Simmering Sun; Glorious Naps

I was walking back to the white truck after dropping off a roll of irrigation t-tape at the Land Connection barn at around 5:15 Thursday morning when I caught Kazami staring into space behind the wheel. This is a regular occurrence with my always-in-his-own-little-world little brother, but I noticed with concern that his eyes did not blink even after I plopped myself down next to him in the cab of the truck.

I knew the reason – we were both exhausted and our minds were not quite awake yet. The night before, we had watched the simmering sunset out of the corner of our eyes as we moved drip tape, taking care to tuck the tape close behind the beautiful broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower heads as we moved steadily down the rows. When we had first arrived in the truck, the darkening purplish-blue sky had turned the wisps of almost translucent clouds a lighter shade of blue. It was as if someone had taken bits of blue cotton candy and spread them randomly, the pieces almost touching each other, all over the darkening sky. An hour later, when we finally finished moving all of the black tapes one row over to the left, the bright slice of orange moon was playing peekaboo with us behind the clouds and the stars were glowing against the black sky.

Now, the next morning, as we drove down the road from the Land Connection barn to the field, Kazami (hopefully) wide awake, we listened to the radio announcer say that the heat index for today was going to be 106 degrees. I sighed internally, worrying that since I woke up too late and missed breakfast, my energy would plummet as the sun rose.

Luckily, I had packed a water bottle and some chocolate chips to snack on, and I ate hungrily in between catching the large, glossy lettuce heads that Daddy and Kazami were picking, cleaning and tossing at me. I pressed a button on the number clicker to keep track of how many we had picked and placed the lettuce neatly into one of the six boxes that were set up on the flat wheelbarrow. “325…326…327…” The pink sun was blazing into view at the corner of the sky, surrounding itself with a bright hue of red.

“Hai (here),” Daddy called out, tossing me a Green Boston. I looked up and was readying myself for the one-handed catch when Kazami also said, “Hai!” and without waiting for a response, tossed his lettuce at me as well. I caught Daddy’s successfully, while Kazami’s hit me hard in the stomach. “Kaami, really,” I glared, thinking that he was definitely out of it. I noticed then that Kazami was wearing one of my work shirts, which was obviously too tight on him. The long-sleeve button-up had a deep neckline for him and the collar had popped up, making him look like he had deliberately styled a preppy look – a wannabe farm model. The thought made me laugh and the fatigue overload made it difficult to stop giggling like a maniac, causing Daddy and Kazami to peer at me with curiosity.

Though we usually picked the lettuces early on Friday morning, Daddy had decided to do it Thursday morning because he feared that the heat would cause the lettuces to wilt beyond recovery by the time Friday rolled around. As we gathered more than 600 heads, moving the wheelbarrow from time to time and carrying the boxes on either side of the beds to the shade of the big and little trucks, I looked out across the field to where garlic stalks were waving.

Less than half of the beds of garlic remain standing, since on Monday morning, with the help of twenty or so students from a class at Illinois State University, and two friends from Chicago, Mary and Bea, we had pulled all of the soft-necks and some beds of the hard neck garlic from the field in record-breaking time. It was strange to see so many people in Daddy’s field at once, but we were all grateful for the help. It took all of Monday afternoon and until 8 at night to sort the soft-neck garlic into four categories, tie them and hang them up in the barn, as well as sort and cut the hard-neck garlic. Viki and Hannah, two good friends of mine from Northwestern who were visiting me for the weekend, helped gather 50-head bunches of small and 20-head bunches of extra-large garlic, lining up the tops for Daddy to wrap with twine. They went home covered with garlic incense and full of memories of watching the fireflies dance in the dark treetops of the Bottomfield on a midnight walk, playing hide-and-go-seek with a red moon, and weaving wildflower crowns and frolicking as the sun set.

The exhaustion that all of us were feeling by Thursday–even Daddy had forgotten to put on his belt before leaving the house before dawn – made sense, for Wednesday was also a strenuous day of scuffle-hoeing all of the remaining rows of summer squash, melons and cucumbers, as well as catch-up hand-weeding the sweet potatoes and okra. The sun seemed to rise ever so slowly that day, as my lower back muscles began to shoot up in pain from bending over to rip out the weeds with powerful strokes of my scuffle hoe.

As I remembered this, Kazami and I harvested the last of the lettuce out of the old lettuce patch, now overgrown in weeds, and I could feel the temperature of the dirt below my feet start to rise. Sweat began to form on my forehead and I drank all of the water left in my bottle.

Later, when I sat down in the beet patch to pull out only the largest beets, the ground burned through the seat of my pants. Thankfully, though, the intense rays of sunlight were defrayed by the almost constant wind, which made the heat manageable.

