I could feel myself staring at the TV screen. I was intermittently grinning in a way that I’d sometimes notice at a delay, as if my face was operating independently of myself. My brother’s son, I noticed at some point, had walked to where I sat and was holding a large, unwieldy children’s book toward me while staring pragmatically at my face. He stood motionless in a vague, inhuman way, like he wouldn’t get tired – or would, but in the way a tree might. He seemed exclusively distracted by what he was doing. I accepted the book, and he walked away. Later he seemed less purposeful, almost confused, when I noticed him looking at me from four or five feet away. I realized, as we stared at each other, that he wouldn’t remember this moment, or day, or probably any of the next one to three years, after which, for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t know why he has certain likes and dislikes, fears and desires, nightmares and dreams, fantasies and neuroses. He would always seem – in an undetectably pervasive manner – otherly and slightly incomprehensible to himself, because his unconscious and subconscious and autonomic nervous system would remember what he would not.
I was surprised I’d never viewed anyone, it seemed, in this manner. I’d never thought ‘he doesn’t remember the three years of his life when, to those interacting with him, it was apparent he wouldn’t remember anything he was experiencing’, for example, about myself or someone else.
At dinner, a few minutes after being seated, I was surprised to hear myself say ‘I don’t know what to write’ while thinking vaguely about my essay, which I hadn’t planned to discuss. Substituting in English what I didn’t know in Mandarin, the language I used, not fluently, with my parents, I explained I was writing a 4,000-word essay about Japan that was due November 25. I didn’t think they, or anyone, could say anything I’d use in my essay, but I was enjoying the conversation, so I began asking my parents, who I’d asked for writing advice probably zero to four times in the past ten years, what I could write about Japan.
My father said he would tell me if I took notes. ‘Keywords,’ he said in English. I opened Notes on my iPhone. My father shifted a little and, after a pause, in a voice that unintentionally, it seemed, sounded like what one would stereotypically use to half-earnestly quote Confucius, said it was a good sign in Japan if your husband stayed out late every night after work because that meant business was doing well. He stopped talking. I stared at my iPhone. I was considering typing ‘husband’ as a keyword.
‘Did you write it down?’ said my father.
‘Not yet,’ I said. ‘Say more.’
My father said that was all he had to say.
‘Huh?’ said my mother in a surprised tone.
My father asked if I’d taken notes.
‘That isn’t enough,’ I said, grinning.
‘Of course it isn’t,’ said my father. ‘After you take notes, I’ll tell you more. You’ll write a little about each item.’ Closing Notes on my iPhone, I told him he was saying things everyone already knew. My mother said Japanese people were patriotic and, without using the word kamikaze, explained that every Japanese pilot, when attacking Pearl Harbor, sacrificed their life by using their plane as a weapon.
‘Not every,’ I said.
‘Right,’ said my mother, mishearing me, it seemed.
‘You said every. It wasn’t every.’
‘I did?’ said my mother, then made a noise indicating she’d realized, with some amusement, she’d been unconsciously exaggerating in a tone of authority. ‘Right, it wasn’t every,’ she said. ‘Many,’ she said in a slightly tentative voice. My father, who had been quiet for some time, seated beside me, both of us facing my mother, said in a convictionless voice that Japanese people loved sushi.
I asked where their ancestors were from, and my parents said China. I questioned their certainty. My mother seemed to relent to the possibility she had one or more Japanese ancestors.
‘In Florida there were no Japanese people. Right?’
My mother, sounding almost bored, said there’d been some.
‘But I didn’t know any. There were none at school.’
‘There were many Koreans,’ said my mother, and my father strongly agreed in a sudden, exaggerated manner, as if the Korean population in Florida was completely, reprehensibly out of control. The only Japanese person I remember from Florida was a woman in her fifties or sixties who owned or managed Yae Sushi, a restaurant my family dined at around ten times a year. I don’t remember learning about Japan in elementary or middle school. I remember learning about Japan in high school, but only in the context of World War II. I remember feeling confused when looking at photos in textbooks of Japanese generals with moustaches and form-fitting uniforms and perfect posture, standing or sitting. When I left Florida for college in New York City, when I was eighteen, my strongest associations with Japan were World War II and Nintendo games.
‘Why did Florida have no Japanese people?’
My parents seemed unnaturally inattentive, as if feigning distraction to gain time to formulate a careful answer to a difficult, sensitive question. They’d focused immediately on Florida’s Korean population. Finally, after I stressed my focus was on Japanese people, not Koreans, my mother said ‘Japanese people are a little’ and hesitated, then meekly said ‘rare’ in English. Later I noticed her miming seppuku in an exact, assured, nonchalant manner while also talking about what she was doing, as if she’d once taught a class on miming certain violent customs. I asked if anyone survived ‘that’. My mother said ‘no’ in the confident, alert voice, I thought, she’d used earlier to say ‘every’.
