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https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/7/8/when-next-we-meet/

When Next We Meet

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When I was young, there were three certainties in life. Saturday cartoons, ice cream after dinner, and my grandmother.

Baa-baa, we called her then. My parents did their best to teach me to address her properly when I was young, but it never stuck. “Baa-chan,” they enunciated over and over again. “‘Grandmother.’ Baa-chan.” 

Maybe they should have known better than to try and teach pronunciation to a three-year old with a tongue blunter than the back of a butter knife. “Baa-baa,” I babbled instead. “Baa-baa.” 

Baa-baa, sitting in her blue armchair nearby, giggled at my parents’ exasperation. “That’s right, Ko-chan,” I remember her saying. “I’m your Baa-baa!” 

Baa-baa was eighty when I was born, but still sharp and dexterous as someone half her age. When she babysat me during the afternoons after preschool, she often entertained me by flopping her hand around on the sofa. Kobe, her brown chihuahua, went feral, lunging and snapping at her twisting fingers, never able to catch them in his jaws. I laughed and clapped my hands in glee, never once worrying that he would bite her. Nothing could catch Baa-baa, ever. 

Later on, as I lay on the couch, Baa-baa sat next to me, caressing my head as I slowly dozed off. “Tsuru tsuru,” she whispered gently, tingles blooming in the back of my head at the soothing lullaby. “Let the crane’s wings carry you to sleep. Tsuru tsuru.” 

I only drew her wrath once, when I was five. It was a hot summer day. June, I think. Baa-baa and I had retreated into the house, cleaning out a few drawers in her little spare bedroom. The ceiling fan rotated steadily, spreading the stale smell of aged wood and long-stored clothes. We were busy pulling old shirts and dresses out of drawers, packing them into boxes to take to the Salvation Army. 

At the bottom of a drawer I found an old paper tag, the kind we attached to suitcases when my family took plane trips. A number was written on it—104983. It was crumpled and yellowed, smeared with dirt. I thought it was trash. I turned to throw it away. 

Baa-baa’s eyes widened as she saw the tag falling into the can. She let out a horrified shriek and snatched it out of the air, glaring at me. “No, Kotaro!” 

She grabbed a ruler lying in one of the boxes and rapped my knuckles hard with it. I cried out, falling backwards and clutching at my hand. Baa-baa didn’t notice, cradling the tag in her hands with all the tenderness of a newborn baby. 

When my parents arrived an hour later to pick me up, they found me sitting sullenly on the couch, watching cartoons with red eyes and a bag of ice on my hand. Baa-baa sat nearby in her armchair, her usual gaiety vanished. Her eyes were red too, and still she held the tag in her hands, caressing it with her thumbs. 

In those days we went to Little Tokyo quite often. Baa-baa and I spent most of our time in the village plaza while my mother shopped. We played with, but never bought, the toys in the stores. “You have too many toys, Ko-chan,” Baa-baa said, but my mother always returned with rainbow mochi from Fugetsu-do nearby, and that made up for it. As I grew older Baa-baa and I started roaming through the rest of Little Tokyo, eating anpan from the bakery or drinking Calpis from one of the markets nearby. 

Once when I was seven, we stopped at the corner of First Street, near the yagura tower. Across the street stood a classic American structure, something out of the old noir movies Baa-baa watched sometimes—brick facades and fire escape ladders on the upper levels. Jutting out from the side was a Japanese style overhang, like the ones built at the entrances of Buddhist temples. 

“What’s that?” I asked through a mouthful of takoyaki, pointing. Baa-baa followed my finger. It was a bright day, but her eyes seemed to grow shadowed, dull. 

“That was a temple, Ko-chan,” she said, her voice sounding very far away. “My family prayed there.” 

She walked as if in a trance, crossing the street before the light had turned green. I followed her to make sure she didn’t get hit by traffic. A driver honked, probably wondering if she had dementia. 

Baa-baa walked up to one of the windows, set in a deep alcove. She tenderly placed a hand on the edge, stroking it like she would a large animal. 

“I sat here when the Army took us away,” she said wistfully. “I held him here. He was so scared.” 

She looked down at me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “He looked just like you,” she whispered. “And he would have loved to meet you.” 

“Who, Baa-baa?” I asked. “And why did the Army take you? Where’d you go?” 

Baa-baa didn’t answer. She smiled, though the shadow in her eyes lingered. “This was the old Nishi temple, before it moved down the street,” she told me. “Did you know it’s haunted by ghosts?” 

