Ii Tomodachi

“Ii Tomodachi,” Friend, Aug. 1992, 8

Ii Tomodachi

Ev’ry one is needed For just what he can do. You’re the only person Who ever can be you. (Children’s Songbook, page 142.)

Susie sat at her desk in the back corner of the classroom, twirling a strand of shiny dark hair around and around her finger.

“Susie, do you have the answer to problem eleven?” Mrs. Marsh asked. “Susie?”

Suddenly hearing her name, Susie made the jump from her daydream to what was actually happening in the class. “No, Mrs. Marsh. I didn’t get it.”

She could hear someone in the class snicker. Why does somebody always have to snicker when you’re already feeling dumb? she wondered.

In her daydreams, nobody snickered at Susie. Of course, there was no reason to. In her daydreams, she always had the answer when the teacher called her. She was always picked first on the dodgeball teams. She was always surrounded by friends who thought she was smart and pretty. And she was always “all-American.”

Reality wasn’t nearly as nice. In reality, Susie was shy, not very athletic, not quick with the correct answers, not the popular blond beauty she wished to be. In reality, Susie was Japanese-American, and different from everybody else in her new school.

This week Susie had an additional problem: Tomorrow, Saturday, was Grandmother’s birthday. Grandmother Shizuko would be eighty years old. It was to be a very special birthday with a traditional Japanese dinner before the cake and ice cream. Grandmother had asked Susie earlier in the week to bring two friends to the party to meet her family. Grandmother was so anxious to meet her new friends that Susie couldn’t tell her that she hadn’t made any yet. Inviting friends to a Japanese dinner was not something Susie wanted to do, anyway. She wanted to be as American as possible. She didn’t want any of the kids at school to know how really different her family was.

Well, she would have to ask someone and just hope for the best. Actually there wasn’t much to lose. She couldn’t lose friends, because she didn’t have any. And the kids already knew that she was different, so …

Susie looked around the classroom. She decided to invite Dina, the smartest girl in the class, and Jackie, the friendliest. If she could choose anybody to be friends with, it would be Dina and Jackie. At recess time she gathered her courage and asked them. To her delight, they both said that they’d come. But would they think her family was strange?

As the time for Grandmother’s birthday dinner approached, Susie became nervous. She helped Mother set the table with the best china dishes, ones with a pale green bamboo design on them. She handed flowers to Mother, who arranged them in a beautiful centerpiece. Then she helped wrap the birthday presents and licked the beaters after Mother had frosted the birthday cake.

When the doorbell rang, Susie ran to answer it. Dina and Jackie stood on the porch, smiling. They were wearing pretty dresses and holding a package between them.

Susie took a deep breath and hoped that the party would go well for Grandmother’s sake and her own. She hoped once again that the girls wouldn’t find her family too strange, that they would accept her and her family as friends.

She led Dina and Jackie into the living room, where Grandmother sat in a large chair. “Grandmother, this is Dina and this is Jackie.” She turned to her guests. “This is my Grandmother Shizuko. I am named for her, but for Americans, I call myself Susie,” she explained.

The girls were not shy around Grandmother. “Are you really from Japan?” Dina asked.

“Yes. I was born in Japan, but I have lived in America for many years now,” Grandmother answered.

“Do you speak Japanese?” Jackie asked her. When Grandmother nodded with a smile, Jackie asked, “Would you teach us to say something in Japanese?”

Konban wa (kone-bahn wah),” said Grandmother, bowing her head slightly. “It means ‘good evening.’”

“Konban wa,” the girls said to Grandmother and each other.

“We brought you a birthday present,” said Dina, holding out the package.

Arigato (ah-lee-gaht-o).” Grandmother smiled. “That means ‘thank you.’”

The girls asked Grandmother what it was like to grow up in Japan. She told them stories about her childhood there, until Father announced that dinner was ready.

Everything was going well so far. The girls seemed to really enjoy hearing Grandmother’s stories and learning a few Japanese words. But what would happen now? What would they think of the food? The main course was sushi, a colorful green, yellow, and red roll made of rice, cooked eggs, vegetables, processed fish, and ginger, all wrapped in seaweed. There was also tai (tie), a cooked fish, and sekihan (sek-ee-hahn), a red rice, which symbolize good wishes; sunomono (su-no-mo-no), vinegared cucumbers; chicken teriyaki; and other delicious things. Afterward, the American traditional birthday cake and ice cream was served.

The girls ate some of everything, even the seaweed rolls, although they giggled when they found out what they were made of. “If I had known before that it was seaweed, I probably wouldn’t have eaten it,” Jackie said. “But I’m glad I did. It’s delicious.”

“We don’t always eat Japanese food like this,” Susie hastily put in. “Lots of times we have hamburgers or steak. We mostly eat American food.” She didn’t want them to think that she ate a lot of weird things.

“But this is terrific! I envy you,” Dina said.

To Susie’s amazement, Jackie nodded in agreement. And they looked like they really meant it. “You envy me?”

“Yes. You’re lucky to have such an interesting family with both American and Japanese traditions,” Dina told her.

“And a grandmother who can tell such interesting stories!” Jackie added. “She should come to school sometime to tell the class about Japan.”

“Oh, yes!” Dina agreed enthusiastically. “Your family is really unique.”

Unique! Susie had never thought of it that way. She had thought that her classmates would find her family strange, maybe even weird. But Dina and Jackie thought that they were unique, a family to be proud of! Susie felt ashamed for not realizing how special her family was.

As she looked at her family and new friends gathered around the table, Grandmother met her gaze and said “Ii tomodachi (Ee toh-mo-dah-chee),” which Susie knew meant “good friends.” And when Grandmother showed Dina and Jackie another Japanese tradition by presenting them with little Japanese bowls to take home, Susie was proud.

Counting to 100 in Japanese

The first five numbers are:

  • one—ichi (ee-chee)

  • two—ni (nee)

  • three—san (sahn)

  • four—shi (shee)

  • five—go (goh)

Chant them. Jog or skip rope to them. Then go on to the next five numbers.

  • six—roku (roh-koo)

  • seven—shichi (shee-chee)

  • eight—hachi (hah-chee)

  • nine—ku (koo)

  • ten—ju (joo)

Then you can go on from there. Eleven is made by combining ten and one (ten-one), or Ju-ichi. Twelve is ten-two, or Ju-ni. Can you go from one to nineteen?

Twenty, thirty, and so on are formed by saying two-ten, or Ni-ju, and three-ten or San-ju. So, twenty-three is ni-ju-san, and thirty-seven is san-ju-shichi. Can you count up to ninety-nine? One hundred is Hyaku (h’yah-koo).

Illustrated by Robyn Officer