Man Who Catch Wife with Chopstick

Tokyo, Japan
Circa 1989

I'm tellin' ya, man. Proposing to the girl you love is a lot harder than winning a stupid karate tournament. The worst that's likely to happen in the tournament is that you'll end up with a few cracked ribs—or in my case, a badly injured leg, if the guy you're fighting has a nutcase for a sensei. But if your girl says no to a proposal, there's no fixing that kind of injury anytime soon.

It's been three years since Kumiko and I met. I've liked my share of girls before, but I knew Kumiko was different from all of them the minute she first opened the door of that house in Okinawa to greet us. It probably sounds stupid to you, but when I saw the way her eyes lit up and I heard the gentleness in her voice, in the way she said "Miyagi-san," I knew right then I couldn't let her get away like I'd let Ali get away.

She was just so…exotic, you know? I mean, how many girls in Fresno would spend years of their life learning something as hardcore as the tea ceremony? Most of them would try it for a few days, say "screw that," and go home. Not Kumiko.

As I get close, one of the Japanese guys guarding the auditorium where the Tokyo Ballet is performing tonight bows. "Konbanwa. May I see your ticket, sir?"

I flash him a stupid grin, so nervous about meeting Kumiko again that I reply in English. "Sure."

He tears my ticket and hands me the stub. I squeeze my way into the auditorium, looking for my seat. "Sumimasen," I say over and over as I bump into legs and elbows. "Gomen'nasai!"

Finally, I'm settled in my seat with about five minutes to spare before it all starts. If it hadn't taken me so long to find a parking space—meaning if I hadn't almost caused pileups all over Tokyo—I would have gotten here way earlier. I still can't get over people driving on the left side of the road. Which brings up an old memory…

"Everybody drives on the right side," I say, disbelieving.

Kumiko smiles at the idiot foreigner. "Not everybody."

I chuckle. "That's what I'm learning."

Everybody shuts up as the lights go down and the curtain starts to rise. The show they're doing is called "Bugaku." Technically, it's been around for hundreds of years, but it used to be shown only to imperial courts. After World War II, they started showing it to the whole country. I read about it in a book last night on the flight over.

It's all great, of course, but no matter how fancy the other dancers' moves are, I'm squirming in my seat until Kumiko shows up onstage. The show's full of masks and fancy costumes, but I can tell it's her even without seeing her face. No one else is that graceful.

Every movement she makes brings up more memories. I see her turning her right arm a certain way, the palm of her hand facing downwards, and it reminds me of the o-bon dance.

"What are you doing?"

"I was practicing some moves. See?"

"What are moves?"

"It's like karate. I'm trying to figure this thing out."

"Looks like o-bon dance."

"Then I must be doing something wrong."

"Doing something right. Look…"

I shiver in my seat. I knew it would be bad, but I didn't know it would be this bad. I'm a nervous wreck. Guys who know karate are supposed to be tough, right? Bull-. She's kicking my a- from across the room, and she doesn't even know karate.

It's over before I know it, and some part of my mind realizes I loved every minute of it. Then again, it's hard not to love anything this girl is a part of.

I paid good money for a backstage pass. You might ask me what I was thinking. Why would I pay to meet Kumiko and her ballet troupe backstage when I could have just asked and she would have gotten me the ticket and the backstage pass for free?

She doesn't know I'm here. Yeah, she was expecting me, but not for another month. I left my karate studio in the hands of the other instructors and took the ten-hour flight from LAX to Tokyo yesterday morning. Or evening, if we're talking Tokyo time. This jet lag crap still kills me.

Once I'm backstage, I wait in line with the other fans. Judging by their looks, most of them are rich businessmen and newspaper critics who are probably there to congratulate the ballet on their performance. There's a few people my age there, too, holding cameras and autograph books.

I watch the troupe treat the crowd just like another dance. Every smile, every bow, every handshake, every autograph they sign, and every picture they take is just as graceful as the bugaku.

Finally, I'm at the front of the line. Kumiko is somewhere near the middle of the troupe, and right now there's a dorky-looking guy in a Rose of Versailles t-shirt who's grabbing her by the shoulder and holding his camera out to one of the other members of the troupe so he can take a picture with Kumiko. I roll my eyes.

When she looks up to face the lens of the camera, that's when she sees me in the crowd. Her eyes widen with recognition, but—not wanting to hurt the guy's feelings—she finishes the picture, bows to the otaku (that's another word I learned in a book last night) and walks forward to meet me at the front of the line.

