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When I was in elementary, it was just me, my baa-chan, and my mom in a cramped, but comfortable apartment in Lttle Tokyo. Every morning, I'd wake to the sound of rice boiling in a pot, vegetables being diced for a lunch side dish, the shrill whistle of a kettle that was full of o-cha, and the quick, flustered steps of my mom who was about to be late for work. I'd linger on the futon for a bit before getting ready for breakfast. On weekdays when I didn't have school, baa-chan would take me down into the plaza for some shopping. Even though life was a bit monotonous, predictable, and cyclical, it was peaceful.

When baa-chan took me down to the plaza, we'd always make rounds to Nijiya for groceries, and if we had some leftover money, she'd buy nikumans from Yamazaki and we'd eat outside the store. Sometimes we sat quietly while chewing and observed passers-bys; high schoolers donning colorful cosplays, families of different colors walking around with young children running about by the waterfall, long lines of people outside the various stores waiting to get their hands on the wonderfully vibrant toys and various knick knacks. It was always loud, bustling and most of all, colorful in LittleTokyo.

Sometimes, baa-chan talked to me about her elaborate and whimsical metaphors for life,which I never understood, Japanese folk tales, which I did understand, and what we were having for dinner, which was what I was most interested in. That was my Baa-chan who was always full of knowledge and wisdom.

In the spring, baa-chan and I would venture a little further and buy dagashi and mochi from Fugetsu-do. Even though we could make mochi ourselves, we lacked the arm strength to get it to be as stretchy and chewy as Fugetsu-do's. Plus, it was only during the spring when Fugetsu-do made their special sakura mochi. I always felt drawn to the rows and rows of colorful sweets that were as pillowy as they looked. We sat outside the store under the trees.

"Miu look," ba-chan's hands, which were gnarled like an old oak tree's roots, pointed up at a monarch butterfly that slowly descended onto a bush. "Did you know?This little one has come a long way."

“I know this; I learned it in class. It’s called met-uh-more-fa-sis.” I said, carefully sounding out all the syllables.

“That’s right, in Japanese we call it, ‘henshin.’” She stopped and pondered for a bit.“It’s a never-ending cycle of life and death. Even we humans go through it too, Miu, except that we don’t die as butterflies. We’re butterflies at our peak—adulthood—but start to regress into caterpillars when we get older. We die as caterpillars. This little one has come all the way from Mexico, and will go back again soon…”

I didn’t know why ba-chan was talking about this. Adulthood seemed so far away…

Then like a moth drawn to some invisible, imperceivable flame, ba-chan got up and started to walk away. This happened occasionally. Ba-chan would stop whatever she was doing and wander. Sometimes she would mutter, “I need to go home, someone is waiting for me.” “I’m right here ba-chan!” I would cry, but she would continue to walk away. I wondered if the ‘home’that she referred to was somewhere far away. Did she too, like the monarch butterfly, want to flyback to her birthplace?

It was morning again in the little apartment. I could hear rice being boiled in a pot, no vegetables being diced, the shrill whistle of a teapot, the heavy thumps from troubled footsteps, and the piercing cry of an ambulance.

"So when did this condition start?..."

The seats in the hospital were firm and soft, but not as springy as the rainbow dango fromFugetsu.

" …memory loss, hand tremors…"

It was bizarre to me that it smelled like nothingness here, unlike the sweet scent permeating from Cafe Dulce’s dinosaur eggs and the savory smells of chashu and broth broiling that seeped from the local ramen store's, Daikokuya, noren.

"… progressed into a serious stage…"

I looked up to find an unfamiliar ceiling staring back at me. It, along with the flooring looked so plain that when I sat upside down, I couldn't distinguish the two.

“…deep cut will take some time to heal, but please make sure to take your donepezil.” The ride home from the hospital was quiet, but not in a peaceful way.

Ba-chan stopped preparing meals after that. Our little excursions to town became less frequent. Mom took a breakfrom work. Ba-chan started to undergo her metamorphosis.

Day by day, ba-chan changed little by little. My cool and collected ba-chan who never raised her voice at anyone now throws fits at the slightest inconvenience. My knowledgeable and wise ba-chan who could recall all her rich life experiences and tell me stories about anything now stares blankly and listlessly at the window. My one and only ba-chan who was also my best friend now sometimes forgets who I am. My ba-chan is gone. Who was this stranger? I want my ba-chan back…

One day, the stranger started to rummage through ba-chan’s belongings. Worried that she might damage one of ba-chan’s beloved keepsakes, I rushed into ba-chan’s room to see what she was doing.

