About a month ago, a collarless cat appeared in our yard out of nowhere.

He lithely hopped onto our next door neighbor’s porch (our townhouses are side-by-side) and gave K a saucy stare. He slowly glided to and fro, sizing us up, as though we were auditioning for the role of potential owners.

We were on our way out and I urged K and M to hurry, but K was riveted. I happened to have my camera on me, so I snapped a few photos, all the while saying, “C’mon, we have to go!” Oh, he was confident, that cat. He knew he had our attention, and then did a lightning fast flip:


We stood stock still, agape at his invitation to scratch his belly (and then I took some pictures). We are not cat people, obviously. After a couple of awkward moments of nothing happening, he flipped back over and sauntered onto our porch. Was it my imagination? There was a disdainful flick of his tail. “Take it or leave it,” it seemed to say.

I finally mobilized K and M toward the car, and the cat looked on silently. He was gone when we returned.



I bring this up not because it was some earth-shattering momentous occasion, but because I was thinking about the cat’s natural self-assurance. It relates — in my convoluted way — to one of the thought-provoking exchanges K and I often seem to have just as I’m dropping her off at school. “I worry about what other people think of me, Mommy,” she said yesterday, and I lamented that we had exactly one minute before the bell rang and I couldn’t address this incredibly important topic sufficiently at the time. We talked, all too briefly, about how one of the bravest and hardest things to do is not to worry about other peoples’ opinions. Especially if this focus on others’ thoughts prevents us from trying or doing or saying things that are wonderful, positive, fascinating and exciting.


I still need to figure out my exact thoughts on how to communicate this concept of self-belief and confidence, because words alone aren’t effective and it has to be through my actions, as a role model. Given my limited time yesterday morning, however, the first example I threw out was my mom, because she’s always been unafraid of external opinions. She left Japan at age 19 and headed to Germany, aware that she didn’t fit in with the homogenous Asian culture. She was certain that there was a bigger and better world out there for her. Now, forty-some years later in Los Angeles, she’s spending her days just as she’d hoped: painting and gardening and enjoying life every day.


I grew up with the understanding that our family was odd, and my mom especially was like no other moms I knew. She was an artist, but more than that she was the main breadwinner in our family for nearly twenty years when my father was incapacitated for various reasons (more women are the main breadwinners nowadays, but that’s a discussion for another time) — she couldn’t earn enough money selling her art so she tried so many things: she worked at sushi restaurants as a waitress, at a silk screening factory as a “color technician” for art posters, she designed t-shirts and ceramic tchotchkes, ran an antiques booth, and so on and so forth. The language barrier narrowed her employment options; in fact, her English is still stilted and far from fluent even though she’s an American citizen now. From the outside, looking back, it probably seemed like a hard existence.


But throughout my childhood, all I remember is how much fun she was. She created relentlessly — knitting needles at the ready, costumes whipped up in moments, homemade Japanese treats bubbling on the stove. Even when she’d worked double-shifts at the restaurant, she would still paint every day and play with me and my brothers. She taught me that if you love something, if it really matters to you, you make time for it.


I am not as strong or courageous or insouciant as my mother. I still worry about the impression I’m making, and there have been way too many occasions when I didn’t try or do something even though I knew it was wonderful, positive, fascinating and exciting just because I was afraid of other people’s reactions. Luckily, I did inherit her samurai warrior-like work ethic and like her, I don’t take myself too seriously. K is blessed that she has such an exemplary role model in her Ba-chan (Grandma in Japanese), and I hope through a lot of hard work, I too might teach K the kind of powerful chutzpah and self-assuredness intrinsic to my mother and that mystery cat.



Mother’s Day is coming up so I’ve had motherhood on the mind…the interspersed images, by the way, are creations by my mom: my favorite painting of hers that we have in our living room; a pot that K and my mom (mostly my mom) worked on together; a fabric book she stitched up for K when she was still a baby. It has a bunch of Japanese words she appliqued, including K’s full name – one of our most treasured possessions!


18 thoughts on “Chutzpah

  1. Wow. Self-assurance and self-confidence are such difficult topics to broach. How do you impart that on a child? I guess the best way is to have living examples such as you and your mom. I hope to provide the same to my upcoming baby! Definitely lots to think about this upcoming Mother’s Day!