‘There must be some,’ I said.
‘Maybe there are,’ said my mother.
‘Some probably survive,’ said my father in a slower-than-normal voice, sounding wise and a little reverent, though he was probably thinking about something unrelated and only partially conscious of what he was saying.
‘Japan has samurai,’ I said.
‘Right,’ said my mother.
‘What about China?’
‘No,’ said my mother decisively. ‘China doesn’t.’
‘Why doesn’t China have anything like samurai?’
‘China just doesn’t,’ said my mother.
‘Why not?’ As a child, peaking in frequency when I was nine or ten, I’d sometimes unsolicitedly praise Japan to my mother, feeling satisfaction whenever, at my insistence, she’d agree with me that Japan was better than other countries. I liked Japan, when I was eight or nine, probably simply because I liked comfort and entertainment and convenience. Later, when I was twelve to fourteen, I began to view Japan, or my idea of Japan, as the ideal country, in terms of birthplace and lifelong residence, for someone like myself, to whom most people, especially classmates, seemed incomprehensible and violent; who viewed failure in a social or romantic situation as a clear and welcome message, for at least one person, in one situation, to resign; and who suspected resignation to be what finally all people, taking into account a long enough time frame, would want. But, through high school and college, it became increasingly difficult to enjoy doing things alone, because I’d also feel lonely, depressed, worried about the future. Resignation, which had once felt almost triumphant, became associated, as it was, I think, in the culture I lived in, with defeat.
‘I don’t know,’ said my mother meekly, earnestly.
Before leaving the restaurant, while still seated, I half consciously said ‘I don’t know what to write’ in a soft, simple, disembodied voice, as if quoting a catchphrase from a movie or contentedly humming to myself. My father said I should find information on Google and Wikipedia, mispronouncing Wikipedia five or six times, with some ‘z’ sounds, in quick succession. He said I should use what he’d said about businessmen, that what he’d said couldn’t be found on Wikipedia.
At my brother’s apartment my mother and I watched Ashton Kutcher, as Steve Jobs, unveil the iPod to an auditorium of employees in time to inspirational-sounding music, which the characters in the movie couldn’t hear. I wondered, in a fleeting way, what stood in relation to people as the music did to the characters. I said something to convey I didn’t think the movie would be enjoyable. In kind of a sad-sounding voice, as if wary I might leave now, instead of after maybe an entire movie, my mother said my brother’s TV had many movies and encouraged me to choose something different. My father was in view, in another room, working on things on his computer. Around twenty minutes into Fetish, the Korean movie I’d chosen, after no one had spoken for some time, my mother asked what the relationship was between the two main characters. I mumbled ‘I don’t know’ and laughed, and my mother laughed. The demeanour, mannerisms, hairstyle, eye movements of the female character, who was maybe the male character’s wife for purposes of gaining American citizenship, reminded me of the person I’d thought about most, I think, the past three months, since August, when I met her in London in a bookstore, where she worked. She had a boyfriend. We’d talked in emails, but not for around a month.
My mother, who had left the room, returned to see the male character unconscious for no apparent reason on a sofa. In the next scene he was unconscious on a bed. Then an ambulance was shown outside a house. Next was an open-casket funeral. I watched absent-mindedly, barely conscious of what was happening in the movie, feeling peacefully zombie-like, until my mother said ‘he just dies, just like that’ in a sceptical, bemused voice, when I laughed suddenly and smiled for some time after.
On the F train to Manhattan I emailed a friend in the UK. I said I couldn’t write my essay about Japan. I said ‘I don’t know what to say at all.’ I asked my friend if he’d been to a certain bookstore in London. I said I felt like not writing for two years, but that I would need to get some kind of job. I had enough money for maybe two to four more months. In Chinese cultures, I knew because my parents sometimes paraphrased Confucius, it was widely accepted, or at least widely known, as a considered opinion, that parents should financially support their children until they’re thirty, after which their children should begin to support them. My father had said ‘everyone’ in China knew this, because memorizing Confucius, who was born around 2,500 years ago, when maybe thirty was half the average lifespan, was mandatory in school.
