Kristin Ito

Sideways Branches

1986

I’m in preschool at a small Baptist church in southern California, and my teacher looks just like me. Mrs. Fujimoto is Japanese, and American, too, just like most of my family. She sports a permed bob and is short, under five feet—though in our eyes, she is tall as any other adult, living in that buzzy wavelength just above us reserved for the chatter of grown-ups. But Mrs. Fujimoto dips into our world easily, with her bright polka-dotted dresses, her dark wide eyes, the sing-song rhythms of her voice.

Mrs. Fujimoto has asked my mother to come in and help show the class how to make onigiri. That morning, Mom and I leave the house in the Buick with our large metal rice cooker strapped in the front seat like a passenger.

“Come now,” Mrs. Fujimoto says, ushering us into the classroom when we arrive. “Let’s make some rice balls.”

We read a Japanese children’s story about the rabbit in the moon, and after what seems like forever, the rice cooker clicks done. Mrs. Fujimoto removes the lid, and the steam rises like a geyser. We gather around, watching as she takes a shamoji and mixes the rice with quick movements, letting air into it until it’s pillowy and light. She dollops some onto each of our plates.

“Now, dip your fingers in the water,” she says. “And form a little ball.”

We rush to dunk our fingers and begin packing the rice like snow. It sticks to our palms and arms and clothes. We laugh and hold out our starfish hands.

“Mommy,” I shriek, turning to her. “Like this?”

Our rice balls look more like rice creatures, but Mrs. Fujimoto smiles and walks around the room sprinkling our creations with furikake.

“How many can we have?” Todd asks, his mouth half full.

Another day Mrs. Fujimoto says we’re going to make cherry blossoms. She takes a drinking straw and dips one end in a small cup of watercolor paint, then puts her mouth on the other and blows onto a sheet of white paper. We gasp. A spiderweb of thin black lines.

“Do it again,” we tell her.

I’m the helper today and hand Mrs. Fujimoto another piece of paper. She repeats the process, shooting out veins in different patterns, again and again, until there’s enough for all of us. The classroom is quiet as we crumple squares of pink tissue paper and paste them one by one onto our sideways branches.

* * *

2001

Grace is Asian, probably Korean, and I scowl at her from the back row. She’s reading the syllabus out loud, and I scan her outfit: 1950s vintage skirt (attempt to look playful), heather gray cardigan (attempt to look professorly), sensible flats (disappointing). I look around the room. There are fifteen of us in this discussion section of Freshman English, and I can feel something uncomfortable in the air.

Grace has asked a question. She’s looking somewhere right above my head, and I wonder if this is a tactic, like when they tell you to imagine everyone naked.

The silence is unbearable, but Grace doesn’t say anything. I avert my eyes.

Finally, a sycophantic boy sitting in the front row whispers something, and Grace nods her head, trying not to look too grateful.

I roll my eyes and look over at the girl next to me who must be thinking the same thing: Is it too late to switch into the section taught by the cute white guy?

Participation is a major part of the grade in Grace’s class, but I never raise my hand. I hate the way she leads discussions, letting the silences go on for too long. I hate the way her thick black hair sits flat and is parted with a small pink barrette. I hate that she’s getting her PhD in English and focusing on Victorian poetry like some T.S. Eliot groupie.

I continue to stew as the quarter goes on. During class all I can think is I know who you are and I know what you’re trying to do. I see you hanging out with that fellow grad student, the Prince Charming one who looks like you the least.

At the end of the quarter we read The Medium is the Massage. We learn that we’ve been worked over by the media. It happens slowly, a little bit at a time, until it’s pervaded our psyches. We learn that media, like clothing or books, are extensions of ourselves.

“Isn’t it more an extension of what other people think you are?” I say during one of the last discussions.

I never grow to like Grace, I never empathize. I never admit to myself, even when I end up choosing English as my major, why I hated her.

I never understand how rice balls and cherry blossoms are now so far away, how they are no longer mediums, how I can’t go back.

 

Kristin Ito’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in journals like The Los Angeles Review, High Desert Journal, and WhiskeyPaper. Kristin prefers chips and guac over any dessert, but a slightly sweet margarita is one of her favorite things in the world.

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