Please welcome today’s guest writer, India Daniels (’17). India studied English literature and history at Calvin. She is serving a year as an Americorps VISTA curriculum development specialist for Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting literacy and parental engagement in Chicago’s North Lawndale schools.
When we walk into the living room late on Saturday, several boxes of small, round fruit sit on the windowsill. Haruko nods at me and gestures to the fruit and several large jars sitting on the ground as she speaks rapidly in Japanese. Shiki rolls his eyes at his mom with a smile and says, “Have you ever had red fermented plum?”
I think for a second. “Did we put them in rice balls when we went to the lake last summer?”
“Yeah! She is going to make them and she waited for you to come help her. She made me do it a lot when I was younger.”
This is my second time visiting my boyfriend Shiki’s family in Japan. The handful of useful phrases he’s taught me are coming back, but I’m feeling guilty. Shiki is fluent in English after six years of schooling in the U.S., his sister who studies English at university can carry a simple conversation with me, but my interaction with the rest of the family consists mainly of smiles and bows. I can barely count to ten. I’ve forgotten colors. I was an English major and a Spanish minor; I dabble in Latin roots and enjoy deciphering Romance language cognates, but I’m at a loss with Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji characters.
On Sunday afternoon, Haruko shows me how to use a wooden skewer to pick the stalks out of each plum. There are two varieties: many hard, green plums from nearby and a few kilos of softy, rosy Nankou plums from Wakayama. This is quick, satisfying work and we plunk each plum into plastic buckets, which we then fill with water. They soak overnight.
Even as I tell myself I’ll study Japanese in earnest this time, I self-consciously cling to the language barrier. I’m content to sit as voices wash over me, with occasional translation from Shiki. Learning Japanese to communicate with his family seems a daunting commitment. And if I did, they might find me out—that I am naturally quiet and sometimes awkward.
The next evening, jet lag starts to hit me again (and the big dinner of miso soup, tempura vegetables, tofu, and raw katsuo fish adds to my drowsiness), but Haruko has set everything in place for the fermentation. She shows me how to squirt the plums with shochu from a carton that helpfully includes the English words “White Liquor.” We toss the plums with shochu and rice vinegar and roll them in a bag with flakey sea salt. Next, we layer them in a jar, sprinkling more salt along the way and placing a weight at the top.
Shiki is occasionally embarrassed when I draw attention to his own distinctive accent and manner of speaking English. He dispenses with articles that were admittedly not essential, casually disregards gendered pronouns, and phrases things in an oddly whimsical way that I catch myself mimicking. I’ve learned to reign in my sesquipedalian tendencies. When I choose a more obscure word, I’ve started asking him if he knows what it means. More often than I expect, he shakes his head. He humors me while I get didactic for a second and then we move on. I know I need to cultivate a similar humility when it comes to learning Japanese.
We repeat the drenching, salting, and layering five times, with Haruko saying “OK, OK, OK!” when I drop a plum and Shiki and his dad, Teruhiko, laughing at us as they watch TV. Haruko isn’t following a precise recipe but she points at a picture in a cookbook of the wrinkly red plums we’re trying to make.
I’ve come to appreciate this about Haruko. When I would rather stick to polite smiles and communication mediated by Shiki, she speaks Japanese at me and throws in English words, gestures, and images until I understand. She’s forming a relationship with me through work we do with our hands, the fermentation of plums.
When we’ve filled all the jars, Haruko lifts a panel in the floor of the kitchen to reveal a small cellar. She jumps down and I pass the jars to her one at a time.
She cocks her head at me, holds up all fingers on her right hand and says hesitatingly, “Five . . . years?” She consults Shiki in Japanese and he corrects her: “Five weeks.” In five weeks, she will add red shiso leaves, to lend color and flavor to the tart plums. They will be ready to eat in a couple months.
Haruko says something else and I hear “U.S.” so I think she’s telling me she’ll send me some, because I’ll be home in Chicago by the time the plums have had proper time to ferment.
It won’t be years, but some things take time.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.