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9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Tell me

I’m beautiful.

I grew up with Dad telling me I was the prettiest in the world, so I knew that I was beautiful, without a single doubt, from a very young age as far as I could remember.

People at the cafeteria served me extra amounts. Strangers confessed they had a crush on me. They gave me their contact information.

The accumulation of affection from total strangers backed up Dad’s words and eventually built up my confidence.

“Dad, when did you realize you’re attractive?”

From the mug he was holding in his right hand, the freshly made coffee was giving off steam. He was probably taking a little break after seeing off Mom, who had left the house very early in the morning to attend a conference in Chicago.

I wouldn’t have asked that question if Mom had been there.

Having flown out of Japan where the gender discrimination was intense, she traveled across the ocean and became a professor in America. She definitely deserved some respect for the guts and courage that made it all happen, but she was just not pretty – it was a plain fact. She was shorter than 160 cm. She would put her hair in a simple ponytail. She had a flat face with little makeup and wore dull-colored clothes. Her voice was low and sounded like a man’s when she scolded me when I didn’t study.

“Probably when I was at your age.”

I loved the way Dad smiled when he raised the corners of his mouth. He worked as a model when he was young, and he still looked very handsome with age. He had slender arms and legs, shiny blond hair and clear blue eyes that looked like the sky on a sunny day. He was gentle and approachable. When people met Dad, almost everyone developed a liking for him.

I was made of Dad’s DNA from head to toe, and there was nothing from Mom that was recognizable in me. I couldn’t remember when I first felt a deep sense of relief and a gloomy sense of superiority over it.

“You could have married even a super model.”

He rightly understood my words when I obviously implied Mom was not beautiful. He gently put down his mug on the table, looked straight in my eyes and said, “There’s no one more attractive than your mom.”

I was mature enough to know that he was truly speaking from his heart.

For a long time I tried to figure out what it was that I saw in the look in his eyes when Dad gazed at Mom so dearly. As I realized that it was impossible to find the “answer” alone, I decided to go out with Alex who was a year older than me. I thought that his shaky voice and softly reddened tails of eyes would tell me what it was.

On the day of our 1-month relationship anniversary, I had sex with him in his room after school. I was sure that the AC in his room was working just fine, but his sturdy upper body was sweating, and the dripping fell on my chest. The burning heat I felt from the tips of my fingers that held his thick neck and the wet light green eyes under his crooked eyebrows were the sign of his arousal. It was in contrast with me, so uninvolved in the moment that I was able to observe and analyze my panting which came out as a physiological response, so expectedly stirred up the man right in front of my eyes.

“Look at me.”

It was after everything was finished when he asked for my attention, with a face that looked like he was almost crying.

“I am looking at you.”

I was looking at him and not looking at him at the same time. What the word meant to me was drastically different from his definition.

As I began to feel uncomfortable in the daunting silence that filled the room, I picked up my clothes that were scattered under the bed, put them on quickly and left his room. I pretended that I didn’t notice his faintly shaking back, while he was pretending to be asleep.

He was tall, good at surfing and fairly good-looking as well. I liked his choice of cologne and clothing, too. We kissed and even had sex, but I never felt that I wanted to know him. To put it short, he couldn’t teach me what it meant to fall in love.

It was 3 p.m. on the last weekend of the summer break. Little Tokyo was full of people. That boy who just passed me by, was wearing a pair of new Nike shoes I saw on Instagram the other day. The woman wears the high waist denim jeans, which might have been Rouje’s and looked stylish and nice with her brunette hair.

Just until recently, you couldn’t find anyone but nerdy-looking people here. The recent anime craze must have reached even those groups of people who had no interest in Asian culture whatsoever, I thought.

When passing by an old-looking Japanese restaurant, I caught a sight of a fake food model of udon on display in the window. I always wondered why they kept it –such a timeworn and filthy discolored sample. There was a building right next to the restaurant with a new signboard that read, “Japanese Class in Session.” I frowned, as I remembered the time when I was forced to come here. As I was bad at memorizing kanji, learning Japanese was nothing but stressful, and Mom would never let me quit despite my strong resistance.

