Journal Musings

Jogging Memories

More than a week ago, while deeply immersed in my work, an e-mail floated to the surface of my e-mail client that had me make a double take. I thought the e-mail was spam at first, but when I saw the name of the sender I stopped everything I was doing and opened it: it was a letter from a former high school classmate who was trying to contact as many people from our alma mater as he could. Attached to the message was a photo of six of the classmates, dining at a school reunion barbecue and looking older and a little more dog eared.

I write about this because I hadn’t been in touch with any of these people since I graduated in 1978, all except one, and he and I have had a falling out. For me high school here in Japan left a lot to be desired; being a skinny, sometimes overly sensitive guy in a boy’s school, looking like a Mexican or Indian among macho white Americans, Australians, Brits, and hierarchy-minded Japanese, in a school where the entire curriculum was based on an American point of view (though the school, run by Canadian Jesuit brothers, boasted to the world 52 different nations represented… but just imagine: 7 years studying American history, only one year studying world history.. something was quite warped) and where, if you didn’t hail from the dominating countries and cultures you ended up being an outcast, one of the Others who sat at separate tables in the lunch room and who received only supporting roles in the distinctly Euro-American biased musicals… all this left me deeply suspicious and critical of white Americans, of elitists who believe that those with less money exist to serve them, and of Christianity.

I say Christianity because of the intolerance the brothers showed for people with different faiths or beliefs (something I could never understand in an international school) and for the rampant molesting that went on around the school, usually of the elementary school boys, including me and my brother, but also of some of the visiting girls who took some science classes and tennis lessons from the brothers. One time, my teacher dismissed the entire class when I raised the question of abortion to a cardinal visiting from Rome. I have never heard anyone, except my brother, mention these awful acts… even today it is a no-no that probably no one will ever acknowledge. I have no idea if the molesting still goes on.

All my high school years I felt something dirty living inside me. I felt I was angry all the time, at a world trying to snuff my attestations out. My escape to America, to the University of Oregon, was like a breath of fresh, clean air… the new people I met were nothing like the elitists I had endured back in Japan, and while there were always those people who cannot seem to help but act like infants, the experience of college was liberating. It opened my mind, exposed me to characters who challenged me to grow and find the kernel of strength in myself, and opened an interactive relationship with a place around me that didn’t feel corrosive. I even began to enjoy my body, not feeling that my skinniness and dark complexion made me unattractive or undesirable. Best of all, I made a ring of wonderful, supportive, and fun-loving friends, people I will cherish all my life.

Years have passed and, like anyone, I’ve long since grown out of that ungainly high school boy. Or so I thought. When I peered at the e-mail from my former classmate, a lot of old memories came flooding back. All the bullying and exclusions and feeling inferior. To have these feelings poke their ugly little heads out from under the hood is troubling, to say the least. I have often wondered if I could face these boys again and hold my ground, without getting all awkward and tongue-tied the way I used to. I thought I had grown into someone more confident, but now I’m not so sure. What is it that triggers all the childhood fears?

Partly to counteract this sense of losing ground, I decided to reply to all the recipients of the e-mail, to hail them and try to overcome so much of the old resentments. Sending the letter made me nervous enough to make my palms sweat, but I did it. I like to try to face old ghosts and make friends with them.

Only one person replied, as flippant as I remember. No one else. And I don’t expect them to. In a way it confirms my high school suspicions. All week I have been asking myself why I would subject myself to further neglect and invisibility. I haven’t needed these people for 26 years. Why would I need them now?

America: Society Germany: Living Home Places Japan: Living Journal Poetry

Nature Boy

Luna Moth
Female Luna Moth resting under a branch shortly before the evening flight, Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, 1994.

