When Tara, a New Yorker, was 32, she was hanging out one night with her friend in Lower Manhattan, doing the New York thing. The club she’d gone to turned out to have multiple floors, so she decided to explore the other levels. On one level she came upon a private party where most of the attendees were Asian. So, having ascertained they were Japanese, she decided to crash the party.
“I was like, ‘Ooooh, I wanna try to talk to one of them,’ ” she says, ” ’cause I’d been studying Japanese off and on for three years. It was my dream to come to Japan, go to Tokyo — the whole shebang. So I wanted to practice with one of them.”
And while she was standing around watching this live painting, a work with sort of an “urban” vibe to it, a Japanese guy called Yohei came over to her and started kicking it. He asked her if she liked the work and told her that the artist was a friend of his, all in broken English. So she started speaking to him in Japanese, introducing herself and whatnot. He was impressed with her effort.
“He says, ‘You’re a strange black woman. You want a drink?’ ” she says. “And I was like, ‘Hells yeah!’ ”
So they’re chilling with their drinks and kicking it as best they can with their limited language skills. At that point he tells her he’s a chef at a sushi restaurant on the Upper East Side and invites her to come check him out.
“I was still in ratchet (ghetto) mode,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Oh great! Free food!’ And that was all I was thinking about. I didn’t think that this would be my husband someday. I didn’t like him, I didn’t think he was cute, none of that. I just figured, ‘This is a Japanese man, so I can practice my Japanese with him — and he has food!’ ”
But once she met him at the restaurant, things began to take on a different vibe.
“It was a cute little place,” she explains. “I sat down at the counter while he made sushi. He just made dish after dish for me and I just felt so — happy. It was a feeling that you can’t explain. This warm sensation just came over me.
“Like you know people say God talked to them? I know it sounds corny, but it was like God talked to me and said, ‘This is your husband.’ It was real crazy and I was like, wow. And for the rest of the evening I just kept staring at him and was like: ‘Is this really him? Are you serious right now, God? An Asian dude? Really?‘ ”
After that, between his Harlem abode and her home in the Bronx, they started a relationship, and 10 months later she found herself the recipient of a marriage proposal.
“We were watching a movie and he suddenly says he’s going out to get a beer,” she says. “When he comes back, next thing I know he’s proposing to me in broken English and whips out this ring, and I’m like, ‘That ain’t no beer!’ ”
They were married a couple of months later. The cause for the rush? Yohei had some visa issues and marriage would resolve them quickly and, most importantly, cheaply.
“We were in mottainai (waste not, want not) mode!”
The day they went to immigration to be interviewed for the visa was a memorable experience, Tara recalls.
“We almost didn’t get it,” she says, “because he was talking to the immigration officer and his English was horrible, right? And the immigration officer was from Jamaica and had this Jamaican accent. I could understand him, but my husband was like, ‘What is he saying?’ The immigration guy was like, ‘How you can understand him?’
“But this was what killed it: I started speaking to Yohei in Japanese. This immigration guy couldn’t believe it. To him, it was like a dog was talking. ‘You’re really speaking Japanese!?’ he said, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I told you we ain’t playing in here!’ So he whipped out his stamp, stamped it and said, ‘Bye! Have a good one!’ ”
I wondered if their union ran into any friction from their families, but apparently the situation was quite the contrary.
“I’m one of the more fortunate ones,” she says, “cuz I’ve heard some horror stories. But, I kid you not, I haven’t had any static at all!
“We were living in New York and he’d already proposed to me when he called his parents to tell them. So he calls his parents and tells them, ‘I’m gonna marry this woman. She’s American,’ and they were a little concerned for him. So they came to New York shortly after and they met me and they liked me. They were like, ‘She’s good people! She’s smart, she looks nice.’
“They were cool but you know you can’t really tell, right? Maybe they’re just being nice. Maybe they’re just not the type to say anything.”
Tara and Yohei had the wedding ceremony about a year later, and highlights were broadcast nationally on an edition of The Learning Channel’s “Four Weddings” reality TV series.
“His father gives this speech,” she recalls. “We had a translator there, so he spoke in Japanese and the translator translated it. And everybody at the wedding literally gasped. One of the things his father said in this speech, he says that he was so glad to have Tara as part of the family, that she has a class and grace that you don’t even see in Japanese women! Yeah. Mouth was open. I was like, ‘Whoa! OK, so they riding with me!’ ”
Six years and three children later, they’re still riding with her. Yohei’s now a restaurant chef and manager in Nagoya, while Tara stays home and takes care of their 4- and 2-year-old boys and 4-month-old girl. Life in the Japanese countryside has been kind to their tribe, but that’s not to say it has been without its challenges.
“They’re killing me in here!” she says of their precious progeny. “They’re not human! Yohei’s a great dad, but he makes me feel like a loser sometimes — he never gets angry. ”
“I know people are gonna think this lame,” she says, “but the biggest challenge has been communication. Because when we first got together, my thing was: I’m not just an American; I’m a New Yorker. I’m looking for a yes or a no.
“Do you want coffee? Yes or no? And he’d be like, ‘Chotto . . . ‘ and I’m like, ‘F—- chotto! Do you want coffee, yes or no?’ You know? And that was a big hurdle for us early on. That really irked me. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t communicate to me a strong positive or a strong negative on anything. And it made me realize that no matter how much you study Japanese culture, no matter how many books you read, how many anime movies you watch, nothing can prepare you for being married to and part of a traditional Japanese family.”
But now, having lived in Nagoya for 3½ years, she gets it, she says.
“It would have been different if we had stayed in America. Because in those first two years, he would come home and not see rice, and I’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Ain’t no rice today. Chill.’ But now that I live here? That’s a mortal sin. Now, there’s no way in the world I’d have an empty rice pot. That’s just how we do now. You know?
“I mean, there are just so many little things like that, but now I get it! I get why he wouldn’t communicate his feelings strongly. It’s just because it’s not the culture. The culture is to make everyone comfortable, and to be on the fence. You kinda hint, suggest. Now, I know how to read him much better.”