I may be an idiot foreigner, but I spent enough time with her during my trip to Okinawa to know that she's doing a really good job of holding it in right now. First, she bows, and then she holds out her hand for me to take.

For a minute, I'm tempted to just grab her and kiss her right there in front of everybody. That's probably what I would have done three years ago. But I'm the man that fought for this lady's honor against Chozen. I'm here to be the hero she's been dreaming of. And let me tell you. A girl as traditional as Kumiko isn't going to appreciate it if you embarrass her like that. Sure, she can let her hair down and dance to the oldies like nobody's business. Sure, she can jump on the maniac who's attacking you and try to strangle him with a cloth. But...

…But even as I'm thinking all this, I spot the twinkle in her expression, and all the sudden she's the one grabbing me. She's the one kissing me in front of everybody. I was wrong about people driving on the right side of the road in Okinawa. I was wrong to assume that her marriage would be arranged just like Yukie's. And now I'm wrong—really, really glad to be wrong—about her attitude to expressing her emotions in public.

The next several minutes are a blur. The other members of the troupe surround us, and she introduces me as "Daniel-chan." They've already heard about me. She tells them about me every day during rehearsals. They've heard the story of how I saved her life a thousand times. They're honored to meet me. Some of the guys slap my back as if we're best buddies. So much for being graceful.

As soon as I can kidnap her without being rude to her friends, I sweep Kumiko into a taxi and rattle off an address to the driver. He's nice enough as taxi drivers go, but he yaks even faster than he drives, so the best I can do is hold Kumiko's hand during the ride and pretend that I'm interested in what he's saying. I guess he must be desperate for tips, because once he finds out I'm from America—like that's any big secret—he insists on tuning the radio to a station that plays American music, which at that moment happens to be playing "I Think I'm Turning Japanese" by the Vapors. Kind of appropriate, I guess, but the gesture reminds me too much of the first time I met Chozen, so it isn't exactly a point in the guy's favor.

Eventually, he drops us off at a hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant called The Perfect Blossom. It's about as old-fashioned as they come, with tables so low you have to kneel or sit on the floor to reach the tabletop. The waitress brings us bowls of miso soup before you can say "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto." I open my menu, but it's hard to concentrate on sushi and sake when you've got the most beautiful girl in the world sitting across from you.

"Daniel-chan," she finally says, after about a minute of awkward silence. "Why did you come early?"

I shrug. "Oh, you know. I was just so desperate to see the sights and all."

Lame, lame, lame. I half expect her to frown at a reply like that, but she doesn't. I guess she's used to me being an idiot by now.

Instead, she takes a sip of her miso soup and says, without missing a beat, "You're such a looney tune."

I almost choke. "Where did that come from?"

She puts down her spoon solemnly. "To me, you are the most important person in my life. I want to understand you, and if this means learning American expressions, I will learn them for your sake—because I choose to." The twinkle shows up again for a split second. "Got that, dude?"

Wow. This girl is something else. I know, I know—I already said that.

I flash her my best grin. "Hai, wakarimasu." Yes, I understand.

She returns the grin and picks up her menu. "I see your accent is improving."

"Well, you know. I've been bribing Mr. Miyagi to give me lessons when I'm not at the studio."

We pause to place our order with the waitress. Not that it really matters what I order. They could feed me spoiled octopus, and the way I'm feeling right now, I probably wouldn't even notice. I thought I was already as nervous as I could get, but the closer we come to the moment that I've been planning for months—years, really—the more I have to fight to keep focused. I force myself to maintain a normal conversation without betraying my real purpose.

Finally, the waitress reaches down to place a steaming pan of sukiyaki on the surface of the table. It's basically a frying pan full of meat and vegetables all mixed together. Everybody at the table is supposed to just reach in with their chopsticks and grab whatever they want. Sometimes, in bigger groups, this leads to a lot of accidental chopstick clashing with people trying to grab the same pieces.

We're quiet for a while after the food arrives, both of us lost in our thoughts. I watch Kumiko take a polite sip of her tea, as if she's tasting it more for the sheer enjoyment of the flavor than because she's thirsty. Oh, yeah. That takes me back to the tea ceremony we shared together in Okinawa, you can bet it does.

The food is delicious, of course. The beef is tender and the vegetables are as fresh as you're likely to get without pulling them out of the ground yourself. But like I said…I'm not really thinking about the food right now.

"Here." I pick up a clump of Chinese cabbage with my chopsticks and hold it out towards Kumiko. "Try this piece."

