Megumi Naomi Nakane. Now, is that Meg-Oo-Mee, or Meg-Gum-Eh? Nah-Cane? Nah-Canny? These are questions that Naomi is so sick of answering.
Naomi is a grade school teacher in Cecil, Alberta. She's five foot one, one hundred and five pounds, single, and kind of self-depreciating. She doesn't tell us much about herself, even though she's the protagonist. She gives us less information than an OkCupid profile. We don't even know what six things she could never live without.
But her Aunt Emily gives us the key to understanding Naomi. In one sentence, she explains everything:
"Surely I cried sometimes," I said to Aunt Emily when she told me what a quiet child I'd been. She shook her head. "I can't remember that you ever did. You never spoke. You never smiled. You were so "majime." What a serious baby—fed on milk and Momotaro." (10.23)
What does that mean? What is majime and who is Momotaro? We'll get to that in a second, young padawans.
First of all, what's majime? Well, it's a little difficult to explain. Many times the Japanese word is translated to mean diligent, hard working, or serious (like Aunt Emily explains in the quote). But there's a little bit more to it than that. Perhaps a simple way of explaining it is that a person who is majime does what they are expected or supposed to do. Yup, that's our Naomi.
The biggest way that we see Naomi's majime personality is through her silence. Naomi doesn't complain. Even when her Uncle dies, this is her reaction:
"Be still," the voice inside is saying. "Sift the words thinly." I am aware that I cannot speak. (2.58)
Instead of crying like other people might, she does the right thing. She starts organizing the funeral. She goes to visit Obasan. That's what she supposed to do.
But sometimes doing what she's supposed to do doesn't work out for Naomi. When Old Man Gower molests her when she's a little girl, she remains silent because that's what she's supposed to do. She thinks that the silence will keep her safe but instead it creates a wound:
The wound on her knee is on the back of her skull, large and moist. A double wound. The child is forever unable to speak. The child forever fears to tell. I apply a thick bandage but nothing can soak up the seepage. (38.12)
She feels an emotional wound that makes her banged-up knee look like a scratch. And this emotional wound is exacerbated by her silence: instead of keeping her safe, the silence just makes things worse. Now instead of talking to her mom about everything, Naomi has to lie and keep secrets.
But Naomi's Canadian, so why is she majime? Isn't that a Japanese way of behaving? Good questions, Shmoopadawan. That's just what we were going to talk about next.
You guys know the story of Momotaro right? No? Well that's okay. What you need to know is that Momotaro is one of the quintessential Japanese fables. In the West everyone knows Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, and in Japan everyone knows Momotaro.
Now for the milk. Did you know that the majority of the world is lactose intolerant? So it shouldn't be surprising to learn that milk was not very popular in Japan until comparatively recently. Actually, it wasn't until the US occupied Japan post-World War II that milk became a regular part of the Japanese diet.
So when Aunt Emily says that Naomi was raised on milk and Momotaro, what she means is that she is both stereotypically Japanese and stereotypically Canadian. In other words, she's Japanese-Canadian.
More than the other characters in the novel, Naomi struggles with her dual identity. She acknowledges that she is culturally bilingual, she says:
Who is it who teaches me that in the language of eyes a stare is an invasion and a reproach? Grandma Kato? Obasan? Uncle? Mother? Each one raised in Japan, speaks the same language; but Aunt Emily and Father, born and raised in Canada, are visually bilingual. I too learn the second language. (9.2)
So she must navigate between the cultural language of Canada and Japan.
On the one hand, Naomi has no problem with participating in Japanese customs. Even when they are kind of embarrassing when viewed through a Canadian cultural lens:
I am more brave, more praiseworthy than Stephen. He will not bathe with Grandma. But I will suffer endless indignities of the flesh for the pleasure of my grandmother's pleasure. (9.9)
We don't know how many white Canadian kids would be willing to take a bath with their Grandma. We're guessing not many.
On the other hand, Japanese-ness, or at least Japanese Canadian-ness doesn't seem to be a large part of her identity as an adult. She even says that none of her friends are even Japanese.While Stephen has clearly chosen the Canadian side of being Japanese Canadian, Naomi still hangs onto both sides. That's why she is majime and suffers in silence.
Naomi looks Japanese, acts Japanese, and even eats Japanese, but she doesn't feel Japanese. She feels Canadian. So when people try to rob her of either side of her Japanese Canadian-ness, she is conflicted. Naomi is conflicted about her identity, but we think that's only because people say she should be.