Suzanne Kamata is the author of the YA novels Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Screaming Divas, both of which feature diversity. She was the editor of Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs . Her nonfiction book A Girls’ Guide to the Islands, about traveling in Japan with her daughter who has multiple disabilities, will be published in 2017.
As far as I know, my seventeen-year-old daughter had never met a Muslim before. At her Special Support School for the Deaf and Blind in Western Japan, she is the Other. She uses a wheelchair, whereas everyone else can walk, and she is the only kid in a student body of forty or so with a non-Japanese parent – I’m an American; her father is Japanese. Although there is a tiny mosque nearby, and a handful of Malaysian students at the local public university where I teach, the city where we live is largely homogeneous.
My daughter knew about the Islamic religion from TV, mostly, where she sees reports of bombings in cities around the world – cities that she has visited and loved, such as Paris and Boston – and Japanese reporters abducted and slaughtered in the desert by ISIS.
When I brought her to New York City during this past summer vacation, she saw lots of people of different races and colors.
“Muslim?” she finger-spelled, when she saw a woman wearing a hijab.
“Yes,” I replied. “Probably.”
My daughter looked a little worried.
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “She’s not a terrorist.”
We walked down Fifth Avenue, looking into store windows. We saw “The Lion King” on Broadway, ate cheesecake at Junior’s, and toured the Statue of Liberty. At the end of our trip, we had dinner in an Italian restaurant across from our hotel with Bill. an old friend and former expat in Japan. He and I drank wine, and caught up with news of our acquaintances. Unable to keep up with our conversation, my daughter ate her pasta, and scribbled the occasional note to Bill in Japanese.
Suddenly, a young woman draped in a pink hijab approached our table.
“Can I tell your daughter that I love her?” she asked.
“Go ahead,” I said, without too much thought. Maybe she was inspired by the sight of a cheerful girl in a wheelchair. Who knows? Who cares? I was comfortably woozy from the wine. Love is good.
“She doesn’t speak English,” said Bill, a simultaneous interpreter by trade.
“But she knows ‘I love you,’” I interjected. I had taught her to say it in English and American Sign Language. “You could write it down for her.”
The young woman pointed at her chest, made the sign of a heart with her hands, and then pointed to my daughter. Then they hugged, and she went away.
My daughter shrugged. What was that all about? She was smiling.
A little more than a week after we left New York City, a man set fire to a tourist’s hijab while she was window-shopping on Fifth Avenue. Another hate crime, the news organizations reported.
“What did you think about Muslims before that woman came to our table?” I asked my daughter later, when we were back in Japan.
“Scary,” she replied.
“That woman was beautiful and kind,” she signed. “I changed my mind. And I told my friends about her.”