9:05 p.m., August 9, 1972
The narrator, Naomi Nakane, and her Uncle Isamu go on their annual visit to the coulee (or ravine) near Granton in southern Alberta, Canada. Uncle blames his unsteady gait on his old age. As he crouches on the untouched land, Naomi muses that he looks like Chief Sitting Bull as depicted on a postcard of Alberta, a souvenir made in Japan.
She recalls the first visit she and Uncle made to the coulee, in 1954. Two months earlier, Naomi’s aunt, Emily, had visited Granton. Uncle had seemed upset since Emily’s departure, and visiting the coulee calmed him. Naomi, worried about snakes, wondered aloud if the coulee was dangerous. In response, Uncle asked how old she was. When she said she was eighteen, he smiled, told her she was too young, and said “someday.”
Now, at thirty-six, Naomi still doesn’t know what her Uncle thought she was too young to hear. She sits on the prairie grass next to Uncle and asks him why they come to the coulee every year, but he doesn’t answer. She takes his hand and asks again. He seems on the verge of saying something, but then he rubs at his face and shakes his head. Naomi goes to the bottom of the coulee to pick one flower, as she always does on these trips.
September 13, 1972
It is the beginning of the school year in Cecil, Alberta. Naomi teaches a class of fifth- and sixth-graders. She has taught in this room for seven years. This year, her pupils include two “Native girls”; Tami, a lovely child who is half European and half Japanese; and Sigmund, whom she identifies as a troublemaker. She tells him the correct pronunciation of her last name (“Na Ka Neh,” with shorts a’s), and he asks her if she’s ever been in love and if she’ll get married. According to his mother, Sigmund says, Naomi looks too young to be a teacher. Naomi wonders to herself whether her youthful looks or her “oriental face” were what caused the parents’ surprised looks when she first started teaching. Sigmund says a friend of his wants to date her.
Naomi recalls going on a date with a widower father of one of her students. He asked, as everyone does, where she came from. She was born in Canada. Her grandparents, who were born in Japan, were Issei (first generation), her mother was Nisei, second generation, and Naomi is Sansei (third generation). The widower peppered her with questions, but never asked her out again.
Sigmund calls Naomi a spinster, an old maid. She admits that she is, as is her Aunt Emily, who lives in Toronto. Naomi wonders to herself whether Emily has ever been in love. In the middle of class, a doctor calls with bad news about Uncle. We don’t yet learn what the news is. Naomi thinks of the people she must call. After school, she leaves for Granton. She is not looking forward to seeing her Obasan (aunt).
The first two chapters introduce us to some of the distinctions between first-, second-, and third-generation Japanese Canadians. For Naomi and Uncle, these distinctions manifest themselves most obviously in speech. Naomi was born in Canada, and English is her first language. The fluency with which she speaks contrasts with Uncle’s halting English. When he stumbles along the uneven ground near the coulee, for example, he says, “ ‘Too much old man.’ ” Uncle’s difficulty with English marks him as a relative newcomer to Canada. For Naomi, in contrast, mastery of the language identifies her as someone intimately familiar with Canada.
Naomi acts as a bridge between us, her English-speaking readers, and Uncle. When he says “ ‘Umi no yo,’ ” for example, it is Naomi’s translation (“it’s like the sea”) that allows us to understand him. Although the first chapter focuses on Naomi and Uncle alone with each other, apart from society, Naomi’s role as a go-between for us and Uncle suggests her larger role as go-between for Canadian society and her Japanese relatives. The Japanese words Naomi and Uncle share also link them to each other. Japanese is the language of their family, and the ability to speak it distinguishes them from other Canadians.
Chapters 1 and 2 begin to tackle the mishmash of cultures, ethnicities, and identities that make up Alberta, and in particular the small town of Cecil where Naomi works. In Naomi’s class alone, there are Native students, a Japanese European student, and a white redhead. Within each ethnic group, there are multiple generations of people at various removes from their countries of origin. Immediately in these chapters, we begin to see the difficulties caused by this diversity. Naomi’s students have difficulty pronouncing her name, for example, and a Native girl sits silently in the back of the classroom. These are small moments, but they suggest that everyday tensions and confusions might accumulate into a significant problem.
Naomi thinks a lot about her ethnicity and her status as an outsider in Cecil. We might interpret her attitude as a bitter one. When the class gasps in response to Sigmund’s announcement that his friend wants to date Naomi, she thinks that their shocked reaction is “[t]ypically Cecil.” She is well-aware that her presence initially threw the townspeople off guard, and their surprise still nettles her. She resents the curiosity everyone exhibits about her origins and her family’s ethnicity. When her widower date asks her where she’s from, for example, she says that she almost expected him to demand ID. But if we can read Naomi’s attitude as sarcastic, impatient, or even angry, we might with equal plausibility say that her attitude is one of wry humor and even restraint. For years, she has endured the stares and intrusive questions of the people in Cecil. It is perhaps a mark of her calm, measured reaction to her outsider status that she even wonders whether her youth caused the townspeople’s initial surprise, rather than concluding that it was certainly her “oriental face” that threw them off.