My eyes lit up, as any child would at the mention of ghosts. “No! What kind of ghosts?” 

Some of Baa-baa’s signature mischief brightened her face again, but she shrugged. “You’ll have to ask the headless monk that people say floats around on the second floor. Or the woman that walks into the prayer hall through the altar wall.” 

I crowed in amazement, plastering my face against the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of any ghost in the bright sunlight. Baa-baa pulled me back, smiling. “Many souls have passed through here,” she told me. “They say a few of them still remain, waiting for something.” 

“For what?” 

Baa-baa shrugged again, pulling me along. As we walked away, she looked back wistfully. “I hope that’s true,” she murmured to herself, so quietly I almost didn’t hear. 

Baa-baa never talked about the war with me. I was only a child, after all. My parents, aunts, and uncles held no such reservation. As I grew older, they explained what Baa-baa had meant that day. How the Japanese Americans had been uprooted after Pearl Harbor, how they were interned in the desert with only the clothes on their backs and two suitcases of meager possessions. Baa-baa had sat with her family and so many others at the old Nishi temple, waiting for the bus that would take them away. 

With them was her first son, Gary, then an infant. He was the one Baa-baa had talked about, how he had wailed in her arms, how she held him in that little alcove, as if they could hide from the Army. The paper tag I’d thought was trash was his, they explained. A little luggage marker, given to all Japanese Americans identifying them by number, not by name.

Gary grew from baby to toddler with Baa-baa in Manzanar up north. When Japan surrendered and our family was allowed to return, they had no home, no car. Baa-baa and her family returned to Little Tokyo with dozens of others, spending their first night of freedom sleeping on the floor of Koyasan Temple across the street from Old Nishi. Over the next few months Baa-baa and Gramps took work where they could find it, washing dishes or tending the gardens of wealthy folks.

Gary spent his time in Little Tokyo. Bronzeville, it was called then, as the African American community had moved into the neighborhood while the Japanese Americans were interned. There was no school yet, so he hung out in the neighborhood with the other kids, Japanese and Black, playing sports and making new friends.

One day he was playing soccer in the street. Someone kicked a wide shot. Gary ran after it.

He never saw the car. Never heard the screech of rubber on asphalt, never saw the driver that peered out the window, looked at the Japanese boy lying in the street, and took off. He was six.

My family spoke of it like you would the weather. The older brother they never knew lived only as a footnote in our history. But I saw Baa-baa’s eyes darken whenever he was mentioned. How her hands twitched, reaching out for something. Only once did she interject.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said quietly. We were all sitting in her kitchen, eating barbeque ribs and bone soup. Everyone looked at her. Etched into the lines of her face was deep sorrow. “He looked like he was asleep. I thought he would wake up. He had to.”

We never spoke of him after that, not in front of her. Baa-baa was getting older, and slower. She went more and more to the doctor, then moved into a residential facility where we visited her every week.

Sometimes we took her to Little Tokyo, pushing her through the crowded streets in a wheelchair. I was growing older, busier with high school. I could no longer sit for hours with Baa-baa; my weekends were filled with projects and extracurriculars. When I could take her out, we sat in front of Old Nishi, resting in the shade and eating mochi, just like old times. Every now and then Baa-baa would look through the windows. The building was a museum now, and I always offered to take her inside.

She always refused. “I don’t want to be disappointed,” she said jokingly. I thought she meant the exhibits. But still she peered through the windows.

The summer I turned sixteen, she and I sat in Old Nishi’s shadow, munching on snacks, when she turned to me. “Tsuru tsuru, Ko-chan,” she said suddenly. “Listen for the crane’s wings, when next we meet. Tsuru tsuru.”

I frowned. “I’m right here,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere soon.”

Baa-baa smiled faintly. “Who said I’m talking about you?” she teased, pinching my cheek.

Two days later the residential home called. We arrived quickly, sprinting to her room. Baa-baa was lying on the bed, like she usually was when we visited. She was only sleeping. She would wake soon.

She had to.

We held her funeral at New Nishi, mournfully recounting her spunky attitude and sharp wit to all who came to pay their last respects. At one point my mother took the stage, eyes brimming.

“Someone once said of Theodore Roosevelt that death had to take him sleeping, for if he had been awake there would have been a fight,” she said haltingly. “I think that was true of Baa-baa too. The Grim Reaper would never have caught her otherwise.”

