A Foreign Language

Michael Larson

After the doctors discovered Father’s leukemia and he checked into Tokyo General, a Western man I’d never seen came to visit him. The man wore a flat brim hat and black overcoat, and had a sharp, ivory face. I was sixteen, but my father was already old—he never liked to talk about the past, and he barely ever mentioned his years in England. Seeing this stranger with Father, I knew he was a ghost from a time before me, and understood that my features were a compromise between their faces.

“You must be Shima,” the man said to me. Then to Father: “It has been a while, Jun.”

English was my worst subject, and I was afraid I’d be asked to speak, but Father dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I listened to them talking through the door, and was shocked that my father’s voice could make those sounds. I knew he’d worked in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and that he’d spoken the language once, but he’d never said more than a couple words at a time in front of me. I’d assumed he’d forgotten it.

When the man left I followed him out, hoping to thank him for his visit, wanting to win some kind of clue about myself. But outside the hospital’s entrance, my words failed me. Rain was falling out of the night, though this didn’t bother the man, who took out a red package of cigarettes, stuck one in his mouth, and offered them to me. I wasn’t a smoker, but I took one and he lit it.

“Dunhills, fine British tobacco,” he said. Though I could recognize each word, it was difficult for me to understand when he strung them together. “Jun did good by you. My sister would’ve been proud.”

A car with diplomatic license plates pulled around. The man reached over and put the pack of cigarettes into my shirt pocket, took out his wallet and handed me a thick wad of money. After that night, I would bear down on my studies and pass the English proficiency tests, then apply to Cambridge, tracing my father’s footsteps halfway around the world; there I heard about the car accident that Father had survived, and that she hadn’t. And though it took me a long time, I learned enough to tell this story—to write down what I remembered about my uncle in his own language. Outside the hospital, when I reached out to shake his hand, he ignored the gesture, threw his cigarette on the ground, and got in the back of the car.

“Take care of your dad,” he said, before closing the door. Two months later, Father died. Though he’d always been distant I’d admired and, in my own way, loved him. But outside the hospital, as the car pulled away, I realized there were things about my father I would never know, entire oceans I could only see the surface of.