She smiles and opens her mouth, allowing me to feed her the cabbage. Then she picks out an even bigger clump of cabbage, holding her hand underneath it to prevent too much water from falling on the table. We take turns like this, feeding each other bigger and bigger pieces until we're laughing so hard that I realize most of the tension I've been feeling has melted away.

Okay. I love this girl, and it's time to prove it.

There's one more piece of cabbage sitting on the side of the pan closest to me.

"Hey, Kumiko." I say her name as casually as if I want to talk about music or what the weather's like in Tokyo. "Would you mind holding out your left hand for a minute?"

She looks at me strangely but holds her hand out, palm upwards.

"The other way." I demonstrate.

Her frown says she thinks I'm a few pieces short of a sushi roll, but she does it anyway. As carefully as I can, I lift the corner of the clump of cabbage and—still using my chopsticks—I pick up the ring I bribed the chef to hide inside the dish, and I hold it out to her.

"Here. Try this piece."

I guess I was half-expecting a sharp intake of breath, maybe even a scream of delight or something. Instead, she stares at the ring for a while and then raises her eyes to mine. I'm not entirely sure what this signifies, but I sure didn't come all this way for nothing, so I take a deep breath and begin to speak.

"Kumiko wa, watashi wa anata o aishiteimasu. Watashi wa anata ni atte irai, watashi wa anata o aishite iru. Watashi wa anata ga eien ni watashi no tsuma ni naritai. Anata wa watashi to kekkon suru?"

Kumiko, I love you. I have loved you since I first met you. I want you to be my wife forever. Will you marry me?

It's actually a pretty simple speech, but it's one that I've been rehearsing for months. For all I know, I'm butchering the Japanese language with every syllable. But I think she gets the point.

Suddenly, I'm thinking about the table in that dance hall where we sat across from each other after knocking the socks off our fellow dancers with our unrehearsed routine. We were barely adults then, asking each other not-so-subtly if the other was spoken for. One of the highlights of my life, man, even with what came afterwards with Chozen.

Sitting across from me now, at a low table in a restaurant called The Perfect Blossom in the heart of Tokyo, after performing with one of the most famous ballets in the world and proving that she's achieved the dream she whispered to me on a crowded street in Okinawa, Kumiko doesn't say a word.

Instead, she holds her hand out further. I slide the ring onto her finger. We look at each other for a while.

And a tear slides down her face.

"Do you, Daniel-san, take Kumiko to be lawful wedded wife?"

I smile at Mr. Miyagi before turning my eyes back on Kumiko. "Hell yeah."

That gets a chuckle from the audience. Kumiko just shakes her head. She knows exactly what she's getting with me.

"And do you, Kumiko-san, take Daniel to be lawful wedded husband?"

"I do." She emphasizes her answer with a bow.

"Then by power vested in me by Buddha and by state of California, I now pronounce you man and wife." Mr. Miyagi bows and waves a hand at Kumiko. "Daniel-san, you may kiss bride."

He doesn't have to tell me twice. I tip Kumiko over and lay a big one on her in front of everybody, careful not to let her bride's hat fall off—the shape of it reminds me of a chef's hat, and it's full of flowers, a concession to Japanese tradition to please her aunt Yukie.

Johnny, my old rival from high school, hoots from the back of the audience. Believe it or not, we've been friends for a while now, so I decided to make him an usher at my wedding. Crazy, huh?

When we finally come up for air, there's a lot of clapping and cheering. Mr. Miyagi says the rest of the usual phrases before sending us back down the aisle hand-in-hand.

Our reception is at a posh Italian restaurant just down the road from Mr. Miyagi's house, where we had the ceremony. Lasagna, wine, dancing, the works.

Sometime during the evening, Mr. Miyagi makes it a point to slip me a folded letter, telling me to open it when I'm on my honeymoon. With all that's going on, I don't think much of it at the time.

I finally have the chance to open it a few days later. The whole thing's in English, and that says a lot right off the bat, because even after spending most of his life in the States, he's never been all that comfortable writing in it.


I so proud of you. When I became teacher, no idea you become so great student. You best karate student I ask for.

Remember when I said need balance? You find it very well. Karate studio, make money, make living important, but Kumiko bring balance to Daniel-san life.

Too many young people in America, wedding ring on, wedding ring off few years later. Ring on, ring off. You no ring off. Keep ring on, keep love for Kumiko all life. You no find better wife than her.

I always try to be father to you. You are son I never had, Daniel-san. Yukie and I love you very much.

Life together will be challenge always. No discourage. If you discourage, just remember Miyagi wise saying.

Man who catch wife with chopstick accomplish anything.