Life Lessons From Mrs. Doi

WHEN I first met Mrs. Doi, I had no idea that this short, slender nisei (second generation Japanese-American) woman would have such an impact on my life.

A counselor at my high school in Rochester, N.Y., recruited Mrs. Doi as my tutor in 1971 when I decided to study the Japanese language as an independent study during my senior year. President Nixon's "Ping-Pong diplomacy" with China had interested me, but the tonality of the Chinese language scared me off.

On a language-instruction record I borrowed from the public library, Japanese sounded easy to pronounce. I imagined Japan as a land of kimonos and skyscrapers, an intriguing mix of tradition and modernity. Moreover, study of Japan offered me a chance to carve out a niche of my own, to distinguish myself from my classmates.

Mrs. Doi and I studied Japanese children's textbooks, and she told me stories that made the Japanese language come alive, like how her mother in Stockton, Calif., couldn't decide the correct way to count eggs in Japanese. Does an egg fall into the category of "pieces" counted in ko or does it simply use the generic tsu? The Japanese attach different suffixes to numbers depending on the shape or nature of the objects they count. I also learned about Japanese dialects from hearing that, as a child, Mrs. Do i laughed at her mother for talking funny on the telephone to friends from their hometown.

I think Mrs. Doi wished that her daughter Mimi would show the same interest in Japan. Early on, she suggested Mimi and I meet for one class. Mimi smuggled a textbook out of her house, and we practiced a Japanese dialogue to dazzle her mother.

"Watakushi wa Mimi desu," Mimi delivered her self-introduction perfectly. But the novelty of the language - so unlike the French or Spanish I had already studied - was too much for me. I panicked and failed to feed Mimi the lines she waited for.

If Mrs. Doi noticed Mimi's and my awkwardness, she never said anything. As a child of very critical parents, I took great pleasure in her encouragement. She patiently corrected my mistakes, never calling me "stupid" as my parents would have. I did my homework and showed up on time for every lesson.

During my senior year, Mrs. Doi and I met at the high school, but during the summer and when I visited during college vacations, I went to Mrs. Doi's home. Her small neat house held a different world for me. With its pale walls and matched furniture, it looked much more peaceful than my house, where bright Oriental rugs warred with multicolored furniture upholstered in different fabrics and with an eclectic display of antiques from around the world.

I felt like quite the adult when Mrs. Doi helped me off with my coat and hung it in her front-hall closet. I'd never been treated as an honored guest before. At home, I hung up my own coat - or Mom yelled at me.

After our lessons, sometimes we talked about more-personal matters over a cup of green tea, so different in taste from the orange juice or soda I usually drank. I was surprised the first time Mrs. Doi drank from her cup before pouring for me. But she explained that in Japan the hostess tests the tea before serving others.

Mrs. Doi spoke to me in a way no other adult ever had, like one grown-up to another. Sitting upright in her chair, with her hair neatly braided and coiled on top of her head, she told me in her soft voice about the wartime detention camps for Japanese-Americans. I was shocked. My gentle Mrs. Doi, an enemy? She was allowed to leave the camp for college in the Eastern United States, where there were no "dangerous" concentrations of Japanese. I was curious about that experience but felt it impolite to probe .

Mrs. Doi confided that she and her nisei husband had met and fallen in love American-style before they entered the camps, but they went through the formalities of an omiai (a traditional arranged marriage) to please their parents.

Mrs. Doi had accompanied her husband when he worked in occupied Japan, the source of the dishes in the china cabinet behind the table where she and I studied. They had spotted the dishes in the PX and looked for a nisei soldier to loan them money. They didn't ask the hakujin (Caucasian) soldiers, only the nisei. As her hakujin listener, I felt strange. Did she look upon me as an alien, too? I felt so close to her that I preferred to think of myself as an honorary Japanese-American.

When Mrs. Doi told me her stories, I almost felt like her daughter. And before I went off to college she taught me how to cook rice the Japanese way, washing off the talc and letting the rice sit for an hour to absorb the water. Years later, my husband thought it was strange the first time he saw my rice pot sitting on the burner without a flame. But he likes the taste of my rice.

In my junior year of college, I told Mrs. Doi I was going to Japan. She warned me, "Be careful if a man asks you to asobu." Asobu usually means to play, as children play with toys, but way down in the dictionary entries comes "make merry, visit the red light district, have a fling." Her motherly concern touched me.

Even after the Dois moved from Rochester to Seattle, we stayed in touch by mail, exchanging letters and postcards. I felt sure that Mrs. Doi cared about me.

When I got engaged, it seemed natural that my fiance and I visit the Dois in Seattle on our trip to see my mom's family in Vancouver, British Columbia. It wasn't just that Seattle was a manageable drive from Vancouver. It felt as if the Dois were part of my family with the right to check out Allan before the wedding.

By the time we visited the Dois, I had finished my PhD in Japanese history and had held a business job for a couple of years. So I wasn't surprised when Mrs. Doi's husband suggested that we call them by their first names - Jim and Mary. But I just couldn't do it. I couldn't upset my Japanese instinct to honor my teacher instead of treating her like a pal.

During the 20 years since my first Japanese lesson, I've studied with many outstanding teachers. But they can't begin to replace Mrs. Doi's tender care.

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