For many second-generation Americans, visiting the “motherland” can be a jarring experience. We’re initially delighted to be around people who look like us and speak like us — only to find out the way we dress, pronounce words and behave are all “wrong.” That, even in our “home countries,” we are outsiders. And yet, we might have sparkling experiences as well, ones that cross borders and place us in the cosmos, leaving us thinking, I can’t wait to come back.
In Waka T. Brown’s middle-grade memoir “While I Was Away,” 12-year-old Waka experiences all of the above. Apprehensive of their middle child losing her Japanese identity and language, her parents send her to Tokyo for five months to live with her grandmother. This empowering coming-of-age story explores the challenges and joys of reconnecting with one’s family and cultural heritage. And although there are increasingly more children’s stories being told about Asian American immigrant experiences, ones that examine the reality of “go back to where you came from” are rare. The book is recommended for kids ages 9 to 13 who may be navigating a dual identity, curious about living in a different country, or simply looking for a fun middle school drama.
Gaining insight into Japanese culture
At its surface, “While I Was Away” is a fascinating look into Japanese customs, culture and language from a nikkeijin’s (person of the Japanese diaspora) perspective. Having grown up in suburban Kansas, Waka is in for a big culture shock when she reluctantly arrives in Tokyo and attends Japanese school. She realizes her grasp on the three alphabets (hiragana, katakana and kanji) is at elementary school level at best, and she is no longer the smart, straight-A student she was back home. Instead of being recognized as a nikkeijin, Waka’s new classmates call her a “gaijin,” a foreigner. Waka is also accused of being rude on multiple occasions, like when she incorrectly attaches the “san” honorific to introduce herself, or when she doesn’t slurp her noodles, or even when she accepts a dinner invitation at a friend’s house. She gets a crash course in proper Japanese etiquette, which she then patiently explains to readers. Her explanations act as a helpful (of course, non-comprehensive) guide for both children and adults looking to connect to their Japanese heritage or other readers who simply want to know more about Japanese culture.
Admittedly, these explanations can sometimes slow down the narrative in awkward ways, such as in the middle of a tense argument between Waka and her mother (and later, her grandmother). However, these lessons are always valuable and come back into play later in the book. Brown is also cautious to not play into any stereotypes or generalizations about Japanese people and culture. On Waka’s first day at school alone, she dispels the myth that Japanese people are quiet, explains the various honorific suffixes to the reader, and describes her new classmates, who all range in size and personality.
Learning to pave your own path
At the beginning of the memoir, Waka’s mother muses, “I think Waka is what Obaasama would have been like if she hadn’t had such a hard life.” Waka can’t disagree more when she actually meets her grandmother, whom she compares to a dragon and calls “the biggest, scariest, ‘little old lady’ in all of Japan.”
Over and over again, Waka’s American values collide with Obaasama’s strict and traditional ones, something Mochi readers and children of immigrants are sure to recognize from our own lives. It’s only through listening to her grandmother’s stories that Waka comes to understand and respect what a strong trailblazer her grandmother truly is. Obaasama slowly opens up about past traumas, highlighting the power of storytelling to heal and inspire. She tells Waka how she survived her father’s abuse as a young girl, gave birth to nine children, lost a daughter during World War II, and supported the family as a seamstress after Waka’s grandfather passed away. Still, she defies convention and celebrates every day through loud fashion choices, like tiger prints and bold jewelry for grocery store runs.
In one particular story about Waka’s late grandfather, Obaasama shares that he liked railroad crossings and used to say, “People looking this way, waiting to cross. People looking back at them, waiting to cross. Connected by a common thread, a desire to cross to the other side.”
Waka, too, finds herself at a railroad crossing, paradoxically wanting to fit in with her new classmates while desiring to cross the Pacific Ocean to return home. Mocked for her limited Japanese, pressured to join the “right” clique, and feeling more ostracized every day, Waka loses her confidence and sense of who she is. Brown often plays with the epistolary form to convey this tween angst, including the actual letters she exchanged with her white friends in Kansas. Anyone who has been “othered” will find validation in her pain — and inspiration from her fierce determination to prove others wrong. After being in Tokyo for a few months, she begins to ask herself “What would Obaasama do?” Waka works hard to make herself proud and eventually realizes that she and her grandmother are not so different after all.
Waka is a relatable, but admirable role model for young readers, especially at a time in children’s lives when they are most vulnerable, begin to question their self-worth, and examine and form their identities. Parents, guardians and teachers will appreciate the lessons for children on cultural conflicts and belonging, and older readers may find catharsis in Waka’s journey as well. Through her fun and conversational tone, Brown translates the complex idea that home is not something others determine for us, but something we find within ourselves.
“I wrote ‘While I Was Away’ for anyone who’s felt caught between two cultures,” says Brown. “I think the more we tell each other our stories, the more we realize that we are not alone.”
“While I Was Away” by Waka T. Brown goes on sale Jan. 26, 2021. Pick up a copy for yourself or any young readers in your life, and remember to support your local BIPOC-owned bookstore. (320 pp. Quill Tree Books. $16.99)