Big Brother by Noriko Nakada

God talks to Mom. He tells her things when she prays. I wonder if I pray long or hard enough he’ll talk to me, but he hasn’t yet. We go to church every Sunday, no matter what. Afterwards, we come straight home. We never go out for breakfast or stop for doughnuts. Maybe God talks to Mom because it takes a lot of faith to get all of us up for church by 8:30 every Sunday. Maybe it’s because Mom never gives into temptations like restaurant hashbrowns or maple bars even when all three of us whine from the back seat of the car.

After church, my parents, my brother and sister and me sit around the kitchen table eating an early dinner like we always do on Sundays. I study the flower pattern in the wallpaper and play with my green beans. They’re cold and hard. If I stall long enough maybe Mom won’t make me eat them.

“Remember when we talked to you a while ago about getting a new brother?” Mom fills my cup with milk.

Laura and Chet stop playing with their green beans and stare at Mom. A few months ago we met this baby another family adopted. That little baby cried and cried until Mom picked her up. Mom said it was a sign from God that our family should adopt a baby, too.

“Well, we got a picture in the mail yesterday.”

She shows us a photo of a boy and tells us he is from Korea and will be our new brother. He’s standing on a wooden swing, clinging to a rope. He’s looking right into the camera, but the person taking the picture forgot to tell him to smile.

“His name is Aum Young Tak.”

He’s the same color grey as the dirt covering the playground. One look at the picture and I know I don’t want him. He looks sad. He’s already bigger than me, and older. I don’t want a six-year-old brother. I want someone else to be the littlest, a baby, fresh and new. I look at this boy with a dirty face and empty eyes. I think he might not have a very good life if he stays in Korea. He will get a big tummy like the kids I see in Maryknoll Magazine. They aren’t fat, though. They’re starving.

“We pick him up next month.”

Next month. I wonder how many days that will be. I look down at my plate. He’s coming whether I want him to or not. He will be my new big brother. I force the green beans in my mouth and swallow them like pills with the rest of my milk.

***

I count down to the day we will get a new brother, and on day 12, after Dad gets home from work, we go downtown to the police station to get fingerprinted. The station is filled with light so bright it makes my skin look green. We wait behind a counter while one of the policemen takes out a big book and a black inkpad. Dad goes first, then Mom, Chet and Laura. When it’s my turn, I have to stand on a stool so I can reach the pad of ink. The policeman takes my left hand first and starts with my pinky. His hands are warm, and he rolls each finger in the ink and then on the paper. I watch and wonder what getting a new brother has to do with my fingertips.

***

On the three-hour drive to the airport to pick up our new brother, it rains. Water pelts the windshield as we drive over the Cascade Pass. The car is quiet except for the noise the wiper blades make as they smear water from side to side. We arrive at the airport and walk down a long, blue hallway. It leads us to a room filled with windows. Chet, Laura and I press up against the glass leaving long smudges with our chins and hands. We peer through the rain at the airplane, the biggest thing we’ve ever seen.

A hatch opens on the side of the plane and people step off into the wind and rain. Women look down over the babies in their arms, watching each step, shielding their cargo from the cold. Couples like Mom and Dad receive warm blanket bundles with tears in their eyes. I watch the door carefully and try to remember the photo. I don’t see anyone who looks like my new brother exit yet.

“Maybe he changed his mind.” I tell Mom, pulling at the bottom of her coat. “Maybe he didn’t want to come.”

A woman walks toward us carrying a boy. The boy is bigger than me. He kicks and screams words I can’t understand.

He doesn’t want to go with us, but Dad picks him up anyway. He carries him like a sack of potatoes all the way through the airport. I have to run to keep up.

“Let him go back, Dad,” I yell, but Dad doesn’t say anything and his face twists like I’ve never seen before. The boy screams louder even though Dad tells him it’s okay. My face turns hot as I run after Dad, crying and wishing that boy didn’t have to come home with us.

My new brother sits in the front seat between Mom and Dad where I used to sit. I can smell him in the front seat. It’s not a bad smell, just different, unfamiliar, like he’s come from somewhere very far away. I feel sorry for him, being taken away by strangers to a place he’s never been. I could tell him everything will be okay, but I don’t know if it will, and he couldn’t understand me anyway.

“Why’s he so sad?” I ask.

Mom tells me something about Dad’s grey hair and how he probably doesn’t want an old dad. I don’t think of Dad as old. The tears dry on my cheeks by the time we leave the airport but my new brother’s cries fade to whimpers and his whimpers don’t stop the whole drive home.

