Here I am, going to a restaurant to wait tables. Again, I get off at this station in midtown Manhattan. I am just a waitress and undocumented alien, not an artist. I do not create any art work, but I find myself to be artistic. I read once that the artistic act is feminine because of the experience of receiving and bearing. I pass through every day and think about it. I happen to be feminine; I have to say that I am not tough at all. Quietly and sentimentally, I look at the mirror every night before going to sleep. To find some art on my face.
I remember that I was here at the same station years ago, when I had just left Japan for New York. Back then I saw pedestrians going through the station stepping lively and with purpose. I saw the crowd of people moving away from me as if I were standing at a beach and feeling the sand moving away with the ocean waves, while I was holding the sand under my feet. At the time, it was of the greatest importance that I would be famous with regard to something my parents did not understand, though I did not know what I wanted to do. I used to become furious easily, and I hated many people who betrayed a hint of looking down on me. I hated them with a panic as if they were trying to steal a very precious item that I had in my possession. But because of my lack of effort and low spirits, I have remained a waitress. I feel myself becoming less and less ambitious and I no longer believe that I am going to be successful.
When I enter my workplace, I notice that one of the chefs, Mr. Nozaki, has gotten his hair trimmed. The rest of his appearance is exactly the same as the usual Mr. Nozaki waking up from a lunch break nap. But his shorter hair makes me realize that Mr. Nozaki has other life events, like cutting his hair, besides morosely working here. Still, how does he talk to a hair dresser when he cannot even answer a customer who asks in English where the bathroom is? Being alone, dreamless and old, he seems to have the most miserable condition in life, to a woman like me. I am afraid of being unlovely and alone. My image of love is full of shadows in which I try to find light. I wonder if Mr. Nozaki has ever thought about love or about the difference between the dead and the living.
It is Thursday night. Mr. Nozaki is cutting up a whole salmon in a tiny dirty kitchen. The salmon in New York are more pink and fatty than the taut, red ones in Japan. It is cut into pieces by this old Japanese man and three Mexican boys. They are working so closely that their bodies touch in this small kitchen. At first glance, this kitchen looks like a mess, but all the knives, cutting boards, and containers of cut scallions, seaweed or tofu are stored in good order. It is good enough to cook food efficiently. I like this contradiction, that delicious dishes are made out of this messy kitchen. I feel as if I am walking into a lovely store from a littered street when I look at the neat and well-made plate on the kitchen table. The Mexicans and Mr. Nozaki are at the back surrounded by walls with pans and soup ladles hanging on them and looking like they are about to fall down.
“Order please.” When I say this I feel one of the Mexican boys staring at my butt. He must be imagining having sex with me. I think my naked body would be very different from the way he imagines it.
Mr. Nozaki hardly looks up higher than 45 degrees, except when I hang a piece of order paper in front of him. He believes that he needs to behave as coldly as he can when people are around him. His face darkens instinctively. He probably does not think about why he does that. Perhaps for him, people are all too noisy like yellow chicks, chirping a high-pitched noise that he cannot understand. Or maybe people always seem to him to be laughing inappropriately at a solemn funeral, which he is wordlessly attending.
“Tut.” He clicks his tongue quietly, but loudly enough to make me hear.
Probably he has never hoped to be happier. Old, tired, working 6 days a week from morning to midnight, he is still incapable of speaking English after living in the U.S for more than three decades. He lives alone, and it seems unlikely that he has any friends here. He might not have any close family back in Japan, either, other people in the restaurant have told me. If I were he . . . I have a tendency to imagine like this. My difficult parents helped me to be imaginative. I think of how Mr. Nozaki is feeling and thinking, just as I used to try to read my parents’ thoughts when I was still too young to realize they were merely acting based on their moods.
It starts raining. People crowd into the restaurant as if they are finding shelter from the sudden rain. I try to keep calm as usual. Fast and good work, I repeat to myself under the noise of people. I am very afraid to make a mistake; I am even more afraid of being criticized. The sudden rush of customers is testing my ability as a waitress and also as a person. I run into the kitchen to place an order, not forgetting to smile.