After the last golden beet bunch was made, it was already time for our three-hour lunch break. We all sat down in the large cab of the gigantic red truck and Kazami drove us back to the barn. Koko greeted us, wagging her tail with more energy than usual – probably because Aunt Beth and I had recently shaved her belly, a summer cut that was effective in cooling her down and giving her more energy.

Koko promptly rolled over to show me her bare belly when I neared her, so I gave her a belly rub, a hug and a kiss, then bid her goodbye to make my way up to the house. I knew it was time for all of us to rid ourselves of the ever-increasing fatigue – a direct result of the Garlic Harvest, scuffle-hoeing, the heat wave, and nightly water-moving – by taking glorious naps.

When We are One

This week I want to capture and share with you some of the memorable moments of the Brockman Barn Dance that took place on the occasion of the 100th birthday of our family’s barn, built by my great-great-grandfather in 1912. But before getting into that, here’s a brief update about the happenings on Henry’s Farm this week: We’ve had a series of sweltering 90 degree days, when time ticks by more slowly than ever. Wednesday night we planted beds and beds of lettuce, basil, summer spinaches, etc., and are hoping for more rain soon. And we are gearing up for our annual Garlic Harvest that will occur next week!

Our farmhand Val’s goal for the Brockman Barn Dance, held last Saturday at my Aunt Jill and Uncle Will’s farm in Danforth, Illinois (the Brockman Centennial Farm where my grandfather and great-grandfather were born), was to see “Dancing Brockmans,” and to get every single Brockman to dance. I did not see how this could be possible, since I had never seen my brothers, let alone Mommy, ever dance in public before.

Yet I felt my hope steadily rise as, after hundreds of Brockman family and friends alike ate, mingled, listened to Grandpa’s rousing speech on the Barn origins, toured the barn and listened to snippets of bluegrass bands, we all made our way up the steep ladder-stairs and into the hay loft. Then, as I started to feel the music of the band, Ten Feet Tall, enticing my bones to dance, out of the corner of my eye I saw Grandma begin to move. Soon she was on fire–basking in the orange sunlight streaming in from the windows and smiling, eyes closed, as she waved her arms and stepped to the quick music. Aunt Terra, Daddy, and I all looked at each other in wonder, then fixed our gaze on this joyful 77-year-old woman in all her dancing glory once more. When the song ended, Grandma laughed and said, “It’s just so fun to dance!”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you do that,” Aunt Terra told Grandma, with awe in her voice. I looked at Grandma, now shimmying to the next tune, and grinning, filled my heart with music. It was time to dance.

The next song was a slow, sweet ballad so the dance floor began to clear. Some couples braved the attention of the crowd of onlookers sitting on hay bales that had been set up all around the large loft and began to sway lovingly. My feet pulled my body to be centered in front of the band and I started to do turns, feeling the music ripple up through my toes and up through my legs and arms, and up to the top of my head. I moved slowly, letting my body follow my heart. This was a private dance, a raw form of self-expression that I usually performed to an imaginary audience at home. Yet I knew that this time, eyes were fixed on my movements – and my whole family was watching. There was a moment of embarrassment and losing my focus, my dance turned choppy. But I could not stop, and as I kept improvising, I finally lost myself in the music, wrenching out my emotions. Later, I watched my Aunt Beth move in the same way, eyes closed, movements graceful. I had never seen her dance before, yet our movements were so much alike – connected by the Brockman bond.

When the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band came on and the singer began to croon, “I’m going to Jackson…” Daddy finally joined me on the floor. I watched as he crouched low and started to pound the hundred-year-old boards of the Brockman Barn loft with such powerful stomps that I became fearful that he would break through, crashing down to land in one of the goat pens. Aunt Terra and I joined him, stamping our feet to the beat of the music, laughing. Soon the dance floor was filled with moving bodies, all energetically banging their feet in unison. Aunt Odette danced with my baby cousin Chenoa, Aunt Jill and Aunt Teresa danced together, and my cousins joined us, as well.

The Golden Horse Ranch Band’s main vocalist and square dance caller–a dark-haired young woman in a polka-dotted blue dress named Annie Coleman – began to teach us some square dances. She arranged us first into couples and told us to make two circles, one within the other. Couples in each circle faced each other. Next, Coleman showed us how to do a series of high-fives – right, left, and both hands – then clap our thighs, swing elbows, and finally move on to the next partner. I found myself grinning from ear to ear as I clapped hands with people I had never met before, making my way around the circle. I was burning up from all of the dancing and the high temperature of the loft, but as sweat rolled down my face, I kept on dancing with my adorable partner, my little cousin Celeste who is half my size, learning how to promenade, make a right-hand-star, and jive to the sound of the fiddle.