Laughter rippled through the hall. It was true. Baa-baa was too quick. Nothing could catch her, ever.

Later we carried her casket to the cemetery, burying her between Gramps and Gary. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried like a child as clods of dirt rained down on her coffin. Grief ages us, but also turns us to children again, calling out for those we love most.

Eventually, the crowd dispersed back to their cars to drive to the reception. As we walked, I noticed a little boy just ahead, his back to me. He was on his tiptoes, craning his neck and looking around. Perhaps he’d lost someone.

“Hey, kid,” I called to him as he walked behind a hedge. “Where are your parents?” I rounded the corner.

No one was there.  

As time went on Baa-baa’s loss hurt less and less, and life moved on. Still, it felt hollow, empty. We no longer went to Little Tokyo. Its history was our family’s, and none of us were prepared to turn the page, forward or back. There was too much Baa-baa in one direction, and not enough of her in the other.

My senior year of high school, my government class took a field trip to the Japanese American National Museum. I hung in the back as our docent walked us through the halls, detailing the injustices of the internment. I knew this chapter in history very well now, but stayed silent. Some things are better felt, not said.

When we finished, my classmates milled in the large walkway in front of the museum, eating snacks or playing with the giant Rubik’s cube in front. The buses were late.

I stood alone in the shade near the museum doors. It was swelteringly hot, spring giving way to summer, and the ground rippled like a desert mirage.

My gaze drifted to Old Nishi, right across the way. I hadn’t been here in two years, since Baa-baa had passed. Without thinking, my feet took me down the steps to the alcove where we’d sat, where once she’d waited with her young son. I touched the concrete edge gently, wishing it was her touch again instead of solid stone. I understood her a little better, now that she was gone. She’d missed her son terribly, even all those years later.

And I missed her too.

A cold chill blew over the back of my neck. I thought I felt a touch on my shoulder, feather-light. Then a sound, soft as a baby’s cheek, in my ear. A rushing noise, like a waving flag.

Like beating wings.

I whipped around. A few feet in front of me stood a little boy and his mother. They were dressed in older clothing like those in the museum exhibits—thick wool coats and long pants. Paper tags were fixed to their lapels. Their forms rippled in the heat.

It was like looking into a window to the past. Except for the hairstyle, the boy looked exactly like me as a child, a picture from a family album come to life. He smiled a gap-toothed grin, eyes glimmering with excitement.

At first I didn’t recognize the woman holding his hand. She was tall, young, beautiful. Cascades of dark hair swept over her shoulders, framing delicate cheeks.

Then she smiled at me, her face alight with merry mischief, and her eyes shone like twin suns.

And I knew her.

Many souls have passed through here, Baa-baa had said. They say a few of them still remain, waiting for something.

The boy raised his hand, waving at me happily.

And he would have loved to meet you.

My breath froze, and I felt an immense pressure behind my eyes. She raised her hand, waving too. Hot tears slid down my face as I waved back.

The wind rose, a great rushing sound like hundreds of birds taking flight. The paper tags were torn from their lapels, vanishing in the air as Gary and Baa-baa faded away in the sunlight.

“Tsuru tsuru, Baa-baa,” I whispered thickly. “Let the crane’s wings carry you to peace, until next we meet. Tsuru tsuru.

* * * * *

Actor Kurt Kanazawa reads “When Next We Meet” by Brandon Tadashi Chung. From the 11th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Awards Ceremony on June 1, 2024. Organized by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM’s Discover Nikkei project.

* * * * *

*This is the winning story in the Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 11th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

© 2024 Brandon Tadashi Chung

California concentration camps families ghosts grandmothers grandparents Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest (series) Japanese American National Museum (organization) Little Tokyo Los Angeles origami paper cranes parents tsuru United States World War II camps
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. This year is the 11th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On June 1, 2024 in a celebration moderated by Sean Miura, noted actors—Ayumi Ito, Kurt Kanazawa, and Chloe Madriaga—performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.

Winners

  • Adult Category:
    When Next We Meet” by Brandon Tadashi Chung
     Honorable mention 


*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 >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

Brandon Tadashi Chung is a Los Angeles native and has been part of the Little Tokyo community all his life. He graduated from USC in 2020 with a dual degree in Communication and English, and currently works at ABC7 Eyewitness News as a News Assistant and Videojournalist. When he's not filming new restaurants or delivering scripts to David Ono and Rob Fukuzaki, he can be found on the hiking trails of LA with his friends.

Updated July 2024

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