However, “Tut. Fuck you,” Mr. Nozaki says! Did I do something wrong? This person who does not dare to speak English is using the word “fuck”! Does it come naturally from his mouth? What kind of strong man does he imagine he is? Is the bastard Japanese or American? I smile with my mouth closed. Turning back to the customer tables, I see the restaurant’s sushi chef, Mr. Uchida, crossing his arms and gazing at Mr. Nozaki.
“Ignore the poor guy,” Mr. Uchida, the sushi chef, says to me with a hopeless smile. Naturally, it makes me feel better. Mr. Uchida is as old as Mr. Nozaki, I suppose. Unlike Mr. Nozaki, he is well-built. He has a house in New Jersey with a Japanese wife and three second generation children, all boys and all independent now. Except for him and his wife, Mr. Uchida’s family members have never lived in Japan.
His oldest son sometimes visits the restaurant. When I serve him, he greets me very politely, and very politely I return his greeting. Then he says to me, “You are not Americanized at all. I love a Japanese woman’s courtesy, kindness . . . If I ever marry, I will choose a Japanese woman.” My smile disappears for a few seconds. I sense that he is viewing his ideal image of Japanese women in me. He is regarding me and seeing his serving wife before he even imagines dating me.
Mr. Uchida, the father, is also fresh. “The girl at Table Three has big breasts.” “The woman eating a California roll is very sexy.” He comments on female customers’ looks often. “Let’s go for a date,” he sometimes says to me, too. He looks half serious and half joking, so I really cannot tell if I should be annoyed or just laugh. His wrinkled face smiles innocently and deviously.
“Now don’t stand here. Go back to work,” Mr. Uchida says aloud. I see Mr. Nozaki’s shoulders jump an inch also.
Every night, as soon as the last customer leaves, the soft romantic lighting is turned up brighter so that the workers can see better to clean around the place. Another waitress, Ms. Chie’s face looks greasy and shiny under the sharp, clear light. She looks like a pizza. Maybe it is a skin condition, or maybe it is because she spreads her foundation like butter. Although it is oily, her skin looks pale and white as a hard-boiled egg. This pale, shiny skin is typical of many Japanese women. They use makeup a lot because their concept of good-looking skin is flawlessly smooth, like plastic. Ms. Chie’s eyes are narrow and balanced as though they are built into her face. They do not move very much with her facial expression.
Ms. Chie starts recalculating the guest checks to make sure there are no mistakes. Her input keying on the calculator is extremely fast and she hardly ever makes a mistake. I go to clean the bathroom.
Cleaning the bathroom is my favorite job. I enter the colder and quieter space with garbage bags, and I lock the door. I prefer locking the door. I am not doing anything bad, but it is better to lock it. I can be alone here. First, I look in the mirror. I stand up straight against the mirror and make a small smile, but a bigger one than the Mona Lisa’s smile. Looking at my face in the mirror gives me solace. I am not too ugly. I could be attractive. My face is round like an egg and flat. Without my cat-like eyes I could not even be close to attractive; as it is, my eyebrows are thick and straight, making my eyes look more like a raccoon-like cat. I imagine myself being an old Japanese actress, acting right after World War II: when many parts of Japan were burned to the ground by the United States Air Force, when half of the women wore Kimonos on the streets, while the rest of the women wore elegant skirts. If my smile were to be too bright, some might think I was disrespectful of those victims of the agonizing war. But nevertheless, this actress has to smile on the screen so the audiences can dream of her.
Looking at the mirror is alarming. After passing through many kinds of events and thoughts without reminding myself of how I look, my heart shrinks into nothing. I avert my eyes from the mirror and open a black garbage bag. The bag becomes about a quarter-full.
When I come out from the bathroom, Mr. Nozaki is carrying three garbage bags, which are full of vegetable skins and customers’ leftovers.
“Oh, mi amour,” a chubby Marcus says to me. He always leaves work without eating anything. He must not have eaten since lunch time and he has to start another shift in less than half a day. How can he be so chubby?
“Mañana,” he whispers to me. Mr. Uchida glares at him.
“Adiós. Bye,” I say.
