Essay: The Third Lei of 2014

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This story originally ran in our 2014 Graduation Issue. To purchase a copy of the issue, which includes a list of this year’s Nikkei high school and college graduates, please stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.

By Mia Nakaji Monnier

20140605_194010On graduation day, I stood in the middle of the amphitheater of my old high school, trying to pick out my brother from the crowd of teenagers made identical by their caps and gowns. I’d searched the Palos Verdes Peninsula for a lei all afternoon, and after checking two grocery stores and three florists, I’d finally found one—overpriced, of course, its dainty body protected by a hard plastic carton—and managed to run from the shopping center across the street to the school just in time to give it to my brother before his ceremony started.

Wearing comfortable flats and carrying Daniel’s backpack of Grad Night supplies on my back, I felt more like a parent than a high schooler on this campus where I’d graduated eight years before. Every few minutes my phone rang with another call from my mother, wondering frantically whether I’d found a lei, whether I had our tickets, where I’d parked. In between her calls, I tried reaching Daniel, but, notoriously bad at answering his phone even on a normal day, he wasn’t picking up.

As I watched the students gather in rows in front of the stage, taking pictures and chatting, all smiles, I wondered what might happen if I didn’t find my brother in time. This stupidly expensive lei would go unworn and he’d play his guitar onstage undecorated, but that was all. At the worst, he might wonder why, of the three of us who graduated this year (our brother from El Camino, me from USC) he was the only one who didn’t get those purple orchids from our parents. But I couldn’t imagine Daniel, the laid-back one among us, worrying about something like that.

So I relaxed. I stepped outside of the crowd to get a better view of it from the outer lip of the amphitheater, and I looked at the buildings around the perimeter of campus, trying to place myself back on the outdoor walkways between classes in the early 2000s. I remembered the landmarks well enough—the courtyard where my friends and I ate lunch, the knee-high ledge where I ripped my pants climbing out of campus at the end of one day, the spot outside the music room where my friend waited with flowers in a Trader Joe’s bag to ask me to prom—but the memories didn’t seem to live there anymore, in the spots where they happened. Somehow, over the years, they’d been transplanted somewhere else. This was Daniel’s school now, not mine, and I didn’t feel particularly sad realizing it.

Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see Daniel. Wearing something other than a black gown, I guessed, I’d been much easier to spot than the other way around. In his graduation clothes, with a smile on his face, he looked like a real scholar, like a Ph.D. at some highbrow English school, composed beyond his years. Separated by seven years (and eight grades), Daniel and I grew up not as friends but as baby brother and big sister. I read him gruesome Roald Dahl fairy tales, I bought him Spongebob Squarepants gear until somewhere in middle school he asked me to stop, I let him come out with my friends when he came to visit me in college but sent him off to bed early without a drink. As siblings, all three of us have watched each other at our best and our worst. My family has years of photos in which I’m smiling obligingly while my two brothers scowl, with long hair and black clothes, beside me; and before that are years where we’re reversed—my brothers carefree and me deeply embarrassed to be photographed. Now, finally, we’ve all come out on the other side a little more confident, a little more grown up.

I handed Daniel his lei and he thanked me, letting me take a couple of photos to text to my parents with the caption “Successful delivery!” before he disappeared back into the black polyester mass.

Throughout the ceremony, the marine layer crept up the hill until, by the time the class threw their caps, a wet fog had settled on our skin nd my mother and I sat shivering under the flannel jacket we’d pulled out of Daniel’s backpack. Immediately after our cheers, the rush began again: find Daniel, take photos in every possible combination, congratulate friends, run home for the change of shoes Daniel had forgotten to put in his bag, and bring them back before the bus left for Grad Night. When I graduated from college, all these little details on graduation day—combined with the sun and the heat and my lack of sleep—made me stressed and grouchy. But doing it for someone else, I felt only the joy of it.

Staff writer Mia Nakaji Monnier will graduate from USC in August with a Master of Professional Writing.

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