“No matter how much you resist, Japan is where your roots are.”

Looking at me crying my eyes out, Mom tried to convince me by saying the phrase repeatedly. I wanted to argue back, to say that for me it was impossible to see a country I’d never been to as my roots, but I couldn’t, as I was overwhelmed by Mom being so furious. But even that came to an end last month. The class was for students up to the age 17.

What remained with me were some Japanese skills and Dao-san’s number.

The boba tea shop I was heading to was at the corner of the plaza decorated with red paper lanterns. Originally from Taiwan, the store’s signature item was its authentic milk tea, made with tea leaves instead of powder, which boosted their strong popularity even in Los Angeles where trends would come and go so quickly. I ordered two milk teas at the counter where they had a maneki-neko (beckoning cat) inviting people in with its hand gesture that looked like it was slicing the air in slow motion. Since I came just at the time when there was no other customer, I was able to get the teas in less than three minutes or so. The cups were filled with ice cubes pleasantly cooled down my hands that had been headed in the strong sunlight. As I sat on the bench and took out my smartphone, I heard someone call my name from behind.

“Noah-chan! Hisashiburi-ne. (Long time no see)”

Whenever I heard her broken Japanese, I was moved to tears.

Ohisashiburi desu. (I haven’t seen you for a while).”

I was so happy to see her that I burst out my response in a loud voice.

“Have you been well?”

“Yes, how about you?”

“Good. I’m good.”

“I bought milk tea, so let’s have it together.”

Nomimasho” (in Japanese) was the phrase I used to suggest that we drink it together. I wanted her to think of me as a grownup so badly that I used the formal speech – which made me feel embarrassed.

“Oh, you have one for me, too?”

“Of course! It’s your favorite.”

“Thank you, Noah-chan!”

The moment she held me, I sensed a soft scent of cherry blossoms coming from her long hair, which brought a lump in my throat. Dao-san would catch my heart faster than a blink of an eye, more easily than I could breathe.

I met Dao-san in the spring last year when I was thinking how I should kill some time until my class.

“Are you hafu (mixed)?”

I felt as if someone had poured boiling water on me – that’s how much of a shock it was. It was the first time someone ever spoke to me in “Japanese.” Ahead in my line of sight, I saw Dao-san in a gray custodian uniform, lighted by the bright West Coast sun.


Upon hearing my response, Dao-san looked relieved as if she had found a friend in a foreign land, and she softly smiled by lowering the outer corners of her eyes that were rimmed by her long eyelashes.

“I knew it! I’m hafu, too. My mother is Vietnamese and my father is Japanese. See?”

“How did you know I’m hafu?”

The question that spilled out of my mouth without me even realizing interrupted her talk. It came out on impulse as if I was under an obligation to do so. Until that point no one had ever “detected” the Japanese in me, so I desperately wanted to know.

“Because I just knew.”

She answered proudly.

I couldn’t tell if the reason she didn’t explain was because her Japanese was limited or she just didn’t want to say more.

“I’m Dao. And you are?”


She had dyed brown hair that looked dry and loose, a flat and round nose and eyes as black as a crow.

It was also the first time I thought someone was beautiful even though she had nothing in common with Dad.

We always met at this bench. I was the one who approached her, saying I would teach her Japanese after class – as I learned that Dao-san was barely making ends meet and couldn’t pay the monthly tuition for the Japanese class.

The true reason was because I wanted to be with Dao-san so bad to the point where I would even lie to myself that it would help me learn, too. I intuitively knew what I was feeling was probably love. Because it was so hard for me to breathe. I wanted to hear Dao-san’s voice all the time, wondered what she was doing at any given moment and felt so restless.

Talking in all the Japanese that Little Tokyo had to offer and sharing it with Dao-san became everything in my life.

But I never thought about telling her my true feelings. That’s because I knew that if she rejected me I would be so hurt and would be able to recover. I was just so scared. I wasn’t mature enough to overcome that fear, nor was I naive enough to ignore my desire to be close to her.