By the time it was Peter Adriel’s turn to take the stage, I had to lay down to rest. The rain was starting to pour down outside, making a rush of noise on the barn roof. I felt the cool wood beneath my sweaty back and closed my eyes, drinking in the sound of Peter’s deep, soothing voice, coupled with the Bob Dylan-esque pitch of the harmonica, strong strumming of the guitar and the tapping of his feet on the wood. When the rain began to dump down halfway through his set, adding another dimension of musicality, I lost myself in the simple splendor of his words.

“That was beautiful,” Coleman commented, as the room of people, once so filled with laughter and noise, was silent, pensive. To get us back into dancing mode, her band played a polka tune, and we all stomped once more. Then she taught us a series of square dances, including one where the girls were twirled around the circle, one that partners sashayed through the entirety of the barn, the Virginia Reel, and one in which we grabbed hands of people, spelling out BINGO, and then hugged the O person.

I decided to force my younger brother Kazami, who had been reading a book on his Kindle most of the night, to get up and dance with me. Once on the floor, he was a dancing machine – and I was filled with joy, remembering dancing to Bob Marley together in the living room when we were little. I knew he could dance. My older brother Asa, though, was more difficult to force to dance. However, Val succeeded in pulling him to the dance floor and Henry’s apprentice Janaki and I also made an attempt to stop him from fingering his phone and enjoy the night with us.

At one point, we were in dire need of another partner set for a group to have enough people, so the caller kept begging for a duo to stand up from the hay bales. No one would volunteer, though, so Daddy grabbed Mommy’s hand and pulled her to the floor. I could see the words “But I’m too tired…” on Mommy’s lips. I looked at Val, excited. Mommy was going to dance! Later, after the dance was over, I looked over at her. She was smiling, clearly having fun. I was filled with a feeling of family, and of gratitude to the art of dance, which has the power to bring us all together.

As the night came to a close, Coleman kept repeating, “Can we join your family? You guys are awesome!” My cousin Halley’s boyfriend stomped so hard that one of the floor planks broke, but we covered it with wood and kept on dancing the night away. Every dance, there seemed to be fewer people sitting on the hay bales in the back, and by the time the last song came around, every single person was dancing, including Grandpa. We sang along as the band played “May the circle be unbroken…” and held hands, walking in one big and one small circle around the center of the barn loft. Aunt Beth broke off of her circle, grabbed my hand, and we formed a conga line, producing cheers from our dancing friends and family. We were one.

Making my way down the ladder from the loft, I went outside, drenching myself with the rain. It washed the sweat from my face and cooled me down, an instant, natural shower. Every Brockman had danced that night. It was an amazing feat that filled me with so much joy.

The next day, I learned that the rain that fell in Danforth also drenched our farm, reviving our seeds and wilted plants. It was the perfect Father’s Day present for Daddy.

Pain and Beauty

Dragging my heavy body into the house Monday evening after my first full day of farm work since coming home from college, it took all of my remaining strength to form the phrase “back massage please” and voice it in a barely audible whisper. Every part of my body seemed to be inflamed with pain – from my neck all the way down to the soles of my feet.

Thankfully, Mommy is an expert shiatsu masseuse, a talent desperately needed on a family farm. She placed the palms of her hands on either side of my spine and pressed her weight onto me, gradually flattening out my tight and aching muscles.

I closed my eyes, and as I focused on breathing deeply, in and out, I remembered the smell of mulch and rain mingling as I shoved hay up against Jerusalem artichoke plants in the dark morning. The sky was a blackish blue, the color of a bruise, threatening to pour down at any moment. But except for a few teasing drops, it never did. Yet I kept sending pleas up to the rainclouds as they passed, saying “please rain, please!” over and over in my head, knowing that no rain would mean irrigating would be necessary for the entire week to follow.

Daddy never stopped hoping for rain as well, so Val, Janaki, Sydney and I hurriedly dropped summer squash, okra, edamame and dry bean seeds into trenches, covering and tamping. We all pretended that we were racing against the rain, trying to plant as many seeds as possible before water rushed down from the sky, making planting impossible. But by two in the afternoon, the sight of the sky clearing and sunlight sheepishly peeking out from under the clouds made our hearts drop, and fatigue hit me like a wall.

The rest of the day was spent setting up drip tape lines, running to drag them out over bed after bed, fixing leaks, connecting the black drip tapes to the main hose, and sprinting to put the lines over the rows, back bent and hand close to the ground. This we did every three hours, in between jobs of weeding.