Alone, in my apartment, I read from a posthumously assembled collection of stories by Osamu Dazai, who died at thirty-eight of suicide in 1948. The publisher had titled the collection Self Portraits. I’d been surprised, around two years ago, to learn on Wikipedia that Dazai’s last completed work, No Longer Human, was Japan’s second-best-selling novel. I’d thought of The Great Gatsby, which features two deaths (one arguably manslaughter, one murder) as America’s No Longer Human, whose protagonist linearly relates lifelong, extreme-seeming, ‘no concrete reason’-type alienation and survives a double suicide in which the other person dies. Not counting a brief epilogue, which is from a different character’s perspective, No Longer Human ends with the protagonist living on the outskirts of a village in a house he describes as ‘thatch-covered’ and ‘rather ancient looking’ and these sentences: ‘This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.’
November 12, at the second dinner, I asked my parents if they knew of any famous people who were Japanese. My father mentioned a famous warlord whose name he couldn’t remember. He said there was a Japanese physicist named ‘headache’, he said in English, who’d won the Nobel Prize. We were in a low-lit restaurant, and I sat opposite my parents. ‘Headache,’ said my father again while grinning and distractedly rearranging things in front of him on the table.
‘China has Confucius,’ I said. ‘What about Japan?’
My mother, who couldn’t think of anyone, said both her and my father’s parents spoke fluent Japanese, due to Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. Later she said we’d visited Japan twice as a family. She said we’d gone to a sumo museum and a ramen museum. I’d thought, for probably more than ten years, we’d visited Japan only once, when I was ten or eleven or twelve. I had four memories of that visit.
1. Leaving the airport, on an elevated train, I thought Japan looked like how I imagined Atlantis might. My mother was sitting to my right as I looked out the window to my left. I don’t remember what I saw.
2. At the first place we went for food, a diner-like restaurant, our waiter, who took orders using what looked like a large calculator that produced paper receipts, didn’t understand when we asked for ketchup for our French fries. He returned with a waitress, who also didn’t understand. When he finally understood – I don’t remember how – he brought it quickly and said ‘ketchup’ in English in a way that sounded different than how we had said it. I remember we were all grinning a lot, happy at the resolution.
3. Two businessmen were drinking large glasses of beer one night at an otherwise non-bar-like restaurant. They faced each other with straight posture and talked with red faces, seeming uninhibited and out of control. After my parents explained that routinely getting drunk after work was customary – that it was culturally acceptable behaviour in Japan – I saw how, despite being loud and appearing drunk, the businessmen probably wouldn’t embarrass or antagonize anyone, and my confusion, with the addition of endearment, resolved into something like intrigue.
4. I saw schoolgirls in uniform one night underground, maybe in a subway station. They wore high socks that were thick at the ankles. I imagined they were going to private tutors and extra-curricular activities throughout the city. I felt myself watching them as they moved away, into corridors and elevators, toward enclosed spaces on other floors in other buildings; there was something role-playing-game-like about it. I had read in video-game magazines that Japanese people loved role-playing games, which was also my favourite video-game genre.
My favourite role-playing game, Final Fantasy III, released around this time, in 1994, was set in a world, both fantastical and science-fictional, in which magic and technology – medieval and shamanic past and melancholic, dystopian future – coexist. There were fourteen playable characters, but no protagonist. The geography of the game’s world changed halfway through, becoming the World of Ruin, which can be explored leisurely, non-linearly. Kefka, the final boss, whose defeat ended the game, was in a tower near the centre of the World of Ruin, but there was no pressure or explicit instructions to enter. One could forget Kefka, and do other things. This appealed to me in 1994, when I was ten or eleven. I liked not knowing what to do exactly. But I didn’t live in the World of Ruin. I lived on Earth, in a suburban neighbourhood, where my strongest memory of rollerblading was also from around this time, one day, on a gently downhill street, when an eighth grader standing alone on his front yard, three or four houses ahead, noticed me and immediately began shouting ‘you suck at rollerblading, you’re the worst, you look terrible, you can’t rollerblade, you’re fake’, not stopping until I’d passed him and more houses and – focused the entire time on pretending nothing was happening – turned left, out of view.
November 13, at the third dinner, in a darker restaurant, I felt, than the previous two, I asked my parents, seated across from me, if they had more thoughts about Japan. I saw my parents once or twice a year. My father turned his head ninety degrees in facilitation of earnest consideration and suggested after around ten seconds that I type keywords into Wikipedia. My mother asked if I was writing that Japan was good or bad. I felt I lacked the vocabulary to answer. I said I didn’t know. I asked if the two women seated by us, closer to my mother than my father, were Japanese. My mother said they were Korean, that Japanese sounded more pleasing than what she heard. ‘Japanese sounds better,’ said my father idly while looking at his smartphone. ‘What else is there,’ I said, some time later.
My father repeated what he said about businessmen.
