Obaachan arrives in Canada for the first time on a sparkling August day, during the last two weeks of summer vacation. Inside the airport, the air-conditioning sends goosebumps up my arm and I gaze out the window at the wispy clouds, wishing I were at Lina’s party, eating Cheetos and reading the Seventeen magazines we stole from her sister’s bedroom. Standing next to me, my mom squints up at the Arrivals bulletin again before scanning the crowd that filters out the corridor. I follow her gaze, landing on a flight attendant standing near the bathroom. She has the longest brown hair that curls in just the right places, and I fidget, pulling at my own hair, stick straight and stubborn as ever.
“Can’t I just play Nintendo in the car?” I grumble and start picking at my dress. It’s covered in frilly lace. Very Japanese. I hate it. Obaachan mailed it to us last winter, forgetting that I was already ten, and it makes my arms look like pink sausages.
“You want heatstroke?” My mom shoots me her death glare and peers across the airport. “And what did I say about speaking Japanese from now on? Obaachan doesn’t understand English.”
I roll my eyes, pretending to slump over on the bench. “What’s the point? She’s not even here yet.”
“Look, look, I think I see her!” Waving like a maniac, my mom pulls me onto my feet.
“Where?” I don’t recognize anybody in the crowd of suitcases and excited families. The last time I saw Obaachan was three years ago when we visited my mom’s hometown in Gifu-ken. I barely remember anything besides the noisy cicadas and the plane ride that made me so sick I threw up six times. Though my mom called Obaachan a few times a month, to me, she was just a face in photographs and a voice that would ask how I was doing in Japanese school.
Suddenly, my mom rushes over to hug a woman wearing a daisy-patterned shirt and polka dot pants that clash loudly. She kind of looks like my Obaachan, but shrunken, and I hesitate until she reaches out and squeezes me with a hug. “Yui-chan, you’ve grown so big,” she says in a voice so loud that it causes the couple next to us to turn and stare. I hear our words, harsh and alien, grating against the English that flows smoothly through the space like music.
“Hi, Obaachan,” I mumble.
“You look so beautiful,” she says, patting me on the head. “I remember how much you love princesses, so when I saw this dress, I knew you would love it. Look at how perfect it fits.” The sleeves itch, and I yank them down, unsure of what to say. But then Obaachan’ face curves into a smile so wide I can see her molars, and I think I remember her again, so I grin back, toothy and childish too.
My mom gathers up Obaachan’s suitcases, gesturing toward the exit. “Let’s head to the car. How was the flight, Mom? Did you get through customs okay?” Her face is pink with excitement. They start walking ahead, launching into peals of laughter as I follow, feeling my shoes squeak against the floor.
A week into Obaachan’s trip, my mom drops us off at Zeller’s while she runs errands. After days of stuffy car rides to Grouse Mountain and Lynn Canyon, I race through the doors, leaving Obaachan to trail behind as I skid down the accessory aisle. Spotting the display, I screech to a stop. The row of shiny hair extensions, all colors of the rainbow, hangs just out of reach.
“Yui-chan, you run so fast,” Obaachan pants, rounding the corner. She closes her eyes and launches into another one of her stories. “When you came to Gifu, I remember how you would run all through the house and stomp your feet across the tatami floors…”
I tune out the sound of her voice and focus on the extensions, brushing my fingertips through the silky hair and imagining what it would look like. Last week, when I met Lina at the swimming pool, her long hair was scrunched into a baseball cap. Once I pointed it out, she dramatically swept off the hat, letting strands of dyed hair tumble loose. She looked like Avril Lavigne, swirls of pink mixed into her honey-blond locks. “Wow,” was all I could say. “It’s actually just Kool-Aid,” she giggled. “But my mom’s gonna take me to the salon before school starts.”
Just then, Obaachan taps me on the shoulder and I spin around. “Yui-chan,” she whispers like she has a secret. “Your Obaachan will buy you a gift.”
“Really?” I wrap my arms tightly around her waist, feeling her laughter thunder from deep in her belly. She hugs me back. “Choose any toy you want.”