After a particularly difficult episode of drip tape running that had us all panting, out of breath and energy, Daddy had told the interns to go scuffle hoe the melons to eliminate the weeds that threatened to strangle them. My brothers looked at Daddy with an expression that clearly said, “Do we have to do that, too?” Daddy looked down, his expression sympathetic, knowing that Asa needed to study for his medical school examination, to be taken in August. Then he looked up and playfully said, “Who wants to eat watermelon?” I instantly brightened and raised my hand excitedly while my brothers, not easily tricked, looked on with suspicion. “Then go scuffle hoe!” Daddy answered with a smile. Asa, Kazami and I erupted into laughter, and continued to chuckle as we walked, long scuffle hoes in hand, to rip away weeds from melon plants.

Remembering this, I laughed, and Mommy asked me if my back felt better. I rolled over, and amazingly, her shiatsu magic had worked – the ache was rapidly disappearing. I ate a quick dinner, showered, and rested until it was time to get into the truck with Daddy to head back to the field.

The sun was setting as we ran down those beds once more before sleep. I took the last drip tape that needed to be moved in my hand and took off into a sprint, running and running, faster and faster, until I reached the end. I collapsed onto the ground and lay on my back, out of breath. When I opened my eyes, I saw that deep royal purple had been brushed across the sky. The beds and beds of vegetables were a dark silhouette against the bright, fiery sky. I drank it all in with my eyes and watched sparks of lightning bugs from my place in the grass. I smiled, realizing that this beautiful place, this gorgeous sunset – this was my home. And summer was just beginning.

Midnight Dance at Deering

Walking back in the dark, slowly placing one foot in front of the other,

I started to twirl – my mind with my feet,

Staring up at the silver moon, tears

Welling up in my heart, mouth itching to open wide and

Scream – so I knew I had to dance and

When I ran out into that open field of

Pesticide-laden too-green grass and started to

Lunge, tiptoe, skip, leap and kick –

I was dancing in Daddy’s clover field again,

Nose filled with the sweet scent of loamy earth and the

Stars were shooting sparks out of the Milky Way –

My own private fireworks…but

Opening my eyes from that beautiful dream to see that

This sky of stars was distant, not quite there –

A friend who texts while talking to you – and the grass

Stung the skin of my legs as I rolled, then

Bent backwards, almost touching, arms flailing

And as music built up in my ears, so, too

Was that displaced feeling of loneliness and

Sadness, of fear of the unknown –

Building as I grabbed pieces of air in my fist, kicking and

Stabbing and running, my breath

Heavy, panting

Heartbeat wild.

My freshman year of college was

Years long, but too short and I am

More confused of my place on Earth –

My mission, my passion, my dream –

Than ever before and as

I fell to the ground, taking one final

Bow, the glorious ending to a

Midnight dance underneath a polluted sky, in a

Field of chemical-covered grass far from home, I

Listened to the thumping beat of my soul in

My ears and as the sound died down, my

Mask of power, of unending happiness,

Love, joy, confidence – crumbled, and I was

Wailing – without tears, without sound.

Afterwards I slid my dirt-smudged toes into

My Italian sandals once more, looked

Up at the haze surrounding the moon and

Slowly walked on, putting one foot

In front of the other

Drained, full, and empty

All at once.

Ambiguous and Proud

As the only Japanese girl in my tiny, conservative Midwestern town, I grew up fighting for Japan. In discussions about World War II in history class, the attack on Pearl Harbor would inevitably come up, and the boys would tease me mercilessly that the war was my fault. “Your people didn’t play fair,” they would say, and a blush of anger and embarrassment would flare up on my cheeks as I would explain the unfairness of the atomic bombs. They would laugh and tell me to go back to Japan – I was too unpatriotic.

But even as they mistakenly called me Chinese and stretched their eyes with their fingers to mimic the shape of my eyes, I never felt embarrassed of being Japanese. My American father and Japanese mother had instilled in me a great sense of pride in being Japanese. My siblings and I grew up in a bilingual environment. Because my father became fluent in Japanese, the rule was that we could only speak Japanese in the house and watch only Japanese television. My mother urged us to complete nine years of Japanese Saturday School, and her cooking palette included not only Japanese, but Thai, Italian, and Indian cuisine. My father made it a point to counter popular thought – he became an organic and local farmer at a time when this type of agriculture was made fun of as being “hippie” and impractical, for example – and because my father was the world to me, I made it a point to flaunt my uniqueness to my classmates. To think of it now, normalcy was to be white. Thus, I never identified as “white”; in fact, I rejected it again and again.

