Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

From The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf, 2011).

We settled on the edges of their towns, when they would let us. And when they would not—Do not let sundown find you in this county, their signs sometimes said—we traveled on. We wandered from one labor camp to the next in their hot dusty valleys—the Sacramento, the Imperial, the San Joaquin—and side by side with our new husbands, we worked their land. We picked their strawberries in Watsonville. We picked their grapes in Fresno and Denair. We got down on our knees and dug up their potatoes with garden forks on Bacon Island in the Delta, where the earth was spongy and soft. And when the harvest season was over we tied our blanket rolls onto our backs and, cloth bundles in hand, we waited for the next wagon to come, and we traveled on.

The first word of their language we were taught was water. Shout it out, our husbands told us, the moment you begin to feel faint in the fields. “Learn this word,” they said, “and save your life.” Most of us did, but one of us—Yoshiko, who had been raised by wet nurses behind high-walled courtyards in Kobe and had never seen a weed in her life—did not. She went to bed after her first day at the Marble Ranch and never woke up. “I thought she was sleeping,” said her husband. “Heatstroke,” the boss explained. Another of us was too shy to shout and knelt down and drank from an irrigation ditch instead. Seven days later she was burning up with typhoid. Other words we soon learned: All right—what the boss said when he was satisfied with our work—and Go home—what he said when we were too clumsy or slow.

In the beginning we wondered about them constantly. Why did they mount their horses from the left side and not the right? How were they able to tell each other apart? Why were they always shouting? Did they really hang dishes on their walls and not pictures? And have locks on all their doors? And wear their shoes inside the house? To whom did they pray? How many gods did they have? Was it true that they really saw a man in the moon and not a rabbit? And drank the milk of cows? And that smell? What was it? “Butter stink,” our husbands explained.

Stay away from them, we were warned. Approach them with caution, if you must. Do not always believe what they tell you, but learn to watch them closely: their hands, their eyes, the corners of their mouths, sudden changes in the color of their skin. Make sure, however, that you don’t stare. Expect the worst, but do not be surprised by moments of kindness. Remember to make them feel comfortable. Appear eager to please. Say “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all.

Some of us worked quickly to impress them. Some of us worked quickly just to show them that we could pick plums and sack onions and crate berries just as quickly if not more quickly than the men. Some of us worked quickly because we had spent our entire childhoods bent over barefoot in the rice paddies and already knew what to do. Some of us worked quickly because our husbands had warned us that if we did not they would send us home on the very next boat. I asked for a wife who was able and strong. Some of us came from the city, and worked slowly, because we had never held a hoe. “Easiest job in America,” we were told. One of us collapsed before she had even finished weeding her first row. Some of us wept while we worked. Some of us cursed while we worked. All of us ached while we worked—our hands blistered and bled, our knees burned, our backs would never recover. One of us was distracted by the handsome Hindu man cutting asparagus in the next furrow over while she worked and all she could think of was how much she wanted to unravel his white turban from his enormous brown head. I dream about Gupta-san nightly. Some of us chanted Buddhist sutras while we worked and the hours flew by like minutes. Many more of us sang the same harvest songs we had sung in our youth and tried to imagine we were back home in Japan. Because if our husbands had told us the truth in their letters—they were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors, in the fields, beneath the sun and the stars—we never would have come to America to do the work no self-respecting American would do.

They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands. Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat, which on summer days in the melon fields of Brawley could reach 120 degrees. They said our short stature ideally suited us for work that required stooping low to the ground. Wherever they put us they were pleased. We had all the virtues of the Chinese—we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite—but none of their vices—we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat. We were faster than the Filipinos and less arrogant than the Hindus. We were more disciplined than the Koreans. We were soberer than the Mexicans. We were cheaper to feed than the Okies and Arkies, both the light and the dark. A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives. These folks just drift, we don’t have to look after them at all.

Sometimes the boss would approach us from behind while we were bending over his fields and whisper a few words into our ears. And even though we had no idea what he was saying we knew exactly what he meant. “Me no speak English,” we’d reply. Or, “So sorry, Boss, but no.” Sometimes one of our husband’s unmarried worker friends approached us the moment our husband stepped away and tried to slip us a five-dollar bill. “Just let me put it in once,” he’d say. “I promise you I won’t even move it.” And every now and then we’d give in and say yes. Perhaps we were unhappy with our husbands, who went out to play cards and drink every night and did not come home until late. Or perhaps we needed to send money to our family back home because their rice fields had once again been ruined by floods. Even those of us who were not pretty were often offered gifts on the sly: a tortoiseshell hairpin, a bottle of perfume, a copy of Modern Screen magazine that had been stolen from the counter of a dime store in town. But if we accepted that gift without giving anything in return we knew there would be a price to pay. He sliced off the tip of her finger with his pruning knife. And so we learned to think twice before saying yes and looking into another man’s eyes, because in America you got nothing for free.

