– Memoir by Kelsey Cleveland –
Okā-san, my host mother, kneeled on a pillow on the tatami mat flooring in her living room in Nagoya, Japan. I always admired her elegance when she wore a kimono, which literally meant something worn, and wondered how I would look in one. When I stood like a cross with my arms spread out wide, she draped a white cotton ankle-length underrobe over me, wrapping the right flap over the left before securing it with cotton ties. At twenty-two years old, I couldn’t remember the last time someone had dressed me.
She held up a blue-green silk kimono patterned with hot pink, blue, and ivory-colored tulips. “I chose it because the color reminded me of your eyes.” The Japanese color word ao encompassed what English speakers called blue and green. Traffic lights were considered blue, not green, in Japan. I stuck my arms in the long, wide sleeves that draped midway down my thighs. The t-shaped garment was heavier than I expected. By the time Okā-san finished, the outfit would weigh fifteen pounds.
She centered the seam on my back and wrapped the garment left over right. Someone only wrapped a kimono right over left after a person died. Okā-san altered the under robe to expose the white collar around the neck. I held excess material at my waist as she adjusted the fabric until the hem fell at my ankles.
Minutes passed while I stood straight and flat like a paper doll while Okā-san’s skilled fingers worked behind my back on the obi (sash), which accessorized and held the kimono together. The sash was about a foot wide and eleven feet long and made of ivory silk with a subtle floral pattern woven into the fabric. I sucked in my breath and straightened my spine as the obi tightened like a corset around my waist and rib cage. Behind me, Okā-san tugged, tied, and pulled the sash tight.
She stepped back and admired her handiwork. “You look beautiful. Let me show you the sash in the mirror.” I blushed as I gazed at my reflection in the mirror. In the front, the obi started under my breasts. For once, it was an advantage to be flat-chested. Then I faced the opposite direction and turned my head to see. The sash started at my shoulder blades and ended at my natural waist in the back. The complicated design of the obi looked like the top flat part of a drum. It extended at least a hand’s length beyond my back, reminding me of a nineteenth-century bustle. I wondered how women sat in a chair wearing a kimono. “It’s gorgeous. Thank you so much.”
It’s true the stunning kimono suited my coloring, but I felt like a doll dressed in a costume or a child playing dress-up. My desire to immerse myself in Japanese culture didn’t mean I wanted to become Japanese. Okā-san looked natural wearing a kimono while I did not. Inside, I shared many characteristics with the introverted and ordered Japanese culture.
I felt self-conscious outside of the house in the kimono as we strolled the neighborhood on a photoshoot. It didn’t feel appropriate to dress in a traditional Japanese garment when my Caucasian skin and hair showed I was not. My heels hung off the back of the black thong sandals with red soles, which Okā-san insisted were not too small. Kimonos weren’t designed for confident strides. I stepped with my toes rather than heels, taking tiny steps to keep the wrap of the kimono closed and my legs covered. It never looked difficult when Okā-san walked in a kimono. But I found it challenging. Maybe you needed practice, like learning to walk in high heels?
Outside the Tokugawa Museum’s garden, we stopped at the imposing black wooden gate with a gabled roof covered in heavy black ceramic roof tiles. I faced the entrance and turned to look at Okā-san, who peered into the viewfinder. As she took my photo, several museum-goers snapped my photo as well. It wasn’t every day they saw a foreigner dressed in a kimono.
Ninety-eight percent of residents were ethnically Japanese in the homogenous nation, while I belonged to a racial minority as a Caucasian. I encountered the term gaijin, literally translated to “outside person,” often. It was short for gaikokujin, a person from another country. Children sometimes stopped and pointed at me before yelling gaijin and running in another direction. Despite a population of 2.1 million people, I was sometimes the first or one of few gaijin a Nagoya resident encountered. My presence was met with curiosity. Yes, I ate sushi. No, I didn’t eat nattō, fermented soybeans with the pungent smell, sticky texture, and mucus-like strings hanging off it. Or with trepidation that I couldn’t communicate in their mother tongue. My language abilities were often praised, even if I spoke only a word or two. I also received compliments when I used chopsticks. As an exchange student in Japan for only a few months, I found the compliments and curiosity I encountered from others endearing.
Years later, when I lived in Japan for eight years, my attitude fluctuated between acceptance and even enjoyment of my gaijin status and irritation. I encountered degrees of special treatment as a Caucasian foreigner who spoke Japanese. Event organizers invited me to judge English speech contests or provide a token foreign opinion on panels on subjects like the role of women in the United States or about wines from the United States. Several times newspapers invited me to write a column, or journalists interviewed me to offer a foreigner’s opinion, not because I had done anything newsworthy.
Outside the museum, a young woman asked me to pose with her. I agreed. We both gave the peace-sign, a popular photo pose position for all ages. We both smiled and said, “Hai, chiizu (Say cheese)” in an energetic voice as the camera clicked. Japanese society expected women to act genki, or healthy and energetic. Even when not wearing a kimono, my appearance would always stand out like a shiny, new object in an antique store. But I could attempt to blend in with my behavior to show respect for my host nation’s culture.
“Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita,” the woman bowed as she thanked me.
“Dō itashimashite,” I bowed back as I said you’re welcome.
After studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, Kelsey Cleveland spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan. Her essays have received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition and won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Press Pause, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where her passport is safely stowed for now. Find on Twitter @kerushi_san.