differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction, one that
haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere
There was only one problem: my father was missing. He had left paradise, and nothing that my mother
or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact. Their stories didn’t tell me why he had
left. They couldn’t describe what it might have been like had he stayed. Like the janitor, Mr. Reed, or the
black girl who churned up dust as she raced down a Texas road, my father became a prop in someone
else’s narrative. An attractive prop-the alien figure with the heart of gold, the mysterious stranger who saves
the town and wins the girl-but a prop nonetheless.
I don’t really blame my mother or grandparents for this. My father may have preferred the image they
created for him-indeed, he may have been complicit in its creation. In an article published in the Honolulu
Star-Bulletin upon his graduation, he appears guarded and responsible, the model student, ambassador for
his continent. He mildly scolds the university for herding visiting students into dormitories and forcing them
to attend programs designed to promote cultural understanding-a distraction, he says, from the practical
training he seeks. Although he hasn’t experienced any problems himself, he detects self-segregation and
overt discrimination taking place between the various ethnic groups and expresses wry amusement at the
fact that “Caucasians” in Hawaii are occasionally at the receiving end of prejudice. But if his assessment is
relatively clear-eyed, he is careful to end on a happy note: One thing other nations can learn from Hawaii,
he says, is the willingness of races to work together toward common development, something he has found
whites elsewhere too often unwilling to do.
I discovered this article, folded away among my birth certificate and old vaccination forms, when I was
in high school. It’s a short piece, with a photograph of him. No mention is made of my mother or me, and I’m
left to wonder whether the omission was intentional on my father’s part, in anticipation of his long departure.
Perhaps the reporter failed to ask personal questions, intimidated by my father’s imperious manner; or
perhaps it was an editorial decision, not part of the simple story that they were looking for. I wonder, too,
whether the omission caused a fight between my parents.
I would not have known at the time, for I was too young to realize that I was supposed to have a live-in
father, just as I was too young to know that I needed a race. For an improbably short span it seems that my
father fell under the same spell as my mother and her parents; and for the first six years of my life, even as
that spell was broken and the worlds that they thought they’d left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied
the place where their dreams had been.
T HE ROAD TO THE embassy was choked with traffic: cars, motorcycles, tricycle rickshaws, buses
and jitneys filled to twice their capacity, a procession of wheels and limbs all fighting for space in the
midafternoon heat. We nudged forward a few feet, stopped, found an opening, stopped again. Our taxi
driver shooed away a group of boys who were hawking gum and loose cigarettes, then barely avoided a
motor scooter carrying an entire family on its back-father, mother, son, and daughter all leaning as one into
a turn, their mouths wrapped with handkerchiefs to blunt the exhaust, a family of bandits. Along the side of
the road, wizened brown women in faded brown sarongs stacked straw baskets high with ripening fruit, and
a pair of mechanics squatted before their open-air garage, lazily brushing away flies as they took an engine
apart. Behind them, the brown earth dipped into a smoldering dump where a pair of roundheaded tots
frantically chased a scrawny black hen. The children slipped in the mud and corn husks and banana leaves,
squealing with pleasure, until they disappeared down the dirt road beyond.
Things eased up once we hit the highway, and the taxi dropped us off in front of the embassy, where a
pair of smartly dressed Marines nodded in greeting. Inside the courtyard, the clamor of the street was
replaced by the steady rhythm of gardening clippers. My mother’s boss was a portly black man with closely
cropped hair sprinkled gray at the temples. An American flag draped down in rich folds from the pole beside
his desk. He reached out and offered a firm handshake: “How are you, young man?” He smelled of after-
shave and his starched collar cut hard into his neck. I stood at attention as I answered his questions about
the progress of my studies. The air in the office was cool and dry, like the air of mountain peaks: the pure
and heady breeze of privilege.