Yet I never identified as “Asian American” either – I identified as foreign Japanese and melting-pot American. When my friends urged me to date the only Chinese American guy in school, saying that we were both Asian and thus compatible, beneath my polite laughs I felt a tickle of anger. Culturally and linguistically, it is true that China and Japan are similar, but it irked me that they could group us together as one and say that we were the same.
During high school, I discovered that my parents had very much shaped my identity – they had always urged us to be both American and Japanese. But I felt that I needed to escape their protection to find my identity on my own. Thus, during my senior year of high school, I flew to Tokyo alone to spend an academic year abroad. There, it soon became clear that my light skin tone and curly Italian hair automatically allowed Japanese people to pin me as a foreigner, even though I spoke fluent Japanese and knew the culture extremely well. My appearance alone falsified my Japanese identity. One day, my Korean-Japanese friend told me that one of her classmates complained about wearing the same uniform as I did on the train, because I “stood out” and embarrassed her. My suspicion of being rejected by other Japanese was finally confirmed.

I came back to the States knowing that in Japan, I was American, and in America, I was Japanese. I could never be fully accepted by either group, which saddened me. In my mind, the world was conspiring against me.

But after taking a course in Asian American Studies and Hapa (Mixed Race) Studies with the incredible Prof. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, I have come to think of my non-acceptance by any group as a valuable quality. Not automatically being placed in one specific racial group on campus gives me the freedom to skip around, learn about different cultures and people without shame or doubts of being too white or too Asian. I am not white or Asian, or black or Latina, or any race at all for that matter, because in my mind identifying as a specific race cements racism.

All of my life I have searched for a clear identity and a place where I could be fully accepted. But today, my identity is vaguer than ever before. I seem to have multiple cultural identities, and no racial identity. But strangely, this vagueness does not faze me. To you, I might be Asian, white, or even Latina, but frankly it does not matter. Call me what you want, but I am ambiguous and proud.

City to Country Girl

The first two things I saw when I arrived home, eyes red from exhaustion and coughing from a miserable cold, were Koko’s sweet, chocolate-colored eyes peering into my face as I leaned down to scratch her belly, and then as I looked up, the full array of glittering stars, splattered across the night sky. I realized then, as warmth flooded my chest, that a significant part of my heart had been waiting with increasing impatience and nostalgia to see this all throughout winter quarter at Northwestern.

Of course, at college my mind was always occupied with a million thoughts and experiences, and I loved every minute of it. Every meeting seemed fateful and every thought seemed life changing – sometimes I wished college life would go on forever. But the Evanston air never was quite as fresh as I wished it to be, and the food was always too bland. Some nights, even after a day filled with joy and laughter, I would lie awake and think of home – reliving moments from summer harvests when all of us, punchy from the sun, would laugh and laugh at the hilarity of each other, and at life.
At the same time, though, I was being gradually molded into a city girl – navigating the Chicago neighborhoods by bus and train with my deep red, long coat, pink silk scarf from Florence and knee-high boots. No one ever pegged me as a farm girl at first glance, to be sure.

Thus, the realizations that I had missed home terribly, and that I was still such a farm girl at heart made a significant impact. The air at home was fresher than I remembered, and the well water (“glacier water”, as we call it, that bubbles and fizzes for a few minutes, fresh from the faucet) I drank with relish, savoring the taste. I went to sleep that night feeling ambiguous. In my mind, I was still in the hallway between city and country.

But after spending an entire day lolling lazily around the house, napping, reading, trying in vain to solve a “super hard” Sudoku, basking in the bright sunlight on the deck, and guiltily watching too many episodes of Japanese and Korean melodramas, on Wednesday I pulled on my all-white farm uniform once more and joined Daddy, Mommy and Asa in digging a six-inch wide trench around two rectangular plots that will be where one of our soon to be relocated hoophouse will stand. We are moving three of our hoophouses from up near to the house to our new field located a short drive away from our house. Daddy wants to allow our other fields – the Bottomland and the upper fields – more time to rest and rejuvenate, so for the first time in Henry’s Farm history, he has decided to farm on this new plot of land.

I admit that I have yet to develop a liking for this land – the location makes it so that I will not be able to take a short walk down to the field to work during the summer, as I have always done. I will now have to either catch a ride with Daddy in the morning, or somehow get ahold of a bike. Although the soil looks fertile – the plot, which we are renting from The Land Connection, has been farmed by an organic farmer and was in clover last year – the field is right next to a county road, and cars always seem to be whizzing by at top speed. Unlike the Bottomland, which is our little haven of a field that is hidden away from the rest of civilization by a ring of grand, beautiful trees, this plot is out in the open and thus has no gentle presence of shading trees. Because of this, the whip-like wind is a constant presence. To make matters worse, Koko will und oubtedly be a lonely dog this summer, since she is not allowed to come to this field. We fear that the nearby road will be dangerous for our car-chaser puppy and that the neighbor’s dogs and horses will not react well to Koko. Still, Daddy is insistent on using this field this year, so we shall see if time will create lasting bonds between me and this plot of earth.