Sometimes they drove by our farm shacks and sprayed our windows with buckshot, or set our chicken coops on fire. Sometimes they burned down our fields just as they were beginning to ripen and we lost our entire earnings for that year. And even though we found footsteps in the dirt the following morning, and many scattered matchsticks, when we called the sheriff to come out and take a look he told us there were no clues worth following. And after that our husbands were never the same. Why even bother? At night we slept with our shoes on, and hatchets beside our beds, while our husbands sat by the windows until dawn. Sometimes our husbands bought themselves guard dogs, which they named Dick or Harry or Spot, and they grew more attached to those dogs than they ever did to us, and we wondered whether we had made a mistake, coming to such a violent and unwelcoming land.

Some of us moved out of the countryside and into their suburbs and got to know them well. We lived in the servants’ quarters of the big houses in Atherton and Berkeley, above Telegraph, up high in the hills. Or we worked for a man like Dr. Giordano, who was a prominent thoracic surgeon on Alameda’s gold coast. And while our husband mowed Dr. Giordano’s lawn and pruned Dr. Giordano’s shrubs and raked Dr. Giordano’s leaves we stayed inside with Mrs. Giordano, who had wavy brown hair and a kind manner and asked us to please call her Rose, and we polished Rose’s silver and we swept Rose’s floors and we tended to Rose’s three young children, Richard, Jim, and Theo, whom we sang to sleep every night in a language not their own. Nemure, nemure. And it was not at all what we had expected. I have come to care for those boys as though they were my own. But it was Dr. Giordano’s elderly mother, Lucia, whom we came to care for the most. She followed us from one room to the next as we dusted and mopped and not once did she ever stop talking. Molto bene. Perfetto! Basta così. And for many years after her death her memories of the old country would continue to linger with us as though they were our own: the mozzarella, the pomodori, the Lago di Como, the piazza in the center of town where she went shopping with her sisters every day. Italia, Italia, how I long to see it one last time.

It was their women who taught us the things we most needed to know. How to light a stove. How to make a bed. How to answer a door. How to shake a hand. How to operate a faucet, which many of us had never seen in our lives. How to dial a telephone. How to sound cheerful on a telephone even when you were angry or sad. How to fry an egg. How to peel a potato. How to set a table. How to prepare a five-course dinner in six hours for a party of twelve. How to light a cigarette. How to curl your hair so it looked just like Mary Pickford’s. How to wash a lipstick stain out of your husband’s favorite white shirt even when that lipstick stain was not yours. How to talk to a husband. How to argue with a husband. How to deceive a husband. How to keep a husband from wandering too far from your side. Don’t ask him where he’s been or what time he’ll be coming home and make sure he is happy in bed.

When they were unhappy and had no one to talk to they told us their deep, darkest secrets. Everything I told him was a lie. When their husbands went away on business they asked us to sleep with them in their bedrooms in case they got lonely. When they fell in love with a man who was not their husband we kept an eye on their children while they went out to meet that man in the middle of the day. We brushed invisible specks of lint from their blouses, retied scarves, adjusted stray locks of hair so they hung just so. “You look beautiful,” we said to them, and then we sent them on their way. And when their husbands came home in the evening at the usual hour we pretended not to know a thing.

Some of them dismissed us without any warning and we had no idea what we’d done wrong. “You were too pretty,” our husbands would tell us, even though we found it hard to believe this was true. Some of us were so inept we knew we would not last more than one week. We forgot to cook their meat before serving it to them for supper. We dropped their best crystal goblets. We threw out their cheese by mistake. “I thought it was rotten,” we tried to explain. “That’s how it’s supposed to smell,” we were told. Some of us had trouble understanding their English, which bore no resemblance to what we had learned in our books. We said “Yes” when they asked us if we would mind folding their laundry, and “No” when they asked us to mop, and when they asked us if we’d seen their missing gold earrings we smiled and said, “Oh, is that so?” Some of us had grown up on large estates with servants of our own and could not tolerate being told what to do. Some of us did not get along well with their children, whom we found aggressive and loud. Some of us objected to what they said about us to their children when they did not realize we were still in the room. If you don’t study harder, you’ll end up scrubbing floors just like Yuki.

From time to time one of their men would ask to have a word with us in his study while his wife was out shopping and we did not know how to say no. “Is everything all right?” he would ask us. Usually we stared down at the floor and said yes, of course, everything was fine, even though this was not true, but when he touched us lightly on the shoulder and asked us if we were sure, we did not always turn away. “Nobody has to know,” he would say to us. Or, “She’s not due home until late.” And when he led us upstairs to the bedroom and laid us across the bed—the very same bed we had made up that morning—we wept because it had been so long since we’d been held.

A number of us found ourselves hunched over their galvanized-tin washtubs on our third day in America, quietly scrubbing their things: stained pillowcases and bedsheets, soiled handkerchiefs, dirty collars, white lace slips so lovely we thought they should be worn over and not under. We worked in basement laundries in Japan­towns in the most run-down sections of their cities—San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, L.A.—and every morning we rose before dawn with our husbands and we washed and we boiled and we scrubbed. And at night when we put down our brushes and climbed into bed we dreamed we were still washing, as we would every night for years. And even though we had not come all the way to America to live in a tiny, curtained-off room at the back of the Royal Hand Laundry, we knew we could not go home. If you come home, our fathers had written to us, you will disgrace the entire family. If you come home your younger sisters will never marry. If you come home no man will ever have you again. And so we stayed in J-town with our new husbands and grew old before our time.

In J-town we rarely saw them at all. We waited tables seven days a week at our husbands’ lunch counters and noodle shops, where we knew all the regulars by heart. We cleaned the rooms of our husbands’ cheap boardinghouses, and twice a day we cooked meals for their guests, who looked just like ourselves. We bought our groceries at Fujioka Grocery, where they sold all the things we remembered from home: green leaf tea, Mitsuwa Soap, incense, pickled plums, dried seaweed to help fend off goiters and cold. We bought our dresses at Yada Ladies’ Shop and our shoes at Asahi Shoe, where the shoes actually came in our size. We went to the public bathhouse every Saturday and gossiped with our neighbors and friends. Was it true that Kisayo refused to let her husband enter the house through the front door? Had Mikiko really run away with a card dealer from the Toyo Club? And whenever we needed advice in matters of the heart—Should I leave him or should I stay?—we went to Mrs. Murata, the fortune-teller, and we sat with her in her kitchen with our heads bowed and our hands on our knees while we waited for her to receive a message from the gods. If you leave him now there will be no other. And all of this took place on a four-block stretch of town that was more Japanese than the village we’d left behind in Japan.

Whenever we left J-town and wandered through the broad, clean streets of their cities we tried not to draw attention to ourselves. We dressed like they did. We walked like they did. We made sure not to travel in large groups. We made ourselves small for them—If you stay in your place they’ll leave you alone—and did our best not to offend. Still, they gave us a hard time. Their men slapped our husbands on the back and shouted out “So solly!” as they knocked off our husbands’ hats. Their children threw stones at us. Their waiters always served us last. Their ushers led us upstairs, to the second balconies of their theaters, and seated us in the worst seats in the house. Nigger heaven, they called it. Their barbers refused to cut our hair. Too coarse for our scissors. Their women asked us to move away from them in their trolley cars whenever we were standing too close. “Please excuse,” we said to them, and then we smiled and stepped aside. Because the only way to resist, our husbands had taught us, was by not resisting. Mostly, though, we stayed at home, in J-town, where we felt safe among our own. We learned to live at a distance from them, and avoided them whenever we could.

One day, we promised ourselves, we would leave them. We would work hard and save up enough money to go to some other place. Argentina, perhaps. Or Mexico. Or São Paulo. We would start all over again. Open our own fruit stand. Our own trading company. Our own first-class hotel. We’d plant a cherry orchard. A persimmon grove. Buy a thousand acres of rich golden field. And once a year, on our anniversary, we’d put on our lipstick and go out to eat. Someplace fancy, with white tablecloths and chandeliers. And when we’d saved enough money to help our parents live a more comfortable life we would pack up our things and go back home to Japan. It would be autumn, and our fathers would be out threshing in the fields. We would walk through the mulberry groves, past the big loquat tree and the old lotus pond, where we used to catch tadpoles in spring. Our mothers would be sitting by the well with their sleeves tied up, washing the evening’s rice. And when they saw us they would just stand up and stare. “Little girl,” they would say to us, “where in the world have you been?”

But until then we would stay in America just a little bit longer and work for them, for without us, what would they do? Who would pick the strawberries from their fields? Who would get the fruit down from their trees? Who would wash their carrots? Who would scrub their toilets? Who would mend their garments? Who would change their sheets? Who would cook their breakfasts? Who would clear their tables? Who would soothe their children? Who would bathe their elderly? Who would sing for them? Who would weep for them? Who would turn the other cheek for them and then one day—because we were tired, because we were old, because we could—forgive them? Only a fool. And so we folded up our kimonos and put them away in our trunks and did not take them out again for years.

| View All Issues |

August 2011

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now