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The Remembering Tree III - part 1

The lingering scent of Douglas fir or silvery blue spruce, or groves of pine trees evokes childhood memories of a relatively peaceful time before the tumultuous Second World War when my father used to cut down the family Christmas tree in the forest near our home in Northern California.

Each year, like a ritual, he first set down in the middle of the parlor, (it truly was a “parlor,” not an informal living room, in our large, rambling, old-fashioned house with tall bay windows and a veranda that wrapped halfway around the house) a heavy, very ornate cast iron tree holder that had three lacy, curlicued feet. It was so heavy we children could not make it budge, assuring him that a tall tree could sit there safely for two weeks, plus the 12 days of Christmas. Then he carried in on his sturdy shoulders, the magnificent fir that smelled so crisp and fresh that its fragrance permeated the whole house. It was a happy scent.

My imaginary tree, though so vividly real to me, is on display again this year because so many unforgettable characters cried out during the year: “Hey, remember me? Let me sit on your tree this holiday season. You forgot to put me on it in your last two ‘Remembering Tree’ stories.” So along with the happy scents, I’ve gathered some happy people, some still living, others being remembered as they prance through celestial spheres.

Potato Salad

I cannot recall his full name now, but they called him “Tatsu.” He was an honest, no-nonsense local boy-type young man who said what he wanted to say: no frills, no flattery.

It was one of my first potluck suppers. I had been asked to make crispy won ton or gau gee or chow fun. Such exotic dishes!!—and I had no idea how to create such complicated foods. I could make a potato salad instead, if that would be okay, I suggested. The hostess said it would be fine.

A magnificent buffet was set up outside our little Waikiīkī cottages: maki sushi; cone sushi; Chinese noodles; a large green salad; fruit salad full of papayas, pineapples, Kona oranges, apple bananas; kālua pig; poi; lau lau made in a big pan; tsukemono; kim chee; coconut cake; chocolate cake; Young Hotel crunch cake; and more.

Tatsu came over to me with his half-eaten late plate. “Eh, what kind potato salad dis? No more nottin’ inside. No more da macaroni, no more da peas and carrots, no more da kamaboko.”

I was taken aback and answered with some trepidation: “It’s…it’s a potato salad. What do you mean, no more nottin’ inside? It has hard-boiled eggs, chopped pickles, chopped onions, lots of mayonnaise, some pimento…”

He shoveled another heaping spoonful of my salad into his month and chewed thoughtfully. Nodding his head, he said, “Good but …”

The Burmese Guests

Every so often the State Department protocol officer would call me, asking if we would host various foreign guests—some scholars, or journalists, or lower-echelon representatives, particularly Burmese since my husband had been an American GI in the China-Burma-India theater during the war.

One of the most delightful groups we hosted were a group of newspapermen and feature writers, including a young man with limited English. He enjoyed “helping” me in my kitchen.

“It is so different from my mother’s kitchen,” he said. “But I like kitchens, all kinds,” he said as he sampled various ingredients for making osushi and bits of vegetables for the umani (a simmered vegetable dish). He kept muttering “mmm…mmm…” as he chewed on a large crunchy piece of takuan, calling it “kon-kon.” I had to laugh at his antics, surmising he was hungry. I also wondered where he had learned some of his Japanese words, for he called everything “gohan” and “okazu.”

When the food was ready and set on the buffet table, I asked him to announce, “Dinner is served,” or the familiar and informal “Gohan desu yo,” to the dozen or so guests, some men and women from Japan, several Burmese, and a host of local friends.

Oi, meshi da zo, meshi da zo!” he yelled loudly as he went into the living room. I was absolutely astounded! I had merely told him to say: “Dinner is served.” What he had said in crude Japanese was, “Hey, chow time! Chow time!”

Some of the Japanese and local men laughed, and the ladies covered their mouths and giggled. The non-Japanese speakers asked what was so funny. During the course of the evening, the young Burmese explained that as a youngster, he had learned some Japanese language from Japanese soldiers during their occupation of areas around his home. It never occurred to him that it was not polite language and he laughed with the others when he found out it was rather vulgar, male talk. Always hungry, the Burmese children liked to hang around the young soldier who fed them. Time had not changed his great affection for food.

The next day the protocol officer called to thank me. He said the young Burmese told him he had a wonderful time, that the food was excellent, and he felt he was with family. He also noted that “the hostess was very homely.”

My Russian Name is Tasha

We were en route to St. Petersburg by bus from the small seaport town of Turku in Finland. There were still many checkpoints in Russia, even years after the end of the Communist regime. We were told by the Norwegian tour guide to have our passports and gold and money declarations ready. As I had neither gold nor Russian currency and very few American dollars, I felt confident that I would not be detained for very long. At the large aluminum storage-like building, we stopped, lined up single-file and waited and waited. Finally, we were allowed in, one-by-one. The other travelers were an assortment from Mainland states, ready to argue with the examiners, so I opted to be the next to the last in line. Finally, it was my turn. The uncommonly pleasant young Russian man inspected my passport.

Tassha desu ka?

“No my name is not ‘Tasha,’” I answered.

“You are Japanese?” he asked.

“I am an American, but my parents were Japanese,” I replied, wondering if as a descendant of arch enemy antecedents they would detain me.

“You do not understand Japanese? I asked you ’How are you? Are you well?’”

Then it dawned on me that he had said, “Tassha desu ka?” “Oh, you speak Japanese.” I said surprised that Japanese had found its way clear into the hinterlands. “Have you lived in Japan?”

“No, but my mother has. She lives in Kamchatka. I will visit her soon. My name is Leo.”

“Like Tolstoi? I just finished reading his ‘Resurrection,’ and there is a girl named Katya that even the Japanese have written a song about, calling her ‘Kashuusha kawaii ya…’

At that point the guide came bustling over. “No conversation. You are holding up the line! We will be late!” So we stopped talking.

It was the only pleasantry on the entire unnecessary routine. We got back on the bus and waited and waited, and then moved on to the next checkpoint, where we waited some more. It was dark and overcast by the time we finally reached St. Petersburg, no longer Leningrad.

Right then, I decided to adopt the name “Tasha.”

Part 2 >>

* This article was originally published in The Hawai‘i Herald on December 15, 2006.

© 2006 Fuku Y. Tsukiyama

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