‘Is that real?’ said my mother in a suspicious voice.
‘Go ask anyone,’ said my father.
‘Is it something you made up yourself?’
‘Yes,’ said my father, by accident, it seemed. ‘No.’ In a subdued voice he said that a Japanese businessman he’d worked with, a distributor, had told him.
I talked about Japan’s high suicide rate, ranked tenth in the world in 2011 by the World Health Organization. The last sentence of the ‘Demographics’ section of Japan’s Wikipedia page was, I’d noticed, ‘Suicide is the leading cause of death for people under 30.’ I asked how Japanese people were both productive and depressed. My parents questioned Japan’s level of productivity. I realized my idea of Japan’s economy (and the economies of other countries, including America) hadn’t changed in probably more than fifteen years. My parents followed the stock market and watched TV, so knew these things. My father said it was young people who were depressed, that Japan relied on people in their forties and fifties to do the work. He said ‘itchy skin’. I knew what ‘itchy skin’ meant, but asked anyway, wanting to hear his explanation again. ‘As children, many of us had itchy skin, so we needed to be beat,’ said my father in a fond, slightly amused voice. ‘Children want attention. They have itchy skin.’
I asked about Japan’s low homicide rate, which conflicted, in a way, with some of what had been discussed earlier and the past two nights, for example Japan’s behaviour toward China during World War II. My father, after saying he’d thought of this himself, explained that Japan, being an island nation, required war to expand its population.
‘What’s the second reason?’ said my mother.
‘What second reason,’ said my father quietly.
‘Didn’t you say there were two reasons?’ said my mother in a voice like she now doubted herself.
I’d been typing notes on my iPhone as my parents talked.
‘Second reason,’ said my father. ‘Because Japanese migrated from northern China, and those in north China like to fight. Because they like alcohol.’
I repeated that Japan had low homicide, crime rates.
‘Because they have self-control,’ said my mother.
‘If they do wrong, they attack themselves, not others,’ said my father, and we laughed in a sympathetic, almost nervous manner. ‘With swords,’ added my father. My mother said a Chinese woman wrote a book titled Nanking Massacre and was depressed and committed suicide. Taiwan, she said, had donated the most money out of any country to Japan after ‘the tsunami’. She said this was on public record. She said Taiwanese people liked Japan more than they liked Korea because Japan had occupied Taiwan.
‘You said Koreans don’t like Japanese people because Japan occupied Korea,’ I said, and my mother confirmed. I asked why Taiwanese people liked Japan for occupying Taiwan.
Japan invaded, not occupied, Korea, said my father.
‘They keep saying yong ji, which is forty in Japanese,’ said my mother about the two women by us. ‘Why do they keep saying forty?’
‘They’re both Japanese?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said my mother, nodding a little.
‘Why did you think they were Korean?’
My mother said one woman had a Korean-sounding accent. My father indicated an amount of time, which I don’t remember but was maybe a year, that my mother had been enrolled in Japanese-language classes and laughed heartily. My mother corrected the amount of time, which my father had maybe exaggerated, and I think said something indicating she was no longer enrolled.
November 23, walking at night to a train station, I was thinking about my essay, which at this point was structured around my three dinners with my parents. I’d wanted and had tried for a few days to focus the essay on the topic of my inability to write an essay, but had begun to feel unable to write about my inability to write an essay. It occurred to me to write ‘I am annoying’ directly in the essay. I thought I’d write ‘I know this is annoying. It’s annoying to me also. So is this sentence and, if I include it, so will be the next.’ For accuracy, I thought, it’d need to be ‘I know this is annoying to some people. It’s annoying to some of me also,’ because part of me liked it, I knew, at least some of the time. I realized, around five seconds later, that I’d stopped thinking. I began typing the first draft of this paragraph in Notes on my iPhone. I crossed a street and descended into the train station.
Around a year ago, in my room one night, I was reorganizing my books, one of which was Jean Rhys: Letters 1931–1966, when I remembered in a sudden way – with surprise, because it seemed like I’d forgotten for at least ten years – that, as a child, in Florida, one afternoon, I unexpectedly found and read letters my parents, maybe a decade earlier, had sent each other. I don’t remember what the letters said. I remember reading them in a sunny room, sitting on a carpeted floor, aware, on some level, with excitement and nervousness, that I was learning about my parents in a way I hadn’t before. It occurs to me they were probably around the age I am now when they wrote the letters.
I’m thirty, and these are some of my thoughts. In seven months, in July, I’ll be thirty-one.
Photograph © Shintaro Sato, from Tokyo Twilight Zone, Kabukichō Shijuku-ku, 2005