“I’m going to marry a Japanese.”

She must have waited for the timing. The tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup at the bottom of the cup quivered, as I heard that Dao say it quietly when both of us had finished catching up with each other.

“What’s he like?”

I prompted her to keep talking, as I tried to mask my discomfort. It was obvious that I was disturbed though, for the simple fact that I couldn’t bring myself to say a word of congratulations.

“He works at a company near here. A big company.”

A big company.

Then Dao-san lowered her gaze as if she was ashamed of something. The copper-colored eyeshadow glistened on her single eyelids.

That motion clearly explained the kind of relationship she had with the man.

I get it now. That explains why her fashion style and her belongings have changed over the past few months.

“Is he paying you?”

An emotionless voice that came out was definitely mine.


She slightly opened her month and shut it. She opened it again and continued in a shaking voice.

“I worked hard and came to America. But I get little money. Kitanai (Disgusting). I can’t buy what I want. But Take gives me money. He says I’m pretty. He works at a big company. So.”

“Dao-san, You’re not doing anything wrong.”

I interrupted her talk, this time with a completely different and strong intention.

“You are not doing anything wrong. I swear.”

I saw her black eyes twinkle.


“It’s okay.”

I felt a lump in my throat as I imagined Dao-san exchanging words with Take, speaking the Japanese that I taught, in that voice I could keep listening to forever.

“Why you crying, Noah-chan.”

Her thin arms gently wrapped around my body. I caught a weak scent of fake cherry blossoms drifting in front of me.

Because I love you. I love you so much that I can’t control myself.

I tried so hard to choke back an urge to burst out the love that I gulped, as it began to ache inside of me.

“Congratulations. I wish you all the best.”

I forced myself to put on a smile and speak some sample sentences I learned in my Japanese class and truly wished that Take would die. I seriously wanted him to be dead. I despised the man whose only way of keeping a relationship was by paying money. I was sure he was like one of those Japanese politicians, unattractive, ugly, fat, and short but had a snobby attitude for some reason. I was prettier, more elegant and more beautiful. I loved Dao-san more than anyone else. But that didn’t mean anything. Nothing mattered unless Dao-san wanted me. But I didn’t think that the miracle would ever happen – that as a married woman Dao-san would want me as a lover.

“Thank you.”

The tears of Dao-san, my first love, wet my favorite blouse and soon dried up.

As I parted with Dao-san and waited for Dad to pick me up, I thought back of Dao-san inside of me and felt my heart break. I just had to do it.

Her lips colored in artificial pink of which broken Japanese come out.

Her eyes as glossy as wet marbles. Her slightly high-pitched voice that made me want to listen to her forever. Her smooth hands that felt like the moist ground after the rain. To the touch. A little to the left. Her front teeth leaning a little to the left. The shadows that her long eyelashes cast on her face. Her fingertips painted in light purple that manipulated chopsticks in smooth move.

Dao-san and the Japanese language I’d hated so much – they began to become part of me.

The vibrating smartphone in my hand told me Dad was calling. I lifted my face. With my vision still blurred, I started walking in the plaza which was glowing with the red lantern lights.

Actor Megumi Anjo reads “Oshiete - Tell Me” by Nao Mutsuki. From the 9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest: A Virtual Celebration on May 26, 2022. Sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM’s Discover Nikkei project.


*This is the winning story in the Japanese category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 9th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2022 Nao Mutsuki

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About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it.  Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. On May 26, 2022 in a virtual celebration moderated by Derek Mio, noted actors, Keiko Agena, Helen Ota, and Megumi Anjo performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.


  • Adult Category: “Tori” by Xueyou Wang 
      Honorable mentions 
  • Youth Category: “Time Capsule” by Hailey Hua
      Honorable mentions
  • Japanese Language Category: “教えて” (Tell Me) by Nao Mutsuki
      Honorable mentions
    • 回春” (Spring is coming over) by Miyuki Kokubu (Japanese only)

*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>