    1. I hope your pregnancy is going well, Adri! Yes, big topics…topics that I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle yet, but interesting to think about for sure. 🙂

  2. I love that painting! I love that dish with lid! Wow! A sewn book! I want one of those! Your mother sounds so talented and busy. What a wonderful woman! So your daughter worries about what people think of her. Very interesting that she is thinking along those lines. I know it is easy to say , don’t worry, but in the end we kind of have to grow into the answer, don’t you think? And is this a constant worry, or just a fleeting worry at that moment?

    I tend to think of the duck. Its feathers are oiled so it can go about in the rain without getting waterlogged.

    1. I like the duck analogy so much, Max! As for K’s worries, they’re definitely fleeting but they’re starting to come up more frequently I’ve noticed. And yes, she’ll have to come into it on her own, but I would so love to make the progress easier, ya know?

  3. What a thoughtful and lovely post Sanae. I think that question is a big one, and your meditatations on it very reflective. I suspect you are doing a fine job guiding K through life’s intricacies.

  4. Running ..stopping to say- if a cat exposes it’s belly to you it is a sign of submission/trust. Unless you want to be sctratched up- do not touch belly unless you know how the cat will react. Some love it , some cats will go Godzilla on you if you actually touch their tummy. Cats- they are not dogs . Love that dish!

    1. Good to know! I think this cat was accustomed to having its belly rubbed because it kept arching its back as if saying “right here! pet me!” 🙂 Thanks, Corina!

  5. It sounds as if you mother knows with all her being what she loves and what she needs to lead a happy life. (She knows her cutie mark!) Maybe that is the key, knowing and following your heart´s desire and then it is not important anymore what others are thinking. I am sure you and your mother ( and I am sure M, too!) are wonderful rolemodels for k. She is a lucky girl! Thank you for sharing your mother´s artwork, it inspires. And how interesting she once came to Germany!

    1. My mom is a very decisive, no-nonsense person and yes, she used to always tell me that she knew she would be an artist from the time she was three-years-old. She lived in Hamburg, I believe, but I’ll have to double-check with her. She was a nanny for a Chinese family that lived in Germany; she lived there for about a year sometime in the late 1960s and loved it!

  6. What a lovely testimony to your mom’s tenacity and brilliant skill in raising a family while keeping the family financially afloat. K has a wonderful role model indeed in Ba-Chan – and in Ba-Chan’s equally talented, courageous daughter:)

    1. She is a mighty one, my mom. Thank you for your sweet words, Lucinda! I wouldn’t call myself courageous, but I’m so glad she instilled so many helpful values through example.

  7. What a bossy little cat – I think you captured her energy! Thank you for sharing your mom’s beautiful art and a bit of her story. She sounds incredibly tough, and I’d love to cultivate an art-ethic like hers.

    1. Ha, it was a bossy little thing! A friend of mine asked me to write a book about my mom one day — she’s that fascinating! She’s a true adventurous spirit who doesn’t ever hold back and doesn’t ever pretend to be anyone other than herself. 🙂

  8. Sounds like there are some wonderful, interesting and formidable women in your family. That cat, however is a male. 🙂 (sorry, professional curiosity made me look)
    But the analogy still stands; they are aesthetes, comfort seekers and very clever at getting their own way. We should all be so lucky as to live like a well cared for cat.

    1. Gah! I knew I would assume wrong, I always do!! 🙂 Thanks for the correction, Shelley, I’ve changed “she” to “he”– does “professional curiosity” mean you’re in the animal business (vet?)?

  9. These are definitely difficult subjects! I often find myself wondering how I can guide my son to becoming the fullest and happiest version of himself and self-assurance is a big aspect of that.

    Your mother does seem like a tower of strength and self-assurance and Max’s duck analogy seems particularly fitting. And thank you for sharing her work! Your mother in some ways reminds me of mine. As a young child, my mother decided that she would speak English as if it was her native tongue, live in the United States, have many children (she’s an only child), and teach. All those things she accomplished. However, she was always told that she had no talent for the arts and for many years believed it. As an adult she has found that it is one of the most fulfilling activities for her, disregarding what people had previously said, and truly enjoying herself.

    There are so many examples of beautiful self-assurance and confidence. K is very lucky to have both you and Ba-chan.

    1. Wow, Alexandra, your mother sounds phenomenal! But I think we all are as mothers ourselves. It’s not an easy task, raising a small one to one day navigate this ever-changing world!

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