(In January, 2012, my site was catastrophically hacked. I managed to get most of the content back, but unfortunately all my Japanese posts and comments have been rendered illegible. This was one of my best-loved posts, with some of the most interesting comments, so it is a loss greatly felt. I hope to keep the Japanese continued in my posts.
(edit: Managed to find the original Japanese text in the .plist file of my old Ecto software…an offline blog writing application, no longer available. Unfortunately, still can’t find the comments, though I know I have it somewhere on a .PDF copy of my old blog.)
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.
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.
Back in elementary to high school, at St. Mary’s International Boy’s School, Tokyo, Japan, I was one of the “Others”. This meant that those of us who belonged to this unofficial group basically didn’t come from one of the significant countries, like America or Britain or Australia, or, to a lesser extent, even though we all lived here, Japan. Usually us Others had dark skin, we played soccer or table tennis, instead of the more macho basketball or wrestling, we ate weird food at the cafeteria tables, and we had to be sanctioned off into the “Non-Christian Religion” class, the other two being “Catholics” (the best denomination) and the “Protestants” (the tolerated denomination). Since a majority of the students hailed from Asia, Africa, and South America, the disproportionate weight of our numbers had to be counterbalanced by strict reference to the West as the basis of our education. We spent seven years studying American history, one year world history, six months Japanese history, six Chinese, and one year Roman history (in Latin, of course).
Now I wasn’t the sort of person who kowtows to convention, and since I had enough conflict with the American and Australian bullies under the great camphor tree behind the school, I spent whatever time I had away from the school out in the fields and woods around Tokyo, hunting insects, kneeing through the susuki grass, and walking the trails around the rice paddies and the hills and mountains. This is where I was at peace and where the world made sense.
As a German/ Filipino/ only-discovered-at-twenty African American who grew up in Japan, the States, and Germany, who has been traveling since he was two, and was stateless until twelve years old, places as defined by humans, such as the arbitrary endowment of nationality or the invisible barriers of borders, never gave me any sense of belonging to a place. Even today the fervor that people build up in mindless displays of nationalism, such as the madness that seems to have overcome the U.S., makes no sense to me. The way I see it, the mobbing arises out of a herd mentality, each individual feeling safer with companions nearby and most importantly, companions with whom they are familiar. That these people declare American or British soil as the container of their identities seems, to me, to get the picture backward. Places have always seemed to work more as catalysts for identities; after all, the Native Americans developed a completely different world outlook from the immigrant Europeans, and even modern African Americans bear little resemblance to Africans from the continent, both culturally and often physically.
As I grow older Asian influences on the nature of existence and identity take greater and greater precedence in how I view myself. The Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist idea that the self is no more than an illusion, and that all of creation is but a flicker of a dream, makes sense and seems to explain a lot of the dilemma of body/ soul, life/death, mundane/heavenly, and human/ divine that Western philosophy seems unable to resolve. Buckminster Fuller put it succinctly: “I seem to be a verb”. Lately I’ve begun to see myself, my whole being, as a series of actions and ideas, constantly fluctuating, always becoming something else, but in the end, not having been anything but some dancing flame.
Looking back over my life, I often wondered why it has always been the wild, healthy places, or on occasion some well-designed garden or structure, that held sway over me and kept me coming back or stopping me dead in my tracks with awe and delight. If it is that I am just a dancing flame and that places around me just shifting veils of illusion, then what is it that arouses such wonder in me? What is the relationship between beauty, health, love, and place? Why does a beautiful place universally draw people, to the point that they will travel around the globe to see it?
Perhaps it is that when a place and an individual (or group) participate fully with each other, a recognition of the inseparability of each awakes in one’s consciousness. That is my experience at least. Throughout my life I have always felt most in tune with a place when I forgot myself and just “let go” into the elements. Walking a ridge, gazing from a boat window, crouching in the garden observing tiger beetles, or even drifting off into a deep sleep.
Life begets life. Though I have lived in disparate places, thousands of miles apart, they have all been linked, mainly by the forces that greet me each time I wake, like wind, sunlight, rain, trees, birds, insects, and fellow people. All these things have always moved in and out of my life, like seconds in a continuous curtain call. What happened in each of these encounters amassed into the theme that I play today. And tomorrow it will change again. I feel the restlessness that characterizes us humans and will probably move away from Tokyo, to be shaped yet again. A constant honing:
…walking in the woods of Germany with my grandfather, who taught me to find wild blueberries and hazenuts…
…hunting butterflies and rhinoceros beetles in Karuizawa, Japan…
…bicycling the gravel roads of the 1970’s Hokkaido, Japan…
…arriving in Oregon from Japan and dumbstruck by the hugeness of the douglas firs…
…strolling the same azure and corn yellow lanes of Arles, France, that van Gogh frequented…
…watching a hundred humpback and fin whales amidst a thousand common dolphins, all cavorting in a copper-colored, mirror-still sea in the Stellwagon Banks, off of Boston…
…bicycling to work in a blizzard along the blue ghost of the Charles River, in Boston…
…sitting silent all day on a cliff in the Shetlands, watching fulmars and puffins and razorbills…
…paddling a kayak across the Suruga Bay, Japan, with my first encounter with deep sea swells, like the earth heaving…
…falling asleep beneath an ancient cedar and waking up to Mt. Fuji bathed in gold…
…running along the Noh River near my apartment, as pipistrelle bats loop above…
…pulling weeds in my garden with mosquitoes biting and cicadas singing…
Anecdotes, but like a string of pearls. These make up my world and my mind. Places drawing through me, more like lines than points, and insisting that I dance along.
I am that blue marble hanging in the darkness. The Earth that shapes me. Perhaps a song. And finally, nothing, nothing at all.