Mom and Dad give our new brother a new name even though he already had one. Mitch Aum Nakada. They don’t talk about the name with us. He still has a Korean middle name. Would people in Korea mind a Korean boy suddenly taking our family’s Japanese last name?

That night, our new brother doesn’t want to sleep in the bunk beds in Chet’s room, so we bring blankets and pillows into the living room. Chet holds his pillow that smells like drool, and when Laura lays her blanket down, he smacks her. Laura and I grab our pillows and chase after Chet, taking turns getting him back. Mitch watches until we take a break. We sit on the floor, Chet, Laura and I, catching our breath, and that’s when Mitch reveals his first smile. I think maybe he’ll be OK. We wrap up in blankets and fall asleep together on the living room floor.

Four days later it’s Halloween. Mom and Dad seem to have forgotten all about it so I have to be an angel for the second year in a row. Chet is a pirate with a sword and Laura is the Easter bunny. Mom doesn’t think Mitch should dress up and go trick-or-treating but we convince her that it would be mean if we leave him at home while we collect candy. Mom ends up putting Mitch in Laura’s pink clown costume from a couple of years ago. Mitch doesn’t know that boys in America don’t wear pink. We head out into the night and Mitch collects just as much candy as the rest of us even though he can’t say trick-or-treat.

***

Dad brings home some kim chee when he makes a trip to Portland and I’m scared to taste it. It smells like something died in that glass jar. Dad eats some and his face starts to sweat, but Mitch finishes half the jar, no problem.

A reporter from The Bend Bulletin comes to our house to talk about the new addition to our family. He asks Mom and Dad questions and scribbles notes on a little pad of paper. A couple of days later there are a picture and a story in the paper and Mitch makes our family famous. I climb onto a chair at the kitchen table, fold my knees beneath me, and gaze at the picture. We’re all sitting on the couch in front of the living room window with the drapes drawn. I’m on Mom’s lap and Mitch is on Dad’s. Laura and Chet squeeze in so we all fit on the flowered couch. Everyone’s smiling except me. I move my face closer and closer to the picture until all I see are tiny dots.

***

Mom orders dinner from Eagle’s Nest Pizza. It’s our favorite, but Mitch won’t eat it. “No wonder he’s so skinny,” I say. Laura gives me a dirty look, but I don’t know why. He can’t understand anything we say. He only speaks Korean. Dad cooks up a batch of okazu—stir-fried vegetables—and serves it with rice. Mitch doesn’t touch his pizza, but he eats Dad’s okazu with chopsticks.

Mitch gets to start kindergarten even though he doesn’t speak any English yet. I’m used to seeing Chet and Laura walk away from me, but it’s strange seeing Mitch starting an adventure all by himself. I wonder if he’ll be all right in that room by himself where nobody knows that he isn’t like the rest of us, that he’s different.

***

When Mitch first came, neighbors sent casseroles and people stared as we walked to our regular pew at the front of the church. Now the casseroles are gone and the newspaper clipping on the fridge has turned yellow. No one stares at us even though our family is more different now than we were before. Mitch starts to eat hamburgers and French fries. He wears tennis shoes, Chet’s hand-me down T-shirts and old blue jeans. He sleeps on the top bunk. Dad shows him how to ride a bike. He forgets how to use chopsticks. He goes silent. He stops trying to explain things in words I can’t understand. Instead, he listens. He watches Sesame Street and The Electric Company with me but never sings, “Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” Then, one night after Mork and Mindy, Mitch breaks his silence. “Nanu, nanu.” He holds his hand up and moves his fingers just like Mork.

Mom takes the little rubber shoes and the red sweat suit Mitch wore the day he came from Korea and wraps them in tissue. She pulls the faded newspaper article off the fridge and smoothes the wrinkled paper. She opens her desk drawer and takes out the photo we received months ago. She places all these things in a shoebox and puts it in the closet where it will be safe until Mitch opens it someday like a present.

noriko-nakada-childNoriko Nakada writes, blogs, tweets from her home in Los Angeles, California. She writes at an ungodly hour each morning before heading off to teach eighth graders at Emerson Middle School. She completed her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles in 2005 and is the author of the young adult memoir Through Eyes Like Mine. Her middle school memoir, Overdue Apologies, will be out this fall. Visit her website.

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  • Anonymous

    You really capture the texture of childhood here with the voice and the details. Great essay!

  • Rachel Cann

    The Mork reference cracked me up. nice contrast to the “going back to normal” of the community. a sweet story!

  • Julzngems03

    Made me cry. And laugh of course. Thanks Nori.

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