“Oh Miu,” She crooned.“What’s this?”

Her hand gingerly clutched a Hina Doll. I knew what it was: it was one of ba-chan’s most prized possessions because it had been passed down from our ancestors. It was also one of the few things ba-chan managed to keep when she immigrated to the United States.

“She’s the empress.” I said. “Remember, hii-obaa-chan passed it down to you. You used to tell me about when hii-obaa-chan forgot to put the Hina Dolls away after Hinamatsuri,which is why you married oji-chan so late.”

And just for a second, I see ba-chan cast in the stranger’s eyes. My heart starts to pound a bit. She’s putting her index on her chin while looking to the left—it’s what ba-chan always used to do! I think for a second: maybe, if I can remind her of who she used to be, she can turn back into oba-chan!

“When hii-oba-chan passed away, you wanted to move to America because you heard the farmers here gave better pay.” I continued. “The only things you could take on the ship were a few clothes, which were mostly kimonos, a little less than $10, and this hina doll. The other dolls stayed with your siblings in Japan.” I knew these snippets of oba-chan by heart. I knew the longing look in her eyes when she thought about Japan and how her hands tightened around the doll.

“Who?…I don’t remember.” Her eyes started to cloud again.

My heart started to sink again. But this time, I had some hope. Maybe I needed to do a bit more to help oba-chan regain her memory. Maybe I could teach oba-chan to be herself again.

When I explained my plan to mom, she looked at me with a pained expression.

“I have to do this!” I insisted. “This might be our only way of getting ba-chan back!”

I could tell by her eyes that she didn’t believe me. Reluctantly, with a slight shake of her headand a sigh,mom let me take ba-chan down into Little Tokyo.

We were going to go on Saturday, just like we used to. I’d help ba-chan open her old wagasa while she put on her sandals and then she’d walk out the door first and I’d follow. But this time, I’d have to hold her hand and support her in case she stumbled. The handle of the wagasa wasn’t very long, so I had to go on my tippy-toes to shade ba-chan who was much taller than I. My arm got tired after walking for a bit so I retracted it. I hope ba-chan didn’t mind; she was always nagging about how too much sun was bad for the skin. It didn’t seem like she cared today anyways: the sun was gentle today. Sometimes the heat was unbearable, and the sun rays felt like they were cutting deep into you like a knife. But today, the sunbeams tickled. ‘Komorebi’, the light that filters through the tree leaves, was my favorite word that ba-chan taught me.

We made our way into the main plaza. It had been a while since I last went, but it looked, smelled, and felt the same.

“Ba-chan, look!” I gestured towards the classic electric warmer display inside Yamazaki.

Outside the store were the familiar signs that shouted, “FRESH HOT AND TASTY!” Ba-chan sometimes bought their rollcakes for me. “They’re unhealthy,” she would say. “It’s not good to eat them too often.” But today was a special day, and perhaps I should go buyher a cake.

“Ba-chan, wait here!” I commanded while pointing at one of the benches.

Quickly, I ran into the store and peeked out the door a couple times to make sure that ba-chan didn’t wander off. Inside Yamazaki, the first thing that catches your eye is the pastry display. Cream puffs, donuts, sliced cakes, and rollcakes lined the trays. If you go too early in the morning, they won’t have some of their dog cakes, which were my favorite. Today,we came in around noon, so they did have the dog cakes ready! Even though we weren’t really regulars, the shop owner recognized ba-chan and I.

Miu, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you!” She exclaimed. “You’ve gotten so much taller! Where is your grandma?”

“Ba-chan’s outside…can I get two mini dogs?”

“Sure thing!” She smiled and grabbed two of the cakes and put them neatly inside a box. “These are on the house!”

“No they’re not.They’re in the box.”The counter was a little taller than I, so it was a bit difficult to get the box. The owner stifled a laugh by hiding it with a thin smile. Maybe the store owner thought I looked like a cat pawing at fish that was out of its reach. Just as I was about to run out of the store, I could almost hear ba-chan’s voice naggingat me.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” I said, lowering myself into a deep bow. “Thank you very much.” Much to my relief, ba-chan was still outside staring up at the red lanterns that hung above

“Ba-chan! I got cake for us!”

“Oh, did you now?” She looked a bit happier.

Huh? The ba-chan I knew didn’t like sweets. I was hoping that she would reprimand me, like the old times, and refuse the cake. That way, I could eat two slices today. I shook my head, today wasn’t about cake! Even if it was the perfect opportunity to sneak in a few sweets,especially since mom wasn’ there, today was about getting ba-chan’s memory back.

“Ohh my favorite!” Ba-chan said and started digging into the cake.

Our next destination was the Koyasan Buddhist Temple. Ba-chan, who was a devout Buddhist, went there every week to meditate and give offerings to the temple. She could sit still like a rock for many minutes. I’ve always wondered what she would pray about.

We entered the temple. I watched ba-chan closely. Did she recognize this place? Did Buddha have the power to restore her memories? Ba-chan looked around.

“Ohh what a pretty place!”

Still nothing. Deep down, the gnawing feeling of despair started to claw at my throat. I knew she wouldn’t recognize this place. I knew Buddha couldn’t do anything like that. “Buddha isn’t god,”Ba-chan would say.“ He is our teacher. All he can do is point us in the right direction. We have to walk the path to enlightenment through our own actions and thoughts.”The last thing I coulld think about doing with Ba-chan was going home and preparing dinner.

Mother wasn’t home today: she needed to run a few errands for her company. It would just be me and ba-chan. What would we make today? Ba-chan used to prepare chicken katsu,karaage, tamago gohan, udon, sandos, and so much more. I thought long and hard about this.Ba-chan’s favorite recipe was oyakodon, which was just chicken, egg, and greens draped over rice.

“Wait here!” I carried a chair over to the kitchen for ba-chan to sit on.

This was the first time I was going to cook without ba-chan, but I could almost imagine hearing her voice guide me.“Gather the green onions first. Then cut them like this.” Ba-chan would curl her fingers so that her hand looked like a closed paw. “Turn the heat on and put the pan over it. You’ll know when it’s warm enough when you feel the heat.” She would rotate her hand so that the back of it would face the heat. “Then cut the chicken sogi-giri style. ”Very skillfully, she would cut the meat at an angle. It was a simple dish, but ba-chan had very particular ways of doing things, and I remembered all of them. She liked her rice a bit drier, so I would scoop hers from the top of the layer. She liked her chicken to be marinated in ginger dashi. She didn’t like the chicken breast because it was so dry.

The oyakodon came out very badly. My knife skills weren’t very good so the chicken was mutilated, the egg was slightly overcooked because I forgot how to set a timer, and the green onions were cut like a preschooler's paper project. It was imperfect, but I knew I would be able to perfect it later with ba-chan’s guidance. Even though the oyakodon wasn’t very good, ba-chan finished it.

Ba-chan never did get her memory back. No matter how many places I went with her, dishes I cooked for her, Shinto-scripts I read to her, old keepsakes I showed her, ba-chan wouldn’t stop forgetting. Eventually, I came to terms with it. Even though ba-chan would never remember, I would. As long as I never forgot a single thing she taught me, she would be alive in my heart.

They say when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. Ba-chan is gone, but her legacy and culture aren’t. I’ve done my best to preserve that vast library of hers over the years. Sometimes I volunteer at the temple to hold meditation sessions. Sometimes I buy bento boxes from Nijiya because they remind me of Ba-chan’s cooking. Sometimes I go to Fugetsu-do to get the dango that ba-chan and I always failed to make. I’m now an adult, and it’s just me, mymom, and Little Tokyo.


*This story received honorable mention in the English Youth category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 10th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2023 Zoe Lerdworatawee

California Little Tokyo Los Angeles memory United States
About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On May 20, 2023 in a celebration moderated by Tamlyn Tomita, noted actors, Greg Watanabe, Mika Dyo, and Mayumi Seco performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.



*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

Zoe Lerdworatawee is a senior who will be graduating from Westview High School and matriculating to the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in the fall to study Computer Science. She is especially fascinated with immersing herself in different cultures. In her spare time she enjoys baking, visiting mochi stores, playing piano, and learning new languages. 

Updated June 2023

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