My Co-Parent Totoro
I often get asked, “Do you speak Japanese to your kids at home?” I think they want me to say “Yes,” so that they can respond with something like, “That’s wonderful, bilingualism is such a gift.” But my answer is messy. After the kids go to sleep, or while we’re on the road, my Japanese-born, now-American husband and I might have entire conversations in Japanese. In front of the kids, though, we naturally end up speaking to them in English. It might have something to do with the fact that our older son is 3, and we’re in that phase where all we talk about are feelings. “How are you feeling?” “It’s okay to be sad.” “What should we do when we’re mad?” “I’m so happy you’re happy.” When I try to translate these kinds of sentiments into Japanese, they come out clunky. I have now lived outside of Japan for 14 years, and I’m much more comfortable expressing myself in English, even though it’s my second language. Sure, we still teach some Japanese phrases to our son, and a lot of them are food-related. “Oishii.” (Tastes good.) “Miruku onegai.” (Milk please.) When we do screen-time (and we do a lot), we tend to prioritize Japanese shows or movies, to compensate for the Japanese we don’t intentionally speak around them. Among these choices, our son’s favorite is, and has always been, My Neighbor Totoro.
We first watched Totoro together as a family when our older son was still an infant. It was the end of another long day, and we needed to turn our brains off with a movie that was entertaining but still kid-friendly. My husband and I both grew up watching Totoro as children. The movie came out in 1988, a year before I was born. I distinctly remember renting the VHS over and over again at our local video shop in Tokyo, as early as when I was in kindergarten. According to my parents, I had first watched it when we lived in San Diego when I was just about 2 years old, with one of my father’s Japanese colleagues from the laboratory who was brilliant but awkward, who had preferred to watch a movie with a child than mingle with the other grown-ups at a dinner party.
There’s something to be said about how the film appeals to both children and adults alike. Hayao Miyazaki wrote and directed the film with children as the intended audience. But unlike most traditional children’s movies, Totoro also shows the parents’ perspectives. The father is an academic, and he splits his time between their new home in the countryside and the university in the city. The mother has been sick with an undisclosed illness, and is in a small rural hospital the entire time. The grown-ups (including the neighborhood grandma) listen to the children as they talk excitedly about meeting forest spirits, and respond that they, too, saw similar spirits when they were children. The grown-ups support the children’s claims in a way that’s not patronizing or deceitful. This hits different when you watch Totoro after becoming a parent. When our son became old enough to be able to understand the story, I distinctly felt that my own childhood, however distant, was officially over.
One would think that when a child watches Totoro, they might identify with the two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who encounter the titular spirit. But when our son watches Totoro, he will get fixated on Kanta, the countryside boy who’s always covered in dirt and hand-me-down clothes (in stark contrast to the former city girls’ colorful dresses and strappy shoes). Our son will, from time to time, suddenly re-enact a scene where Kanta hands Satsuki a basket of mochi with a wordless grunt, and yells from across the field: “Yai! Omaenchi, obake-yashiki!” (“Hey you! Your house is haunted!”) Our son will say the whole phrase, rich with countryside dialect, without quite knowing what it means. If an American parent ever witnessed our son’s re-enactment, they might come away convinced that we’re raising him to be bilingual.
Sometimes, I’m irked by the assumption that being bilingual automatically makes a person better: smarter, more empathetic, more cultured. (I once met a person who studied the Aztek language, but had no one to speak it with.) I still don’t consider myself bilingual, and feel inadequate in both languages in different ways. I can speak Japanese like a native, but can’t write without a keyboard. I read Japanese literature after they’re translated into English. I have a Master’s in writing in English, and currently teach Americans how to write, but I know I don’t quite sound like a native when I speak. Knowing both languages can feel as lonely as that man who speaks Aztek with no one. I’ve never felt smart in my life.
After an isolating pandemic year, our son is now in preschool, and unless there’s a long weekend or he gets sick from a bad stomach bug, there’s less of a need to turn on Totoro as much as we used to. Yet Totoro remains a vital language for this family. We sing the intro song when we walk through the park. When we see bugs or tall trees, or experience big thunderstorms, we can always reassure the kids by saying, “See? It’s just like that scene from Totoro.” When people ask us if we speak Japanese to our kids at home, we can say “Yes,” knowing that Totoro is speaking it to them for us.
Every parent makes a choice that’s right for them, and I have immense respect for other parents who embrace the messiness and hardship of raising bilingual children. For me, I’ve come to terms with the likelihood that our sons won’t be as fluent in Japanese as we are—just like we’re not as fluent in the language as our parents. Back when my mother was still alive, I remember telling her about my anxieties of not speaking Japanese to our sons as often as I felt like I should. Her response surprised me, but guides me to this day. “They’re Japanese-Americans,” she said. “They’re now part of a complicated but beautiful history that you’re not a part of. You can try to teach them things, but they’ll teach you new things, too. And who cares if they don’t speak Japanese, as long as they can be who they want to be?” She assured me that if they themselves express interest in Japanese culture later on in their lives, whether it’s through anime or Pokémon or whatever, that she’ll shower them with toys and books related to those interests in care packages.
In what became her last care package, my mother had sent the boys stuffed Totoros and matching Totoro pajamas—which they both still wear.