For Asami Kawachi Oyama


It was a lonely life. My issei father, a farmer, was not sainted

But tyrannical. When tuberculosis ate his lungs,

Mother and my siblings sailed on a tramp steamer for the Inland Sea

To Hiroshima on a hillside above straw-thatched roofs.

I walked a mile-long road to school past terraced rice paddies

Despised my lessons playing shamisen with a plectrum like a banjo

And bowing like a vassal. A marriage was arranged in Tokyo to a nisei

Lately returned from a land with trees of gold. They garbed me in

A white bridal kimono. I shifted restive in the stiffness of

The sleeves. We settled on a farm in Fresno. But I was

A spitfire and the marriage was dissolved. At thirteen

I was alone, costumed in dresses that hung like a gunny sack,

Waitressing at a nisei greasyspoon,

Boarding as a schoolgirl with a hakujin family, unhanding

The paws of kibei bachelors at a boardinghouse. On my day off

I would eat chawanmushi and see Fred and Ginger dancing

A starry reverie at the Lyrichord Theatre. That was my treat.

At Santa Anita in Arcadia I met my future husband, a vagabond reporter

Who read Steinbeck and Russian novels—windows opened to me.

“Stranger’s Rice” won a prize. “Not until you have tasted the rice of strangers,”

My mother said, “will you appreciate home.” It is true I hungered for mother

But I was a stranger among Americans now.




Note: “Stranger’s Rice,” by Asami Kawachi, was the first-place winner in the college division of Common Ground magazine’s writing contest in 1942. She was a student at Los Angeles City College at the time. My poem incorporates phrases from my mother’s essay and elects not to reconcile the discrepancies and revisions of memory between that work and stories she told me late in her life. Link to the original essay: