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When the Phone Call or Email Comes from Abroad – the Worst News

May 12, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama

In director Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece movie “The Godfather”, in a Italian restaurant in New York City the youngest son Michael Corleone (played by a brooding Al Pacino) sits by his gangster nemesis, Virgil Sollozzo, portrayed by Al Lettieri. Sollozzo has paid off the Irish police captain, who checks Michael for any weapons. Before eating, Sollozzo asks permission to the Irish policeman if he could speak “in his own language” to Michael Corleone, and proceeds to talk in Italian. Michael sits quietly, listening, aware that Sollozzo had nearly killed his father, Don Corleone, and that in a few minutes he has to go to the restroom and pick up a pistol and shoot both men.

I always remember this scene, not for the impending violence, but about switching languages: often with my parents and relatives I would change to my “other” language, Japanese, and I always felt a little more emotional, bonding with my mother, grandparents. I felt the emotion when both men in the movie spoke in Italian, English being so dispassionate, the language of business and “other” Americans, not of their families that came from somewhere else.

And via language you are connected to another world across the ocean, somewhere else, to a set of people who are related by blood, and share common emotions, features, histories.

It is part of the American immigrants’ experience, and those living on Maui from the Philippines, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Italy or China also can relate to – when an scratchy phone call suddenly comes, you know it is bad news, with a distant voice speaking Ilocano or Spanish or Japanese saying the name of a relative who has suddenly passed away, and the wake is on this day, and the funeral on that day, and you have no way to travel to attend either wake or funeral, but you want to know more information.

Sometimes you hear voices of elderly people in the background, and the caller hands the phone to an older relative and the elderly aunt shouts something in her dialect, and you try to respond, but she is hard of hearing and doesn’t understand your words. And you can imagine exactly the scene in the house way out there, for Filipino immigrants near waving sugar cane fields in Ilocos Norte in northern Luzon, and wailing aunts and neighbors coming with food, children scampering in the kitchen, the phones ringing and ringing. It is a link to a different world.

Nowadays it is often an Email that arrives out of the blue.

Last week after receiving an Email about the passing of my uncle in northern Japan, I Emailed my cousin, who has a computer science degree, to give me his Skype name, and so we had a long conversation (his camera wasn’t working, so he saw me, but I didn’t see him) about our uncle, who passed away suddenly at a hospital. I asked him when did he see Uncle S. last, and he said probably last summer when the family all went to the family grave to clean it up – an annual ritual led by our oldest uncle. Then, in December, Uncle S. did not attend his father’s one-year service. Perhaps Uncle S. was not well then, said my cousin, in his early fifties and single, who sacrificed years of his life taking care of his father, who suffered a stroke and could not talk.

Living in the same city, my cousin had seen my uncle S. once in about a year.

We discussed how only our eldest uncle (in his early 90s) and the youngest aunt (mid-70s) were alive, and three siblings were gone. Then the conversation turned to his younger sister’s daughter, who had married a policeman and now had a baby. I recalled the husband had been transferred to a small town famous for nice crabs, and he laughed, yes, the seaside town is famous only for crabs.

As we wound down, I said perhaps that our aunt, suffering from depression, may not be well. He said that she may not appear at the funeral. I said that we should Skype again soon, and he agreed.

When I clicked “End Call” button on my Skype software panel on my laptop, I realized that I had been in a different world for ten minutes, and now I should turn on the ceiling fan a bit more, since it was hotter now in Kihei, after a cool and rainy winter: early summer had arrived.


Article Comments



May-15-14 4:35 PM


May-15-14 4:25 PM

Kodomo no tame ni.

Sakamoto or Kino****a family ring any bells? Great articles.


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