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FELIZ NATAL! — MERRY CHRISTMAS!: The Brazilian Connection - Part 2

>> Part 1

Early the next morning, Cousin Hiroshi, who spoke fairly good English, Mandarin and Cantonese, Portuguese, and of course, Japanese, led us on a fascinating walk through the predominantly Japanese farmers' and growers' marketplace, which was the size of a huge stadium.  The place smelled refreshingly clean and spring-like.  There were boxes of all varieties and colors of papaya—red, yellow, orange, yellow-orange, some the size of boots, others like Hawaiian or larger fruit; star fruit; mangoes of all colors and sizes; various fruits found only in some local gardens.  There were also stall after stall of fresh, leafy green vegetables and herbs—a salad connoisseur's paradise.  There were all kinds of lettuces:  iceberg, Mānoa-type, green, yellow-green, Irish green, and varieties of onions, garlic, ginger, myoga, other Japanese roots and leaves rarely seen in American markets.  The flower markets were gorgeous as well, with countless varieties, including numerous orchids.

Then we came upon the Japanese food items, mostly Kuroda products.  Their trademark was a black stylized kanji for "ta," (rice field) encircled by a prominent black circle.  Kuroda products included various-size bottles of saqué, (sake), soja (shōyu), packages of yokan which Hiroshi said were tastier than the famous Toraya in Japan, fresh mochi and manju in packages of 10, and, of course, the jars and cartons of various types of tsukemono.  There was also soft and firm tofu, aburaage, varieties of kamaboko and tempura made in their factories.  When Hiroshi visited Honolulu, he wasn't interested in seeing tourist sites—he wanted to visit the tofu and kamaboko factories.  He remembered with gratitude how our friend Akira had taken him to those places in Kalihi.

"Do you still have that odd habit of jerking your head and looking over first one shoulder, then the other?" I asked Hiroshi as we sat down with a group of workers at a quaint udon place.

Hiroshi let out his infectiously loud laugh and slapped his muscular thigh.  He resembled the historic icon, Saigo Takamori, often characterized in full-length portraits and statues with his dog.  He had a crewcut hairstyle, sturdy shoulders and a muscular build.  Like Saigo, Hiroshi did not have a typical Japanese face and physique.

"Well, maybe that saved me." Hiroshi said, recalling his escape from the Chinese prison as a young Japanese recruit as World War II was coming to a close.  "I looked more like a northern Chinese.  Food was very scarce so the guards intentionally left the gates open for us to get out.  We did, found some old Chinese men's farm clothes and escaped.  But we had to keep looking over our shoulders all the time, our eyes were darting to and fro.  So I guess that habit stayed with me for a long time.  I don't think I still do that, do I, Alberto?"

Beto laughed and said it was the first time he'd heard that story and was impressed.  "We have one more place to go before Papai has to go back to work," he said.

We headed off to the next shed where the atmosphere smelled of dry dirt.  There were Portuguese and Italian men with their harvest of root vegetables: potatoes of all kinds, peanuts, pumpkins and large squashes.  They would later go to milk their cows, and make cheese, sausages and wine.

"We did not have fresh vegetables until the Japanese came," one farmer said.  "We eat a lot of tomatoes and use them in our cooking now, but we did not know how to grow and care for them," he said.  It was as João Murakami, the editor, had said:  They learned a lot from each other.  In Fukuoka, they had kabocha, which as Cambodian, but the Japanese also called them bobura, which came from the Portuguese work for pumpkin, abobura, Hiroshi had told us.

"We wish you could stay till Christmas -- it's only 10 days away," Obasama said.  "But I called Quimura-jisan to tell him you were here.  He merely grunted.  We always invite him for celebrations when friends from the countryside of Atibaia and Bragança come with some other distant relatives.  But he never comes.  Can't be bothered with so many people, he says.  But we will have a little party tonight before you and Sara leave."

The family and some guests were so fascinated by our three-way conversations.  Sara would translate their Portuguese for me, and I would translate her English into Japanese, as even the Sansei were proficient in their ancestral language, having attended Japanese language schools.  Then I would re-word their Japanese into English for Sara.  There was much laughter and nodding in comprehension.  Sara told them that in addition to English, she also spoke and understood "Pidgin."  Oh, we have that too, they said, for their everyday language was interspersed with Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Carioca Indian, English and Japanese.

Suddenly, there was a loud noise outside, like an old car sputtering and gasping for life.  The Akitas began barking strangely, as if they recognized the visitor.  In the near darkness, the family called out in unison:  "Quimura ji-san! You finally came!"

The tanned, casually dressed nonagenarian wore an old red and black checkered flannel shirt, weathered jeans and sturdy leather boots.  His body was tall and erect; he didn't look at all like an old man.  He hoisted a large white canvas bag on his shoulders and patted the dogs on their heads before running his fingers through the thick hair around their necks, soothingly muttering, "yoshi, yoshi."  He came no further than the steps.

"Feliz Natal (Merry Christmas)!" he said simply, leaning over and giving me a firm squeeze.  "Thank you for being nice to me in Japan many years ago.  I know you like kurume gasuri, so I brought you some and something for the others.  Merry Christmas!"

And with that he was gone—his diesel-guzzling vintage Mercedes in need of a new coat of paint and his tailpipe rattling down the avenida.  We saw him make a wide left turn from the far right lane, as if he were again riding his cabalo over the deserted pampas.

* This article was originally published in The Hawai'i Herald on December 19, 2008.  

© 2008 Fuku Y. Tsukiyama

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