Fred from Fragments From Floyd first made the call to people to try their hand at this exercise, an expression, in verse, of your origins. ( Fred’s version ) I first discovered it through Pica’s version in Feathers of Hope, and a little later from Bill’s version in Prairie Point. It’s a delightful exercise and, like Fred, I encourage everyone to try their hand at it themselves, and either post it on their web journal, here in the comments, or over at Fred’s. Here is the basic format: I am from…

Here is my version: ( “Nature Boy” was the nickname that I was given in elementary school and that stuck with me until I graduated from high school. I hated it in the beginning, but have come to feel that it describes me very well )

I am from cobblestone streets wet with oak leaves,
from the tantivy of pigeons circling.
From Tante Luise’s soft fingers grasping a worn potato knife
and Oma tiptoeing by the window sill, watching pedestrians.
I am from terra cotta roof tiles and forests of chimneys,
from a grandfather clock chiming at midnight.
From cherries and plums and dewey blueberries in bowls,
from echoing stairwells and the acrid bite of coal and potatoes in sacks.
I am from Opa’s tar-stained fingers grasping a hazenut stick,
from stock still hares and barking roe deer.
From an open top Morgan purring down the Autobahn,
from clanking trains pulling into iron framed halls.
I am from Mama’s worn diary and sepias of country lanes,
from Papa’s white lab coat and Vespa touring the tarmac.
From ship smokestacks gliding atop a levee,
from a first kiss in the westering sun.

I am from brick walls laced in ivy,
from mantis nymphs spilling down a papery shell.
From smashing a neighbor’s igloo and squirrels clattering along eaves,
from a blue blizzard toppling my friend, a weeping willow.
I am from the tales Joseph told of elephants in Rhodesia,
from the Planet of the Apes and a bone tossed into space.
From hoola hoops and Hot Wheels,
from pansit served with yams and cranberry sauce.
I am from candle balloons filling the air and cherry bombs in toilets,
from Auntie Soli dancing the tiniklit, between bamboo poles.
From Josh’s sister abducted and never seen again,
from Tatsuro’s Egyptian cartoons and Bitsy’s flying tackle with a kiss.
I am from a short-eared owl staring from a barn roof,
from the white teeth of children in a black Brooklyn school, streets shouting, “Integration!”
From horseshoe crabs washed up on Jones Beach,
from hoary firs standing silent as I land.

I am from limestone walls bulging from muscling zelkova trunks,
from sweet straw mats and shoes kicked off by the door.
From cicadas electrifying the summer haze, making trees speak,
from wooden sandals clip-clopping along train platforms.
I am from helmeted students shouting, “No war!”,
from pantomiming five comedians on black and white TV.
From shaved ice with melon syrup and glass balls punched into bottle necks,
from the girl down the street who never said hello.
I am from Jonathan shouting, “Jumbo Jet!”, everyone rushing to the window,
from Peter’s water pipe and my bloody nose.
From a family of foxes pausing on the dirt road up north,
from rhinoceros beetles and luna moths and azure-winged magpies.
I am from hitting tennis balls at a wall, sobbing and wishing for friends,
from jam-packed commutes and girls in sailor uniforms.
From lying beside the Okhotsk Sea with my brother, watching Perseid meteorites streak the wide ink sphere,
from clouds drifting across the face of Fuji, crowning her in white.

I am from the North,
I am from the West,
I am from the East.

Is there time, still, for the South?

Japan: Living Journal Life In Tokyo

The Barley Fields

Hearth Pole
Open hearth pole from my home, Tokyo, 1984.

This is the 3rd installment of the ongoing series of discussions about place at the Ecotone: Writing About Place site. This week’s topic is Suburbs.

On the night my family arrived in Tokyo from New York we were driven into the city from Haneda Airport. It had been a long flight, with a transit in Honolulu for refueling, and we were all tired and a bit dazed. A representative from my father’s company met us at the arrivals area and escorted us out to the street, where he had his car waiting for us. The air was heavy with humidity and insects whirled around the street lights over the taxi stand. The air smelled of burning oil and something else, something sweetly organic that a newcomer like me couldn’t identify. And all the while a numb sense of dislocation surged up in my belly, like having my sense of balance ripped out from inside me, a sense of being physically there, but my soul lingering in another time far away. When I think back on that moment, it is curious that I can remember the details of arriving in Tokyo, but can’t recall a single image of the moment we left New York…

As we pulled out of the airport and made our way into the city, Tokyo rose around us, the dark walls of the buildings lit up by a carnival of bright, flashing neon lights, every building seemingly decorated with gay, vertical signs to silently cheer our arrival. My father, gazing in amazement with his face pressed to the window exclaimed, “Why do they call New York the City of Lights? This is the City of Lights!”

