive to Connecticut for brunch at my grandparent’s home.

My grandparents ask us to take off our shoes at the front door, which impresses my obliging guests. My friend Midori whispers that my grandfather looks exactly like Yoda, but somehow more adorable. My grandfather hugs her and then my other friend and we all are guided to the kitchen.

My waiting grandmother gives me about five kisses and then tells us to be careful when we leave, because a bear had come up to the house last week. Supposedly, the bear made her shvitz. Hearing her Yiddish makes me inexplicably happy.

My grandfather’s in a wonderfully playful mood, as always, and asks if we take our water wet or dry.

On the table are china dishes holding cucumber salad, soy patties and potato bread grilled-cheese sandwiches.

We eat slowly together, and I translate for everyone. My grandparents hear Japanese, real Japanese. They know I’ve been writing professionally in the language for a few years now, but this seems to be the first time they’ve ever heard it spoken. My grandfather never imitates us, but instead asks excellent questions about the country, indicating both interest in it and his knowledge about it.

We overeat and sit down on a couch to digest. My grandfather suddenly begins to nod off and so do my jet-lagged friends. They fall asleep together and everyone looks peaceful.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My family all assembles in my aunt’s home. We eat tons of stuffing and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and other seasonal fare, and again snooze together.

Curiously enough, on my aunt’s refrigerator is another drawing of a hand-traced Thanksgiving turkey. I wonder once more how it might look if illustrated by a Japanese child. Would its traced fingers be in the shape of the peace symbol that so many of us Tokyoites make in photographs?

Matthew Chozick is a Tokyo-based writer and translator. In January, Awai Books will publish “Tokyo Verb Studio,” a contemporary Japanese art and literary anthology edited by Chozick with Keisuke Tsubono and Midori Ohmuro and including some new writings by Chozick. You can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/#!/mashu_desu. Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp