Out of the past

That marvelous farmer stood there in his rice paddy, wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, tan shirt and jodhpurs, puttees and boots - a vision from the past. My past. I could hardly believe what I was seeing from the bus.

I was on my first visit to Japan, reveling in the discovery that the countryside looks just the way the Japanese have always painted it and trying to pin down my own impressions in a sketchbook - when this vision appeared. The farmer was real enough. It was the sudden link to something I thought had gone out of my life forever that really startled me.

A rush of memories nearly obscured the sight of the present landscape, for there stood Oda-of-my-childhood, ostensibly a gardener but actually a passionate photographer who constantly followed me around, setting up his tripod and hiding under his hood while he frantically changed the plates in his big camera. He was fascinated with a birthmark on my left forearm and cajoled three-year-old me into all sorts of contorted gestures so he could get that mark into the picture. I, in turn, was fascinated by him and his equipment.

Later, Roy Nakahiro used to rumble along to our house in an ancient black model-T Ford pickup which held not only the tools of his trade but usually the youngest members of his family as well. While his father worked, Toshio and I played with toy cars and argued about such things as whether you could eat ants if they crawled into your salad. We adored each other, but one day he announced he couldn't play with me anymore. I was a girl and not worthy of his attention. He went off to school and a boy's life, leaving me desolate.

Toshio's sister Frances and little brother Fumio turned up to take Toshio's place, but eventually they too progressed beyond my ken. Eldest sister Mary now came to keep an eye on me the evenings my parents went out.

Sometime during those years my grandfather brought me a little flowered kimono, thonged sandals, and paper umbrella from one of his trips to Japan. My first-grade teacher went to Japan also, and upon her return taught the class some Japanese songs and dances. I performed them for Roy one day in the driveway , dressed in the kimono and zoris, twirling the umbrella. I remember his pleased excitement as he corrected my mistakes and rehearsed me by the orange tree until I got it absolutely right.

Then there was George Goto across the street. George made us kites of bamboo and tissue paper and showed us how to fly them. He, like Oda and Roy, wore the tan shirt, baggy trousers, puttees and boots typical of Japanese outdoor workers , just as did the men in the truck gardens and strawberry fields outside town. George taught us how to cook rice and to use chopsticks, along with many other practical matters. Whenever we got into difficulties, we neighborhood children turned to George, who seemed to be able to solve all problems. And I liked the Japanese kids in school, who were bright and lively, serious about learning, honest and reliable friends.

Many Californians were more aware of the Orient than of Europe - or even ''back East'' in our own country - because we lived on one side of a connecting ocean. Since the Japanese families came from the other side of our water circle, there was a great deal of coming and going in both directions. We shared the ocean.

Then came Pearl Harbor, shattering that Pacific world. All the Japanese in southern California were rounded up and sent off to internment camps. I couldn't understand, even though I was told the reasons. Santa Anita race track, only a few miles from our house, became a concentration camp, surrounded by barbed wire fences and watchtowers, and filled with flimsy huts. We avoided it. It was all so strange, so incomprehensible.

My grandfather, who had met the current ambassador, Nomura, in his travels, kept insisting that Mr. Nomura was an honorable man. He seemed as bewildered as I. We looked on helplessly as war overtook us and swept us into unimaginable events.

After it was all over, a few Japanese drifted back. Some, who were students at the junior college, lived with us, exchanging help around the house for room and board. I recall going to the beach with two of them one day and understanding for the first time what it felt like to be of the ''wrong'' race. Other people glared at us and hassled us till we left. It was a shock.

A few years later I left home and for several decades was cut off from Japanese, though the yearning to go to Japan never abated.

At long last, however, here I was, exploring the world from which so many cherished figures of my childhood had come. When the farmer appeared in his field, I felt as though I was entering a part of my own heritage. The sight of him suddenly connected past and present to restore a sense of wholeness where for so long there had been a gap. Mutely, I rejoiced as we rode on our way and the farmer vanished from view, unaware of his effect on a passerby.

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