Shoveling dirt for a few hours gave me a few blisters and a back-ache, but as the warm wind blasted my face on the back of the truck while Asa drove our way back to the house, I could not help but smile. My summer life was coming back to me and with that, I was gradually beginning to remember the simple joys of farm work. I could not wait to see how that windy, barren plot would be transformed into a field with vegetables of every variety, color, taste, and texture by the middle of the summer.

That night, I realized my cough was gone. The fresh, warm spring air had seemingly blown away my cold.

The following day, Asa, Daddy, Val, our two new apprentices – Janaki and Sydney– and I spent a couple hours during the afternoon digging out burdock. The sun was surprisingly harsh for a spring afternoon and my throat soon became parched. For me, it already felt like summer – I sure was sweating like it was. We dug a trench about three to four feet in depth in between each of the three rows, so that the middle burdock row had both sides dug around it, but the two outside rows only had one. It takes three cuts with the spade to get down that deep, so we end up with a series of three steps that take us down into the earth. I dug out the steps with a long spade, throwing out dirt as I did to a huge mound beside the burdock bed, while Sydney shoveled out the remaining loose dirt with a crumb-scoop shovel. At the bottom of the pit, Val was digging around each long burdock root so that she could extract it carefully without snapping it.

After the farm helpers left for their hour-long break, my job switched to shoveling loose dirt and I found myself clenching my teeth in effort to stay motivated. Each succeeding load of dirt on my shovel weighed down heavily on my weak arm muscles and I found myself throwing the soil too close to the hole, so that it would just sprinkle down into the ditch once again. Thankfully, Asa noticed my drop in spirit and offered to switch jobs with me. Thus, until Daddy proclaimed it was time for our lunch break, I happily rubbed off the dirt that was hugging the harvested burdock and put them into a wooden box to take up to the wash area.

Following lunch and a nap, Asa and I went down to the Bottomland to join the farm helpers in harvesting scallions that had survived the warm winter. We dug, knifed off the long, tangled roots, cleaned and bunched until the sun began to fade into the horizon – all the while discussing Hawaii’s complicated history, laughing about Koko’s experience of barking at a rock for nearly a half hour earlier that day because it was too heavy for her to retrieve, and debating what bookstores were “the best” in Evanston.

While finishing up cleaning the last of the scallions for the day, Daddy explained that tomorrow –Friday – will be a harvest day starting at seven. He warned that depending on the weather, we might end up planting, which will mean a short rest period. Then on Saturday, Val will be driving up with some chives, leek, burdock and other produce to sell at the Market.

Later, while filling my mouth with the sugary taste of beets and chowing down on Mommy’s homemade pizza that seemed to melt in my mouth, I thought of how many people could say that they ate such delicious food on a regular basis. My friends at Northwestern certainly could not…

I looked down at my already beaten-down hands. My fingernails were black, dirt stains were beginning to form, and my blister count was now up to four. I was morphing into a farm girl once more – but I did not regret it one bit.


I first found out about the danger of the nuclear radiation leaking from the Fukushima plants after the disastrous March 11th earthquake in Japan from a single text. A French friend who was studying abroad in Tokyo with me sent me a series of panic-stricken words full of concern about the effects of the radiation. “My friends from home are telling me it is dangerous to stay,” she had written. “Are you going home?”

This caught me completely by surprise, since in the days following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of northern Japan, I, along with everyone else, was still just trying to accept the reality of the harrowing, stark sights of the aftermath of the tsunami. The Japanese media covered the nuclear plant and its many problems, but officials calmly proclaimed on television that of course, everything was under control. My host family believed them, as did I.

So I laughed off that text, replying to her that it would blow over soon enough and that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

Then, my parents finally got through to me on the faulty phone lines, and my father’s worried voice cut through across the Pacific and into my innocent ear. He told me that he and my mother were rooted in front of our television day and night, watching the news on the Japanese news channel. The situation with the plant could get worse, and the Japanese media may be hiding the truth from its citizens, he told me.

I could feel the panic steadily grow inside of me as a thousand what-if scenarios repeated over and over in my mind. What if the media was feeding us lies? What if the nuclear plant blew up and radiation leaked into Tokyo? Tokyo was only a three hour bullet train ride from the plant. What if I couldn’t get to safety in time? What if there was another, even more destructive earthquake and tsunami headed to Tokyo? Tokyo Bay would rush in and drown us all.

That night, I started having nightmares of being pierced by radiation. The moonlight that streamed in through the window would burn me alive in these dreams, and I would toss and turn to try to get away. I wondered if there was already radiation in the water I drank to quench my parched throat in the morning. I trembled as violently as the aftershocks.

But my host family continued on as if nothing happened. They laughed, just as I had laughed at my friend, about my fears of radiation poisoning. They focused their energy on keeping Japan together after the tragedy of the tsunami.

