Obasan brings tea in dirty cups. Vivian seems ill at ease, and Naomi says she wishes she could banish the offensive smells and sights from the house. The Barkers ask if Obasan will be all right. Deaf, she does not answer them. Mr. Barker praises Uncle, whom he calls Sam, and says, “ ‘It was a terrible business, what we did to our Japanese.’ ”
Naomi thinks about the well-intentioned questions and comments she often gets about whether she likes Canada, how good her English is, and if she’s ever been “back” to Japan. She says she is from Canada. The fact that Obasan is not puts her in “silent territory,” beyond multiculturalism and racism.
While Chapter 31 intimates that Naomi’s father has died, we don’t find out for sure until Chapter 32. This uncertainty mirrors Naomi’s own refusal to comprehend her father’s death. Because the news is too staggering for her to take in, she shuts down. Instead of coming to grips with the death of her parent, she channels her attention toward the injured frog. This creature resembles the chicks and kittens of previous chapters in his helplessness and innocence, and becomes a receptacle for the love Naomi will no longer be able to express to her father. His recovery is bittersweet: It is a pleasant surprise, and shows the success of Naomi’s kind ministrations, but it also underlines Naomi’s powerlessness to bring back her father.
Chapter 34 features our first glimpse at an extended interaction between Naomi and white people since Rough Lock Bill saved her life at the lake. While many chapters have contained references to snubs, racist remarks, or the threat of physical violence, these references have been fleeting. Here we get a long look at an uncomfortable meeting of cultures. The interaction is particularly fraught because the Barkers employed Naomi’s family during the war years, which makes them directly responsible for the subhuman living conditions their employees suffered. Mr. Barker’s remark about the bad treatment of “our Japanese” is not only clichéd and offensive, it is dripping in unintentional irony. He fancies himself a kind man who has embraced multiculturalism, and perhaps he is. Even if his intentions are sterling, however, that does not erase the fact that his pleasantry about the poor treatment of Japanese Canadians grossly understates his own part in that poor treatment.
Chapter 34 suggests that good intentions are not enough. It is nice of the Barkers to pay their condolences, but their behavior once they get to Obasan’s house undermines their kind gesture. Mr. Barker hollers at Obasan in broken English, as if she will understand bad grammar more easily; Vivian perches on the edge of her seat as if loath to touch the furniture; both seem ill at ease. Similarly, the good intentions of people who ask Naomi whether she likes Canada, among other questions, do not excuse their cluelessness.
Naomi reacts with irritation to the Barkers, just as she does to the offensive questions. When she says she wishes she could erase the unfamiliar smells of Japanese food from the house, or see the dust she and Obasan are too short to see, she is being sarcastic and displaying her frustration with the stereotypical thinking of white Canadians. But if anything, her reaction is remarkably measured. She wonders if perhaps Vivian is being solicitous, rather than just condescending. She assumes that even her rudest interlocutors have kindness in their hearts.