There is a vase of pink roses surrounded by white flowers with thin stalks. The flowers are bunched too tight in the small vase. I hold it carefully to wipe under it. Then I bring food to the employees at the table. I sit in front of Mr. Uchida and next to Ms. Chie. It is around midnight. Mr. Nozaki and the Mexican helpers have made soup with the bones of salmon and some vegetables. There was very little meat around the bones, but I know these bones can make a good broth. We need plates on which to throw bones! I set a plate in the middle of each table. Yes, we all work for the money and are not interested in being gourmets.
Mr. Nozaki eats quickly and goes downstairs to change his clothes. I say to Mr. Uchida, “Mr. Nozaki is a mystery to me. I am always curious about him.” Then Ms. Chie makes an irritated face.
“Don’t call older people a mystery,” she says with a nervous laugh. I think I know what Ms. Chie is thinking. She used to work at a bank in Japan. She said it is so serious there that you have to engage in each conversation and make each movement with dignity. She has told me before that not only do I not have any professional work experience in Japan, but that I also have no common sense, and I have no idea how to be formally polite at work.
“You have never gone through what I’ve experienced in Japanese society,” I remember she said once.
Ms. Chie means that younger people should not comment about older people in a work environment. Ms. Chie also does not like the fact that she has to share tips with me, half-and-half. Sharing tips equally with a younger person? This kind of thing must never have happened to her.
“Him . . . ,” Mr. Uchida says quietly. “I feel Nozaki was abused by his family back in Japan or something like that. He told me he has not contacted any family members for a long time. He does not even know where they live. I suggested he contact City Hall to find out where his family is.”
What makes Mr. Uchida believe that Mr. Nozaki was abused? I cannot imagine Mr. Nozaki would tell anyone about it. Is it only because he has not contacted his family? Is it because of his oppressed personality? Nevertheless, it is clear that Mr. Nozaki does not have good memories about what happened to him in Japan. Usually, no matter how much you hate your family, you know where they are.
Mr. Nozaki comes up from downstairs, wearing his own jacket and pants. As many people do on cold days in New York, he is wearing a puffy jacket. It is not a common black down-jacket. His is made of gray-checkered fabric covering the puffy fiber filling inside. Where did he get this jacket? I wonder. His own clothes do not look as shabby as his uniform.
“Goodbye,” almost all the workers murmur. Subtly he nods, or seems to. The door closes slowly and the cold wind pushes against the door. A sharper air enters and cuts into the dull air in the room. His leaving makes the place somewhat different, like the moment when the light becomes brighter after the last customer leaves. Slyly, my eyes meet Ms. Chie’s confident gaze.
“Yes, he is a poor guy, as Mr. Uchida says,” Ms. Chie begins.
“True,” Mr. Uchida says, “He shows his bad mood to me all the time.”
“Even to you?” Ms. Chie exclaims. “I understand that he does it to us, but not to you. You’re the head chef, you have a higher status.”
I have just taken a large bite, but Ms. Chie mentioning the word “status” keeps me from chewing it for a few seconds. I swallow it.
“Status sounds Japanese.” I say. This is a stereotypical thing to say. Ms. Chie and I glance at each other again, knowing that I have just said the type of thing that makes me uneasy myself. Uneasiness—is everywhere.
“Well,” Ms. Chie begins kindly like a kindergarten teacher. “We are working at a Japanese restaurant. It is important to respect our traditional values—respecting the status of people, being more polite to them than we are to our peers. These days, young people often do not appreciate the beauty of Japanese culture. I know we are in America, the country of freedom, a country of fast food with bad service . . . I know you have almost no working experience back in our stricter society. So, working here is a good opportunity for you to learn about Japan.”
Ms. Chie is respectful. She has experience. But she cannot smile authentically at me. I think one of the reasons is that Ms. Chie has the fixed notion that I lack politeness and I am ignorant about what a disciplined society is like. I do try to be polite, but I sometimes get carried away and use words that are too rude for the situation as she sees it.
I rarely feel that Ms. Chie is actually trying to have a good moment with me, although we see each other three days a week, have dinner together and sometimes even have to kill time together. Ms. Chie nods silently, averting eye contact with me, always looking down or far away. When I talk about my neighborhood in Queens or about the customers we both know, she usually says innocuous things like, “Oh, I know,” or something similar. But Ms. Chie does smile at me in her twitchy way, and also at customers and at most older people, with the exception of Mr. Nozaki.