To this day, I wonder if it was right of me to leave Tokyo just as Japan was facing a catastrophe. I could have stayed and helped the Japanese citizens somehow. I could have suffered with them. But my family was calling anxiously over the rushing waters of the ocean that separated us, and the nightmares would not stop.

I feel terrible because I had the option to leave. My host family and friends from school did not have that luxury, and thus comforted themselves with a baseless knowledge that they would not be hurt. I left with tears of sorrow, but also of guilt.

Thus, I applaud the courage of two indie filmmakers, Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski, for going back to the radiation filled lands and air of Fukushima after the disaster, and trying to capture the stories of those who could not escape – those whose lives have deep and impenetrable roots in the now contaminated soil of Fukushima. Kajino and Koziarski’s documentary, Uncanny Terrain, which they are still in the process of completing, shows the lives of organic farmers of the area who cannot sell their produce because of the level of radiation.

Kajino and Koziarski held a preview showing of the documentary on Sunday at High Concept Laboratories. They showed only raw footage of what they had taken so far at this benefit event. In order to go back to Fukushima again to capture the one year anniversary of the earthquake, they needed to raise money, they said.

In the footage, one farmer poses the question of what can be said to be grown organically – without pesticides or herbicides – when the land itself is contaminated. Another farmer explains how many Fukushima residents face discrimination from other Japanese. He said people do not want to be near them for fear of “catching the radiation” and that cars with Fukushima plates are asked to be moved from parking spaces because they think those cars will contaminate the spaces.

When I saw the footage of the beautiful green mountains and rice paddies, which now are contaminated by radiation, I was both filled with sorrow and guilt. But another emotion soon consumed me – anger. These farmers had done nothing to deserve this, and yet, they suffer severely. Farmers are being forced to kill their livestock. They do not know of the effects of the radiation on their own bodies.

Had Japan done this to its own people? A well-researched article called “The Fallout” in the New Yorker explains that the United States may have effectively introduced nuclear power to Japan. After World War II, the article said, President Eisenhower was concerned that the fear Japanese citizens had of the nuclear weaponry America used against Japan was pushing it away from the United States. The solution they came up with was to put in place nuclear plants for peaceful purposes. Japanese politicians soon got on board, since they saw it as an easier way to create energy.

Now, more than half a century after the eruption of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan is again plagued with radiation. Will it be able to escape from nuclear energy? Will Japan finally learn to turn to wind, solar or geothermal energy?

Though someday I would like to return to live in Japan a bit more, my mother is still wary of the idea. There is always the danger of earthquakes and tsunamis. But now there is the added bonus of radiation – and radiation-poisoned food.

But as I think of my father’s own organic farm in Central Illinois, I think of the fact that Illinois relies heavily on nuclear power, as well. Recently, there has been news of a nuclear power plant in Byron, Illinois, shutting down because of power loss. My solution when faced with danger in Tokyo was to run away, but what will happen if our own organic farm was contaminated by radiation?

I can only sit and pretend that there is no danger, and fill myself with lies. This time, I have no other home to escape to and my heart is rooted in the dark black soil of our Bottomland.

The Question of Disappearance

I should have known. But it still came to me as a shock when I looked around during Wildcat Welcome week and found that though I was surrounded by Asian American faces, not one was Japanese.

Perhaps Japanese Americans or Japanese international students at Northwestern stuck together, and I had not chanced upon them yet, I thought.

Yet a quarter and a few weeks later, I am still in search of that group. I have discovered that the Japan Club is made up almost entirely by non-Japanese students, and though I have met some Japanese Americans, or at least heard of a few people of Japanese descent that apparently exist somewhere in the realm of our undergraduate population, I have yet to meet a concrete group of Japanese students that hang out together. I am close to concluding that such a group does not exist.

I guess after growing up in a conservative, Midwestern town where I was the only half-Japanese, much less Japanese, girl for miles and miles, I expected my college experience to be different. I believed that college – especially Northwestern, a university that boasts diversity – would have Japanese or half-Japanese people who would share my experiences. Chicago, I knew, had a Japanese population, so why would Northwestern be any different?

After searching, pondering, and asking all around, I found that the answer may lie in Japan herself. Japan has become more and more isolated over the years, and has kept most of its people inside her borders. There are many reasons for this; mainly, as I learned while studying abroad in a private Tokyo girls’ school last year, because Japan has a dwindling population to start with. My teacher, an older man, told all of us girls to “have lots of babies to save Japan.” Because of economic prosperity and more work options for women, Japanese women are starting families in their 40s instead of their 20s. Thus, they cannot have many children.