Tokyo would be my home for the next ten years and would shape me in ways that I could not have imagined while I was still living in New York.

Since that day, Tokyo has grown like an insatiable rabbit unmindful of the horde she has been giving birth to. Areas that I once took the train out to to spend time in the country have transformed into chic shopping neighborhoods where the fashionable meet for Sunday brunch and cappucinos. Downtown West Shinjuku, the heart of big business and government today, with its soaring skyscrapers and wide avenues, still billowed with barley fields when I was a boy. It was a Sunday adventure in junior high school for my best friend Alex and me to spend our weekend afternoons riding all the high speed elevators to the top of the brand new buildings and have a look down. By the end of the day we would head home with splitting headaches and nausea, but heady with the elation of having topped all the tallest building in Japan in one day.

Japan has no American halfway point of suburbs. There just isn’t the space. You either build or you don’t, and where there are no mountains, every available vacancy is paved over and framed and shored up and walled in. You can take a train ride from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of about 500 kilometers, and looking out the window, never once see the repetition of single family homes and apartment buildings and factories interrupted by any significant stretches of untouched green. In the outskirts of Tokyo proper, where people used to go hiking in low-lying woods and fields, now housing developments, Japan’s closest equivalent to the American Back to the Country movement of the 50’s and 60’s, gobble up hillsides. Entire chains of hills have been leveled to make room for all the people who want to own their own homes, especially during the heady Bubble era, when no one thought twice about the environmental consequences of all the building they were doing.

I was lucky. Tokyo was still down-to-earth enough in the 60’s and 70’s to allow me to get dirty in the fields and accumulate a repertoire of close encounters with wild creatures, especially birds and insects. I was lucky to have been one of the last children to watch fireflies winking on and off over the susuki fields by the rivers near my house. I had the opportunity to listen to the sad cry of the dusk cicada ( higurashi-zemi, Tanna japonensis. See Cicadae in Japan. Open “Songs of Cicadas”, choose your platform sound format, open sound page, and scroll down to “Tanna japonensis”. The higurashichorus3.mpeg or .wav file is the best recording.), which is just about impossible to describe to someone who has never heard it (the closest I can come to it is if you take the sound of a pencil being drawn over the slowly moving spokes of a bicycle, alter that sound into that of a locomotive whistle, but with the quality of a harmonica, and multiply the numbers to several dozen all singing together at different intervals) and I feel it is a great loss to the children of Tokyo never to have the chance to know one of the most beautiful sounds of Japan.

I grew up with walls around me, for towns in Japan traditionally wall the streets in up to shoulder height or more. Streets are enclosed on both sides, with houses coming right up to the edge, and traditionally, the entrance hall open right out to passersby. Neighbors and salesmen and people on official business would step right into the entrance hall without ringing the doorbell and announce their presence. It gave a strong sense of belonging and neighborhood watchfulness, with every one aware of what was going on around them, though, as foreigners, we were more often than not thought of as weird and unconventional. I grew used to the paradox of walls enclosing streets while doors allowed anyone in, so much so that, though I visited my relatives in New York on occasional summers, the mowed grass patchwork that constitutes so many American homes, to this day feels alien and exposed, and yet oddly uninviting.

What Tokyo has become I do not love. There is no longer any heart to the growth of the city. The newly developed area I now live in is made up mostly of young families just starting out with their careers and child-rearing. Most of them intend to move on. Since moving here three years ago, not a single person has ever returned my greetings, and half of them give me suspicious stares. One older couple, which unfortunately lives right behind our bedroom window, went so far as to growl, “Go home you foreigners!” And, seeing that I looked somewhat like a Pakistani or Mexican, added as an afterthought, “You probably don’t even have a visa, do you? You’re here illegally, aren’t you?”

It is not possible for me to find peace with myself in a place that I cannot find the motivation nor means to care about. It is like living a half-life, mostly in my head. And so it may be time to move again, and once more face the tearing feeling of dislocation. But I will always carry the old barley fields in my heart, where my childhood lives and where the old roots still drink up a sense of belonging to this place, whatever the dull neighbors may assume. And the dusk cicadas will always sing where none can hear them any more.