“Yes, yes, yes.” I am in a trap. I do not want to appear like an ignorant Japanese person abroad, who simply rejects “Japanese culture.” People like that often think themselves to be superior individuals because they are above the customary Japanese “standard.” In fact they are just mediocre, believing that Japanese people are characterless and always acting as a group. Being against the stereotypical Japanese culture does not necessary mean you are original. I do not want to become an affected dreamer from Japan.
“Don’t say yes many times. Once is enough,” Ms. Chie says. “Yes must be said only once” is a common Japanese expression. It does not sound so preachy with her half laughing voice.
I have stayed in New York much longer than Ms. Chie. She came here six months ago from Tokyo. At the beginning I was not scared of her as much as I am now. I asked her the reason why she came here, and she had more than one answer for the question. One of the things she said was that she had to have some type of special skill in order to survive in society, which is, according to her, becoming more and more unstable. “Who would take care of me if the company where I was working went bankrupt? Who would hire me if I were old and skill-less?” She said that many women do not take responsibility for their lives. What would you all do if your husbands died and if you have only been living as simple housewives? (I do not know whether she was ever a wife.) She thought acquiring a special accounting degree in the United States would give her a great advantage in her life. “There are not many people who have this type of accounting license in Japan,” she said. She also added that many companies would want her if she had the license. A special skill, that is the most important thing to have in this society, she told me. My parents also talked often about how difficult it is to survive in society. They told me to study and behave well and to be prepared for it. It was as if there were always auditions in society: The audition to win in school and in the job interview. The audition to impress the old producers and directors. I used to wonder what might happen to all those people who are not smart enough to survive. Do they starve to death? Do they become homeless? There was only one homeless person in my city. I saw him sleeping on the street. He was the dirtiest person I had ever seen and he was always walking with a big white dog. Neither of them was thin. He was always talking to himself and stroking his dog.
The sophistication of New York City was another reason Ms. Chie decided to come here. “I got tears in my eyes,” she said when she described the moment she climbed the Empire State Building for the first time. She hoped to live in this urban city with plenty of tourist spots. “I listen to many different languages around me. New York is my city. Just amazing! I will absorb everything, and I will survive as an international business woman.”
Besides “Goodbye,” we have a very common expression at the end of work, which can be translated as “Thank you very much for being tired because of your work.” I say that behind Ms. Chie, who walks out of the restaurant a few steps ahead of me. The big messenger bag on her right shoulder tilts her body to the right, and she is swinging her left arm wildly. The cold air touches my back. I walk slowly behind her and do not overtake her. I am tired tonight.
I feel that almost all the people in the post-midnight train to Queens are from restaurants. The Mexican men and boys sit with their legs open; the quiet passengers with jeans are probably servers. Those who dress well and have contented cheeks are perhaps customers. And the rest look tired, finished work or study. As we reach the Queensboro Bridge, many dots of light are forming the shape of the city. It is unbelievable that there are more people living in the city than the number of the dots. The skyscraper view from the Empire State Building that put tears in Ms. Chie’s eyes must have made the lights look even more gorgeous.
My place is on the top floor of a three-story family house owned by a Chinese family. I climb the stairs. From the landlord’s apartment, their conversation in Chinese leaks through the wall. They talk by shouting, as if they hate each other. I know they are not really fighting, because they always talk like this. A situation is not always what it sounds like. My room is an attic. The four walls meet at the zenith of the house. I sit on my bed. I see a young woman in the mirror hanging on the wall.
My name is Yuriko. Yuri means lily. I was born in a small village in the northern part of Japan on a stormy day. The storm was the strongest in the preceding few decades, and it destroyed my grandparents’ garden, including all the lilies. My grandfather loved lilies. I am not sure whether he gave me this name to replace the lost lilies, or if he wished me to be like a lily. My age is a secret; I am afraid you will imagine something wrong about me because of my age. I came to New York when I was in my late teens. My suitcase was not heavy, because I had not owned much besides school uniforms until then, and I did not have many other clothes: only a pajama for home, a pair of jeans, and some t-shirts and sweaters. I studied at an English language school for about a year. Some people said that I was good at English. Maybe it was because I like unknown things; English was totally unknown to me. I like how my mouth utters the strange sounds while it actually makes some meaning. English “I” became me, though I had never been “I” before. I imagine an unknown language as a total darkness, but within it each word has a slight shimmering light. I leave a word in the darkness and I start seeing the shape of the cave. I tried to use expressions that other students did not know. “I am prone to eating donuts recently.” “I do not have any congenial friends.” I wanted other students to look puzzled when I uttered these expressions. But their faces never changed. The teacher said, “Great! But we do not use the term often.”