They also cannot afford to have many children. Japanese families are small because supporting a child through the grueling process of education is incredibly expensive. Because succeeding in life is all based on getting into a good college, and getting into a good college is in turn based all upon a single test, parents must spend extraordinary amounts of money on their children to have private tutors, or to go to expensive cram schools.

So the population of Japanese children is dwindling, and the Japanese government cannot afford to lose more people to immigration. That explains the downward spiral of the population of Japanese Americans residing in the United States.

But why are there so few Japanese students studying abroad? South Korea is undergoing the same problem of a dwindling population, but Korean international students are numerous at Northwestern.

This is a difficult question, since Japan – like Korea – knows that the future lies in global marketing. In any job, fluency in English would be greatly valued.

My theory is that Japanese students are so comfortable in their Japanese society that they do not want to experience being a foreign exchange student in a new place and culture. When I was studying abroad in Tokyo, I noticed that most of the girls I went to school with did not have dreams of living outside Japan. They had their puri-cura booths (photo sticker booths where eyes are made bigger and faces are literally changed so that they appear prettier) and karaoke, kawaii (cute) shops, and Disneyland (which they adore to the point of obsession). They had all that they ever wanted at their fingertips – not to mention a complex society which they were lucky enough to understand and navigate.

They did not want to study abroad in college, for they suffered through all-nighters, cram schools, tests and memorization just to be accepted into a good college, which would guarantee them a job. In Japan, college is where students are finally able to escape the strangling pressure to perform and do whatever they want. Tests are a piece of cake, class attendance is almost optional, and the last year is usually spent applying for jobs.

So why would you give that up to suffer through self-consciousness and difficult classes in the States? Not to mention that you would also have to give up a school that would guarantee you a job.

A final theory of mine is that after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands in northern Japan last year, Japanese people felt obligated to stay in the country to help rebuilding their ailing homeland. Every Japanese was expected to do something for their country. So that was yet another reason for Japanese students to stay home.

In the end, it is perhaps not really surprising that hardly any Japanese student seems to exist at Northwestern. And though I miss the opportunity to speak Japanese every day, as I had done at home, I will keep up my fluency in other ways.

For now, I guess I will remain the half-Japanese American student at Northwestern. At least as an Asian American, and as a mixed race student, I do not feel so alone.

Winter Beauty at the Chicago Botanic Gardens

Darkness slid slowly across the icy blue water of the lake towards Horaijima – the Island of Everlasting Happiness – as the sun set. On the island, Canadian geese bathed in the disappearing sunlight as a moon nearing fullness rose behind them. It was nearing sunset at the Japanese garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Picturesque scenes such as this make winter a good time to visit the Botanic Garden.

“It’s in its own way as beautiful as in the spring when the bulbs are coming up, or in the summer. In the winter, it kind of has that feeling of a refuge, and it’s quiet. You can see, you know, the birds more. It has a whole new level of kind of, peace, because we don’t have thousands of people here, too,” said Jennifer Groskopf, the manager of visitor services at the Garden.

She recommended visiting the Japanese garden, greenhouses, and Dwarf Conifer garden during the winter months. Because both the Japanese and Conifer Gardens have many evergreen trees planted in them, they are green and beautiful year-round, Groskopf said.

Inside the tropical greenhouse, Jill Zigler, 35, offered a reason for the popularity of the greenhouses: “In a typical winter, this would be my favorite garden – just because it’s so warm,” she laughed.

The winter season also offers the opportunity to take gorgeous shots for photographers. 72-year-old Marty Winn said he was part of the Garden photo club that meets once a month to take pictures. “Sometimes when it snows there are interesting snow patterns. When the snow sticks to trees, you can get a nice photo,” he said.

Like Winn, Joy Howard, 30, enjoys the beauty of the snow. She said she liked visiting the Japanese Garden after it snows because “the way that it shapes the plants makes it interesting.”

The Japanese garden is a favorite during the winter season for Howard, but also to part-time Garden tour guide Lynn McKary, 58. “The Japanese garden in particular – they don’t consider winter dormant. They consider winter as important as any other season, and I just love that idea. They don’t wait out the winter. They say, ‘okay, it’s winter, so what? It’s going to be great,’” she said, referring to the Japanese.

The simplicity of the Japanese garden appealed to Gordy Okeke, 51. “My window through which I see the world is beauty. For me, I think the most beautiful place in the Botanic Gardens is the Japanese garden. There’s an old saying: truth is simple, if it were complicated, everyone would get it. So there isn’t any cluster here, everything is free, like a breath of fresh air,” he said by a bridge in the expansive Japanese garden.

As the sun made its way down, Okeke looked at the water surrounding the garden and said, “I love the position of water and ice – because when we were coming down here, part of it was flowing water and part of it was frozen. I saw beauty in that.”