The moment I stepped onto the plane at LAX heading for my new life in Japan, I was miserable. The ten-hour flight was punctuated by panic attacks that I would stave off by jabbering nonsense at my poor seat neighbor.
Like me, he was biracial and half Japanese. Unlike me, he wasn’t acting like a rabid squirrel in a seatbelt. Not my finest flight.
My seat neighbor had lived in Tokyo before. He loved it. He couldn’t wait to see his friends. He had a whole box of purikura from his time living there. It was fabulous. I wanted his enthusiasm to soak into me and fire-blanket my raging anxiety. To explain, and defend myself, I should give a little backstory.
When I was young, I did the activities commonly expected of a Japanese American kid in California. I danced in Obon, studied at Kumon, and went to King’s Hawaiian Bakery (a lot). I even did the less typical things: Japanese calligraphy, Nichiren Shu Buddhist studies, and tea ceremony.
But, like most kids, I got stuck on the stupid stuff. I quit calligraphy because I couldn’t read anything. I stopped tea ceremony because my legs always hurt and everyone in the class was over 50 years old. I stopped dancing because school got in the way. Those were the excuses, but here’s the real reason: my grandparents are famous, and I am a half-breed.
Not famous famous. They aren’t Ken Watanabe, per se (though my grandmother did do the calligraphy in the opening titles of The Last Samurai, which starred K-Wats). They are both Living National Treasures and major figures in California’s Japanese American community. They founded a calligraphy movement. They have banquets for their birthdays. If they are the Bruce Lee of Japanese calligraphy in the States, I’m the Brandon Lee, and we all know how that ended (The Crow).
There is no out-“culture”ing my grandparents, so I didn’t try. I don’t carry the family name (my mother is Japanese). I don’t look Japanese. I couldn’t understand Japanese. I felt like I could fade into the background, and all the other full-blooded cousins could take over. I’d make academics my magnum opus——my big American academics. I moved to Boston in the fall of 2007, making me the first (and only) out-of-state college student in my family.
Then my grandfather died my first year of college. He died the day after the Boston Marathon. I couldn’t get home to say goodbye.
My grandfather and I shared the same birthday. To anyone unfamiliar with Buddhist culture or reincarnation, this might seem like a happy coincidence, but those familiar may be able to grasp the significance of a shared birthday.
Because we were both born on February 20th, I was bound to my grandfather——at least by circumstance, if not by fate. My accomplishments were his accomplishments. When I did well, people would tell me it was his nature reflecting through me. It kept me anchored to my Japanese heritage in a way that looking in the mirror couldn’t. It didn’t matter that I didn’t look like my cousins and didn’t do what other Japanese American kids did. The elements that made him were also in me.
He was a great man, sent to the States after WWII by his Buddhist order to help rebuild and preserve the community and excommunicated by that same order when it was discovered that he was working nights as a gardener in Beverly Hills to support his family. From a life full of hardship, my grandfather, like many U.S. immigrants, made something lasting and beautiful.
While he was alive, I never thought he would die. Other people died and would die, but not him. To this day, we talk about him in the present, like he just stepped out for a walk. His mortality shocked everyone. We weren’t ready.
I regret being so far away. I regret not finishing the lessons I had promised to take with him. I regret not being able to talk with him in his mother language. I regret being so young and stupid as to only see the path I laid out for myself and not see the paths that others had laid out for me, because when he left, his path was gone for all of us. We cannot retrace his steps. We cannot hope to know what he knew.
It was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it. So when my great-aunt, a tea ceremony madam in Okayama, said she would no longer be able to travel to the United States due to her health, there was little doubt in my mind about the proper course of action. I restarted tea ceremony studies and started taking Japanese lessons. Within three months, I debuted as a student of my grandmother’s school and applied to the JET program. Six months later, I was on that plane. Panicking.
Amidst the twitter of excited chatter, my flight soundtrack was the drumming thud of my own heartbeat. I know what it’s like being a non-Japanese Asian in Japan. I have been refused service. I have been yelled at. I have watched others get yelled at. I know that ugly part of Japanese culture, because I see it in my family when they aren’t thinking. I chose to live in Japan in spite of it, but that didn’t make me feel any less apprehensive when the wheels left the tarmac.
That’s the thing about life. Sometimes, even though you know what you’re doing and how you got there, actually being there is the scariest thing you’ve ever done in your life. The important thing is that you have a reason, and it is your reason. ◆