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I interviewed my friend Hiromi Vardy in the backyard garden of her Berkeley, California home. We chatted for the better part of an afternoon, and shared a perfectly prepared bowl of soba and two hand-brewed cups of Sencha. I was first introduced to Hiromi as an employee at her Berkeley restaurant. I knew her as a kind and generous boss, and today, as great friend.
In 1987, Hiromi left her home country of Japan bound for a new life in Northern California, to join the almost 67,000 other immigrants from Japan who had settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. She moved into a cozy apartment half-way up a small hill in the East Bay city of Albany, which she shared with her American husband David, and her 2 kids. She admits this was a difficult transition, but also, a welcome one.
Her immigrant story is one which begins in her homeland, many years before stepping onto US soil. Hiromi was born in Tokyo, Japan and lived in a village about 30 minutes outside of the city. Her father was Japanese, but raised in Brazil. As such, he infused Hiromi’s Japanese upbringing with cultural tones that distinguished her from her monocultural peers. She reports having felt just slightly out of place her entire life. As a child, she was stared at and singled out by her Japanese cohorts, although she was never quite sure why. Any deviation, however slight, from rigid Japanese social injunctions, positioned her outside the norm, and made her feel like an interloper in her own home.
In a way, this prepared her for the transitions that were to come.
At 16, Hiromi travelled to Sydney, Australia as a foreign exchange student. She was there for one year before returning to Tokyo. In the years that followed, she enrolled in University, but her real education was the political unrest that had gripped her city. At the time, Tokyo was embroiled in student-led protests against the government’s controversial security treaty with Washington, and in objection to the appointment of Nobusuke Kishi as Prime Minister.
Hiromi reports having felt emotionally involved in these protests, but never identifying with any of the conflicting sects. After experiencing a professor’s callous remarks about a woman who was caught in deadly cross-fire between police and student factions, Hiromi decided she could no longer stay in Japan. Having made this decision, she set her sights on London to study theatre, where she would spend a decade, from the end of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s.
In London, she experienced a sense of acceptance that she had never been able to feel in Japan. She would encounter this feeling of relief once again in Berkeley. She tells the story of watching an impeccably dressed Londoner walk past another man who was almost completely naked. These two men, so vastly different upon appearances, barely batted an eye lash at one another before continuing their promenade. Having grown up in Tokyo, a city in which difference was far from ignored, Hiromi was significantly impacted.
After her time in London, Hiromi returned to Tokyo and began teaching Tai Chi, practicing Shiatsu and working as a performer. She soon met David, her husband to be. He was a student of Tai Chi who shared Hiromi’s love of Japanese tea cuisine, Eastern medicine, philosophy and aesthetics. Within a year, David and Hiromi were married and for the next five years, they lived in Tokyo with Hiromi’s extended family. Then finally, in 1987, they were Berkeley bound.
Hiromi explains that despite her previous travel experience she was unprepared for the challenges that her move to the Bay Area would bring. She left behind a life in Japan as a teacher and performer for one that centered around being a wife, and a mother to two young kids, with a third soon on the way. She had little free time to socialize, and had difficulty building the strong network of friendships that she has today, 30 years later.
Thanks to her parents’ influence and abiding affection for the performing arts, Hiromi found a home in an African dance community in Berkeley, which reminded her of being back in her village and connected her to a social group.
She felt even more firmly rooted when she and her husband opened a teacake bakery and tea import business in June of 1987. Daruma Teashop was a temple-like retreat on the corner of 6th and Gilman streets of Berkeley. Years later, she and her husband opened O’Chame, a full-service restaurant much like a Mejii-period Tokyo cafe, that would become a beloved culinary landmark for locals and travelers of the world.
Hiromi speaks with great affection for what she calls “the Japanese way” of presenting and consuming meals.That is, with great intricacy, appreciation and intention. Japanese cuisine has had the dual purpose of linking Hiromi to her home country, while also firmly establishing her within the community of Berkeley.
Immigrants often face discrimination away from their country of origin but for Hiromi, it was her children who experienced the worst of it. Her eldest son Dan, experienced a “sense of twoness” and had difficulty reconciling his Japanese identity with his new American one. Hiromi described this as a trauma for her children, who were mocked in school for bringing traditional bento box lunches made for them by Hiromi. Hiromi encouraged her children to embrace their dual identity and the “complex combination of two cultures,” but this was not an easy matter.
Hiromi considers it somewhat odd that as a resident of Berkeley she is able to express herself in ways which may have been considered rude in Japan, and yet she never takes it for granted. She speaks of walking down 4th street wearing an African dashiki or the traditional Kimono she uses for weekend service at O’Chame, and feeling nothing but affection from her neighbors.
Hiromi does not feel like she belongs to anywhere in particular, but she’s noticed that her connection to Japan has increased as she spends more time outside the country. She speaks fluent English as well as Japanese, and enjoys the opportunity to be clear and direct that American communication style invites. Even still, she feels some self-consciousness, and a constriction in her throat when she speaks English and finds herself longing for the confidence she enjoys in her mother tongue.
Looking back on these 30 years in the US, Hiromi admits that they were nothing like she’d imagined. Like so many Japanese immigrants before her, since overseas migration of the island nation to the rest of the world began in 1868, Hiromi was pushed toward the US by external influences guiding her towards a better life. In contrast to previous waves of immigration, Japanese immigrants in the 1980s had specialized skills, were more educated, and earned higher incomes. Hiromi figures that she wouldn’t have made the trip, had she known what was in front of her. Nevertheless, the years were filled with adventures, and challenges to which, she owes who and what she is today.
Hiromi describes how she has grown exponentially as both her Japanese and American roots have been allowed to mature and blossom within her life in the US. She’s thankful for the choices she’s made, and the way she’s learned to speak up and speak out. Also, for her life as a successful entrepreneur, a wife, and a mother to 3 amazing children. She’ll also never forget the customs and traditions of the East, the patient friendships that sustain her, and the systems of healing she relies on today. She explains how her attachment to Japan is embodied by those who are still there. She isn’t certain when she will return to Tokyo, but she knows that there will always be a place for Japan at her table in Berkeley.
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