Toys are lame, for babies, but I gaze up at the extensions again, torn between the options. Purple, the color of grape Fanta, catches my eye. “This one,” I announced to Obaachan, waving the package over my head. Light with giddiness, I skip ahead to the cash register.
It’s quiet in the store, no line, and the only open cashier is an older man, hunched over a sudoku puzzle. He looks up as I walk over, blue eyes studying me. “Are you Japanese?” he asks, smiling at me. “Konnichiwa?”
I freeze in the middle of placing the extensions on the counter, staring at him like a deer in the headlights, cheeks burning hot. Hi, I want to say. Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi.
He tries again. “Konnichiwa?” At that moment, I hear Obaachan shuffle up behind me, wheezing slightly. “Konnichiwa!” she answers, delighted.
The man beams. “I could tell you aren’t Korean. Or Chinese,” he says proudly, in stilted Japanese. “You know, I lived in Japan for a year in my twenties. I still study the language when I can.”
“Your speaking skills are very good,” Obaachan exclaims.
“Are you here,” the man pauses, struggling to remember the right word. “Um…on vacation?”
She nods. “It’s my first time in Canada. Everyone is so welcoming,” she says, plucking a twenty-dollar bill from her wallet. I snatch up the extensions.
The man rips off the receipt with a flick of his wrist, smiling at me. “I hope you two have a nice visit. Sayonara!” She’s the visitor, I want to say. Not me. But the words stick in my throat like a ball of chewing gum.
“Sayonara,” Obaachan replies, and I storm away.
When we reach the store entrance, Obaachan tugs on my sleeve until I stop walking. “Yui-chan, is everything okay?” I stare into her weathered face. She blinks at me, unaware, and I swallow my shame, wanting to disappear. Wanting her to disappear. “Why did you have to follow me here?” I say, fists clenched. “Why did you have to speak to that man in Japanese?” My words splinter in the air and then it’s too late to take it back, too late to apologize as I leave her behind.
The car ride home is filled with a cool silence and the hiss of the air-conditioning. I rip open the package, holding up strands of purple hair and admiring how they shimmer in the sunlight. My mom glances back and notices. “What is that?”
“Obaachan bought me extensions,” I brag, waving them around.
“You spoil her,” my mom frowns at Obaachan, before turning back to me. “For your hair? Won’t teachers get mad?”
I roll my eyes, carefully clipping in the extensions. “Everyone at school uses actual dye, Mom.”
Obaachan smiles at me. “I like your natural hair. The color of nori, like mine used to be.”
“Black is boring, Obaachan.”
My mom makes a face at her and shrugs. “I guess it’s popular with gaijin,” using the term for foreigners.
“Yui is not a gaijin…” Obaachan insists, but then her voice wavers when she peers into my face, as if she is looking at me for the first time. Ignoring her frown, I comb my fingers through the strands, feeling a shiver of excitement as I turn to look at my reflection in the mirror.
Instead of blending into a smooth ombre, the extensions stick together in synthetic sections. My hair is too dark, and the purple is too bright, clashing like a cheap Halloween costume. Like daisies and polka dots. The car rolls over a bump and a wave of nausea rocks my stomach as I yank out the extensions and stare at the black strands that also fall out, biting my lip so hard I taste blood.
In the side mirror, I look at Obaachan’s reflection. From the backseat, she is close enough for me to reach forward and touch the silver hairs that poke through the headrest. We share the same eyes, dark brown like coffee, I realize, and I hold my breath, waiting to catch her gaze so she can see the silent apology etched in mine. But she just stares out at the landscape of trees and mountains that swim by in a big green blur. Instead, I lean my head on the window and gaze outside, too. The sky is pure, like Kool-Aid blue. In the distance, a plane glides through the sky, and I envy its ease, the way it navigates the big open space between here and there.
Saya Watanabe (She/Her) is a Japanese Canadian short story writer. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from SFU where she was the recipient of two creative writing awards. Her second short story “Nishi” was longlisted for the CBC short story prize in 2021. Her writing explores themes of identity, diaspora, and immigrant experiences. She currently resides and works as an educator in Vancouver, BC.