Featured photo: In Hawaii, there’s a bunch of Japanese stuff like this Shinto shrine. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

I cried last week because I’m mourning a loss.

It feels like the loss of a part of me, a part that I always suspected might exist, but wasn’t sure because I hadn’t felt it, touched it, experienced it until I landed in Hawaii two weeks ago.

On Oct. 16, my husband and I visited the island of O’ahu for the first time on our honeymoon. We had initially planned on going to Japan, but then the pandemic hit. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve been able to visit family there. And with Japan out of the question, we settled on the next best thing — another small island in the Pacific, ripe with Asian culture. I knew that the Japanese population in Hawaii was numerous, and I longed for a place where people looked like me.

Growing up in North Carolina as a Japanese-American meant that my eyes, my skin, my thick black hair, the food I ate and other parts of my identity were foreign to most people. It meant that I explained myself a lot. Nobody could pronounce my name on the first try. I can’t remember when I started giving my middle name, Sheila, at restaurants instead.

It meant hiding, cutting off, lessening parts of me for most of my life, just to make things easier.

When I landed in Hawaii, something shifted. I felt those parts of me that had been tucked away start to rise to the surface again.

Signs at the airport had messages in English and in Japanese.

At hotel check-in, the lady at the counter didn’t cock her head to the side and try to sound out my name or ask me to spell it slowly. She just knew.

As we started making our way around the island, I noticed other things too.

One of our first stops was to Mitsuwa, a Japanese grocery tucked into the third floor of the shopping mall next to our hotel. All in all, it’s a pretty unremarkable shop: small and brightly lit like other grocery stores you’ve probably been to, but on the shelves were foods I had grown up eating: bento boxes stuffed full of rice, karaage, eel, katsu and more; next to them onigiri of varying flavors from tuna mayo — my favorite — to mentaiko or spicy cod roe, which is rare and usually avoided by people back in NC. I cried as I went down the aisle.

Mitsuwa Market is known for its wide variety of bentos, sushi rolls and other Japanese foods. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Every day, we would find a new Japanese restaurant; they were numerous and varied. The options weren’t limited to just sushi or hibachi. There were sweet green tea cakes and puffy, pillowy milk-breads. There were mochi daifuku and red-bean buns.

In a matter of hours, I began to blend in; I was in the majority. The last time I had felt this way was as a teenager on a trip back to Japan.

And even there, I think I felt differently than I did in Hawaii. Because in Hawaii, I was distinctly Japanese American. The language expressed my duality. It was a place that reflected and catered to exactly who I was. I realized that I had never been somewhere that made me feel so at home. So fully myself. So complete.

Today, back in NC, I’m comfortable. The leaves are changing and there’s a crispness in the air that I look forward to every year. I consider the state to be home; it has been for most of my life. It’s where my family is, and my friends comfort me.

But now, Hawaii feels like it is a home that I didn’t know existed. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away, there is a place that feels like it was built for me. And walking away from it is indescribable.

When I was a child, my mom used to talk about returning to Japan one day. Whether it was after we graduated high school or college or once she was an elder, that has always been her dream. Being in Hawaii made me understand just a fraction of what she has likely felt in the US all these years.

I understand now that there is something that is lost when you leave a place like that. And to know that she has felt this loss for decades is hard to put into words. The ache she must feel every time she visits Japan and then must leave her one true home is unimaginable.

I’ll miss Hawaii. I’ll miss the sandy beaches and the bright, blue water. I’ll miss the warm air and the kind people who actually say “aloha” and “mahalo” to each other like they’re family. I’ll miss the strong sun and the temperate climate and the fact that there is an ABC store on every corner.

But what I’ll miss most is the way it made me feel. The way I melted into it completely and never wanted to separate. I’ll miss the part of me I always knew existed but hadn’t found.

I’ll miss you, Hawaii.

Mahalo for an indescribable experience and until next time, with love, Sayaka.

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