Washing my face and feet is my requirement before going to sleep. I want my face to be clean and my feet to be warm. Slowly I take a few steps into my room. I wrap my feet with my blanket.
A dark room is my favorite place. I hide in it. I am invisible. I do not see any shadow of solitude. No one knows what is true loneliness. But if someone looked at my life, he would say that I have been lonely. I would hope to tell him so. I am always talking to myself.
“Why don’t you have any friends? Does no one like you?” my mother used to say. She often sat on a couch and viewed me out of the corner of her eyes. My mother was a young and beautiful lady, but I did not notice my mother’s beauty as much as other people did. I was too close to her to notice that. She did not wear any make-up, and she wore thick eyeglasses at home. She sometimes told me that a man on the street asked her to have tea with him. He said that she was really beautiful. After telling this to me, she changed her clothes to a more homely style. Her face hardened. I could see something opaque in her eyes. When she looked at me, her eyes glowed with hate as if she wanted to take revenge against me. I knew she believed that she sacrificed her entire life by giving birth to me.
“You were about to be killed; I was thinking of abortion. But when I saw you moving on the computer monitor . . . I felt sorry. Now I can tell you about my mistake. Never have any children. Never, ever. It ruins your life.” I was happy to hear that, because at least once my mother thought I was worthy of having a life and not ruining it.
“I want to live free without a child. Why don’t you have any friends to stay outside with?” She slammed the door of her bedroom when I came home.
Tell me—where are my friends? My classmates formed groups. I thought it was important to join them no matter what. I would approach a group and try to squeeze myself into it. When they seemed to like me, I felt comfortable. They wanted to form a harmonious and cheerful group. They went to the bathroom together, forming a herd in the corridor. I followed the herd, joining the end of it like a tail. But they did not need the tail any more. I started going to gym class alone. I felt other students averting their eyes away from me as if I were a homeless man.
“It might be a better idea for an incompetent person like you to go abroad . . . like maybe to The United States. Maybe no one likes you here. Maybe somewhere else . . . ,” my mother said one day on a whim, while she was watching Beverly Hills 90210 on TV.
“Yes?” Suddenly, the idea of a new world had come to me. And my father did not say anything in particular about the idea. I remember that I thanked them very much for letting me go.
“How courageous you are,” people often comment on my departure. There was no courage necessary because I was too naïve to imagine what I was supposed to be afraid of. If I had been an obese person on a diet, for example, and if there were a mountain of french fries, I would have eaten them instinctively rather then refrain from them in an intelligent fashion. I trusted my mother’s words about me, about my doing better in the United States. I thought many things were impossible at home, especially making a friend. My mother knew that. Escaping from the place I had been would bring a new love.
Everything that my mother said was rooted in what she was thinking about herself. I remember that my mother told me that if she ever had another life, she wanted to be born as a white woman.
“Their faces are beautifully sculpted. Their eyes are deep and expressive, while Japanese women have small, narrow eyes like crabs’ eyes. Their bodies are gorgeous and . . . their breasts are ten times bigger than Yuriko’s,” she laughed. So, it is possible that my mother told me to go to the United States based on her desire to be a different woman. But it is difficult for me to imagine being someone else. If I did not look like this and did not think like this, which part of me would actually be me? If I did not have this mother, who could have given birth to me?
Wrapping myself with a blanket, I wonder how Mr. Nozaki is doing now. He must be sleeping—how is he sleeping? I cannot picture him sleeping next to a woman, though you might say that one never knows. Perhaps he curses people all alone before he goes to sleep. Or maybe he just sleeps, like a child.
“Maybe working here is a good opportunity for you to learn about Japan.” Ms. Chie comes into my head then, cutting across my image of Mr. Nozaki sleeping. I decide to be quiet and good, speaking politely like a royal family member, when I work with her next time.