One of us on the boat became pregnant but did not know it, and when the baby was born nine months later the first thing she would notice was how much it resembled her new husband. He’s got your eyes. One of us jumped overboard after spending the night with a sailor and left behind a short note on her pillow: After him, there can be no other. Another of us fell in love with a returning Methodist missionary she had met on the deck, and even though he begged her to leave her husband for him when they got to America she told him that she could not. “I must remain true to my fate,” she said to him. But for the rest of her life she would wonder about the life that could have been. (p. 15)
Most of them took little notice of us at all. We were there when they needed us and when they did not, poof, we were gone. We stayed in the background, quietly mopping their floors, waxing their furniture, bathing their children, cleaning the parts of their houses that nobody but us could see. We spoke seldom. We ate little. We were gentle. We were good. We never caused any trouble and allowed them to do with us as they pleased. We let them praise us when they were happy with us. We let them yell at us when they were mad. We let them give us things we did not really want, or need. If I don’t take that old sweater she’ll accuse me of being too proud. We did not bother them with questions. We never talked back or complained. We never asked for a raise. For most of us were simple girls from the country who did not speak any English and in America we knew we had no choice but to scrub sinks and wash floors. (p. 44)
Soon we could barely recognize them. They were taller than we were, and heavier. They were loud beyond belief. I felt like a duck that’s hatched goose’s eggs. They preferred their own company to ours and pretended not to understand a word that we said. Our daughters took big long steps, in the American manner, and moved with undignified haste. They wore their garments too loose. They swayed their hips like mares. They chattered away like coolies the moment they came home from school and said whatever popped into their minds. Mr. Dempsey has a folded ear. Our sons grew enormous. They insisted on eating bacon and eggs every morning for breakfast instead of bean-paste soup. They refused to use chopsticks. They drank gallons of milk. They poured ketchup all over their rice. They spoke perfect English just like on the radio and whenever they caught us bowing before the kitchen god in the kitchen and clapping our hands they rolled their eyes and said, “Mama, please.” (p. 74-5)
Perhaps the church would intervene on our behalf, or the President’s wife. Or maybe there had been a terrible misunderstanding and it was really some other people they had meant to take. “The Germans,” someone suggested. “Or the Italians,” said someone else. Someone else said, “How about the Chinese?” Others of us remained quiet and prepared to leave as best we could. We sent notes to our children’s teachers, apologizing to them in our broken English for our children’s sudden and unexpected absence from school. We wrote out instructions for future tenants, explaining to them how to work the sticky flue in the fireplace and what to do about the leak in the roof…We did last loads of wash in our laundries. We shuttered our groceries. We swept our floors. We packed our bags. We gathered up our children and from every town in every valley and every city up and down the coast we left. (p. 103)
People began to demand answers. Did the Japanese go to the reception centers voluntarily, or under duress? What is their ultimate destination? Why were we not informed of their departure in advance? Who, if anyone will intervene on their behalf? Are they innocent? Are they guilty? Are they even really gone? Because isn’t it odd that no one we know actually saw them leave? You’d think, says a member of the Home Front Commandos, that one of us would have seen something, heard something. “A warning shot. A muffled sob. A line of people disappearing into the night/” Perhaps, says a local air-raid warden, the Japanese are still with us, and are watching us from the shadows, scrutinizing our faces for signs of grief and remorse. Or maybe they’ve gone into hiding beneath the streets of our town and are plotting our eventual demise. Their letters, he points out, could easily have been faked. Their disappearance, he suggests, is a ruse. Our day of reckoning, he warns, is yet to come. (p. 124)
In The Buddha In The Attic, Julie Otsuka creates a piercing look at what it meant to be a Japanese woman coming to America just before WWII. Her writing in this novel uses a collective voice; the women tell their story in one pronoun such as “we” or “our”. This method unites them in purpose and spirit, while showing me, an American, just what they endured. The Buddha in The Attic is as powerful a work as I found When The Emporer Was Divine to be, one which does not illict false sympathy but rather true empathy, from her readers.