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  • The concierge is polite, but, I can tell, annoyed.

    I’m talking too much, giving too much detail which she doesn’t want to hear. “My father was born in Fukuoka because my grandfather came to Japan from Korea to work in the coal mines during the Korean War. Is there an area in Fukuoka that has coal? And Koreans?”

    “Just one moment, please,” she says. She begins typing on her computer. “Yes, there is an area south from here, but it will take maybe one, maybe two hours to get there.”

    Yes. This just might be it. A few years ago, my parents visited Japan, and my father revisited the place he was born. When I emailed him asking where this place was, he told me it’s in the south of Fukuoka, and I would need to take two buses and drive through a lot of mountains and farmland to get there. The coal miners’ houses—still intact—have now been converted into employee housing for Mitsubishi.

    The concierge searches for Mitsubishi housing in the Chiyo coal region. She writes down bus stop names, and gives me directions on how to get there.

    So off we go hopping on and off buses, trying to coordinate with hand gestures and English words. The more distance we cover, the older the people become, the meaner and shabbier they look. Three hours later, we get off our stop. There are scattered housing and desolate lots which are not promising signs. The only business nearby is a Seven Eleven. We go in and approach random customers asking if they speak English, if they can help us. We exit disappointed. I approach two old grandmas walking down the highway’s sidewalk. “Mitt. Soo. Bee. She. Housing,” I say, to which, they politely smile, say something in Japanese, then walk away.

    We eventually leave because if we miss this bus, then we’re stuck here, in this middle of nowhere for the night. It’s the same bus driver who has made his rounds who picks us up. I look out the window and wonder what it was like for her. My grandmother was a teenager, newly betrothed by a matchmaker--she married young so the Japanese soldiers would leave her alone--, and pregnant when she came to this region. She came in the midst of war and impoverishment so her husband could work in the coal mines. She never spoke about her time in Japan, but some nights, I would wake up from her terrifying wails, and go downstairs to gently rouse her from her nightmare. She had a terrible gash on her leg which came when dogs were let loose on her at the camp. There was the time someone stole my father, a newborn, and she frantically ran throughout the entire camp and found him a few days later. I never asked her to elaborate on these stories. I thought I had more time. She passed away abruptly when I was in high school. There were so many things I wanted to ask about her past—my heritage—and somehow, I’m trying to recompense this loss by going on this journey that’s taken me deep into the mountains and farmland of Fukuoka.

    She never spoke about her time in Japan. And now, two generations later, I’m returning, flying first class, eating three star Michelin-rated kaiseki, staying at five star hotels, being bowed to and smiled at by many many Japanese and experiencing Japan in a way she would never dream possible.

    Later, my father emails me pictures of the bus stop he took in front of his old house, and it’s not the bus stop we were at, nor do the surroundings look anything like the desolate land we were in.

    “Ah well,” Yankee says as we look at the photos on the screen. “Sometimes you just need to go on that journey even though you know you probably won’t get there.”
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