Using Storytelling to Pass Down Heritage and Cultural Wisdom
“Once while we were traveling in Japan and heard a white man speak fluently, my grandmother told me it was shameful that I couldn’t speak Japanese. I am fifth or sixth generation Japanese American from Hawaii, depending on what side you look at. My blood says I’m 100 percent Japanese but there’s nothing culturally Japanese about me.”
You can tell a lot about the dominant culture by the stories that are told and those left untold.
Inside my inbox was evidence of that. A newsletter featured a story of a woman memorializing her mother through an annual Christmas cookie tradition. My grandmother’s version of that cookie was manjū, sweet Japanese baked goodness filled with red beans.
She slaved over the stove in the kitchen, a dragon’s lair of heat. It took her hours to finish it and she usually did it alone. My mom, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I were eager to eat, but not to help. Instead, our contribution was patience. It was a tedious task that made all of us hungry and uncomfortably hot. We would watch as she paced back and forth from stove to oven to dining room table with silver hair glued to her forehead, mixing the pot of beans and cutting carrots for stamping the tops of those golden-brown cakes.
My grandmother eventually got Alzheimer’s disease and when she passed away all of her homemaking secrets died with her.
There is no recipe I know of. Nor did anyone document how she did it. I observed her for purely selfish reasons because I realized there would only be a handful of more moments like these. Since no one would take it on, my aunts, cousins, and I knew this would be the last manjū baked like a soft cookie, stamped with red ink, and made only the way my grandma could.
My dad’s family has their own Japanese traditions. He hiked, filling bags with guava or stomping on bamboo roots to pull out the meaty insides. They were gifts for his mother to cure into takenoko—a sliver of cooked bamboo that complements her famous stir-fries and other Japanese dishes—and to make sweet guava jelly. No one learned how to do it, of course. My dad always said to eat up because who knew when we would have our final home-cooked dish? The ingredients are still well and alive inside in my grandmother, who now has dementia.
Once while we were traveling in Japan and heard a white man speak fluently, my grandmother told me it was shameful that I couldn’t speak Japanese. I am fifth or sixth generation Japanese American from Hawaii, depending on what side you look at. My blood says I’m 100 percent Japanese but, there’s nothing culturally Japanese about me.
I result from generations of bleeding out difference. Some of that came because my mother’s parents were alive during the Japanese internment camps. Their wedding anniversary is December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My dad’s mother remembers those terrifying gas mask drills at her elementary school. Embracing the dominant culture was a survival mechanism.
A few days ago, my husband was installing a light in our linen closet, so he needed to take down a basket of bedding. As I refolded the sheets, I saw something I hadn’t seen in years—an old Hawaiian quilt torn at the ends. The lining was worn and thinned. As I opened it, the material gave away. Underneath the neon orange and Hawaiian hula dancer squares of fabric was something I had never seen before. Tucked inside were two prints.
“Looks like she used the Bon Odori towel for lining?” my aunty texted after I sent my family a photo.
The free towels were given at the summer Bon dances, a Japanese Buddhist festival celebrating our ancestors. No one knew she had been sewing her quilts this way, padded with towels from the festival. It was like uncovering a piece of history, a secret being revealed.
I’m raising my two boys in the place I grew up. Many things have been lost—old recipes, language, and Buddhist customs. We’ve exchanged them for new traditions like hanging pickle ornaments and Elf on the Shelf. In many ways, I’m like my grandmothers at heart, but I’ve traded baking manjū and making guava jelly with making homemade granola and baking birthday cakes.
Although I never jotted down a tablespoon worth of ingredients, it was that selfish watching that made a difference. Our family didn’t pass down our Japanese culture through recipes. That has been lost. But as a writer, these memories are preserved and alive through my stories to survive long after I’m gone.
- by Brandi-Ann Uyemura