Poetry and Performance pieces at YouTube.com
from Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei
AN ARGUMENT: ON 1942
from THE COLORS OF DESIRE
from Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality & Identity
from Angels for the Burning
from Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei -- Chapter I
I am sansei , a third generation Japanese American. In 1984, through luck and through some skills as a poet, I traveled to Japan. My reasons for going were not very clear.
At the time, I'd been working as an arts administrator in the Writers-in-the-Schools program, sending other writers to grade schools and high schools throughout Minnesota. It wasn't taxing, but it didn't provide the long stretches needed to plunge into my own work. I had applied for a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship mainly because I wanted time to write.
Japan? That was where my grandparents came from, it didn't have much to do with my present life.
But then Japan had never seemed that important to me, even in childhood. On holidays when we would get together with relatives, I didn't notice that the faces around me looked different than most of the faces at school. I didn't notice that my grandparents were absent, my grandfathers in Japan, my grandmothers dead. No one spoke about them, just as no one spoke about Japan. We were American. It was the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Christmas. All I noticed was that the food we ate--futomaki, mazu-gohan, teriyaki, komaboku --was different from what I liked best--MacDonald's, pizza, hot dogs, tuna fish salad.
For me Japan was cheap baseballs, Godzilla, weird sci-fi movies like Star Man where you could see the strings that pulled him about his enemies and let him fly in front of the backdrop so poorly made even I, at eight, was conscious of the fakery. Then there were the endless hoards storming G.I.'s in war movies. Sometimes the Japanese hoards got mixed up in my mind with the Koreans, tiny Asians with squinty eyes mowed down in row after row by the steady shots of John Wayne or Richard Widmark. Before the television, wearing my ever-present Cubs cap, I crouched near the sofa, saw the enemy surrounding me. I shouted to my men, hurled a grenade. I fired my gun. And the Japanese soldiers fell before me, one by one.
Of course, by the eighties, I was aware, as everyone else was, of Japan's burgeoning power, its changing image--Toyota, Nissan, Sony, Toshiba, the economic, electronic, automotive miracle. Rather than savage babarity, the Japanese were now characterized by a frightening efficiency and a tireless energy. Japan was a monster of industrialization, of huge, world hungry corporations. Unfair trade practices, the trade imbalance. Robot people.
But none of this had much to do with me. After all, I was a poet.
So, when I did win the fellowship, I felt I was going not as an ardent pilgrim, longing to return to the land of his grandparents, but more like a contestant on a quiz show who finds himself winning a trip to Bali or the Bahamas. Of course, I was pleased over the stipend, the plane fare for me and my wife, and the payments for Japanese lessons, both before the trip and during my stay. I was also excited that I had beat out several hundred candidates in literature and other fields for one of the six spots. But part of me wished the prize was Paris, not Tokyo. I would have preferred french bread and brie over sashimi and rice, Baudelaire and Proust over Basho and Kawabata, structuralism and Barthes over Zen and D.T. Suzuki. At least I had studied French in high school. And having grown up next door to Skokie, Illinois--the land of perpetual spring, a Rosenbloom on every corner--I knew more Yiddish than Japanese.
I had always been terrified of travel. In college it took me till my senior year to move to a new dorm. I'd lived in Minneapolis since then. My only other trip outside the country had been two weeks on an island off Cancun; my reaction to that trip was an astonished, "I spent two weeks out of the country and did not die." I feared places where ordering a meal would be a chore. I liked knowing directions and streets, not having to refer to a map wherever I went. I loved my friends; with strangers I was always uneasy and quiet, almost rude. A true landlocked Midwesterner, I wanted to read about the world. But go there? Never.
This contradiction remained: Much of my life I had insisted on my Americanness, had shunned most connections with Japan and felt proud I knew no Japanese, yet I was going to Japan as a poet, and my Japanese ancestry was there in my poems--my grandfather, the relocation camps, the hibakusha (victims of the atomic bomb), a picnic of nisei (second generation Japanese Americans), my uncle who fought in the 442nd. True, the poems were written in blank verse, rather than haiku , tanka or haibun . But perhaps it's a bit disingenuous to say I had no longing to go to Japan; it was obvious my imagination had been traveling there for years, unconsciously swimming the Pacific, against the tide of my family's immigration, my parents' desire, after the internment camps, to forget the past.
Susie had none of my misgivings about our trip. After two years of a pediatrics residency, after weeks where she'd sometimes work two days straight on two hours sleep, she was eager for a break. Her father was a world expert on public health and had been one of the first American doctors to visit Russia after the War, to visit the People's Republic of China; he had taken her family on trips through Europe, and imparted to his daughter a love of foreign places and exotic foods. For years, she had found my reluctance to travel stifling, and just as she had converted me from a diet of pizza and hamburger to a range of the world's cuisines, she kept hoping she could inject some nomadic impulse into my rooted Midwestern bones. Perhaps the trip to Japan would accomplish that.
And so she read eagerly through the travel books, notching the pages, making lists of places we would visit. She talked of the temples in Kyoto, of various festivals, of how she might take up tea ceremony, study shiatsu , learn about the Japanese medical system. She left book after book on Japan by our bedside, all of which I ignored. While I was in New York, studying Japanese at Columbia, she sent me articles on Japan, and after she joined me in the city, we argued when I wanted to see a film on Fassbinder or jazz in the Village rather than go to the Asian Cultural Society or see Kabuki at the Met. It was she who arranged our tickets, she who dragged me shopping for the huge canvas hockey bags we were to use as luggage, she who had packed up our tiny bohemian apartment in the University section of Minneapolis.
This tension between us lasted right until we left. After three days visiting my brother in L.A., having stayed up late the previous night talking, I packed at the last minute and planned on sleeping most of the flight. On the plane, Susie was nervous, excited. She wanted to go to the world's fair at Tsukuba immediately after we arrived. I said maybe, annoyed at her tendency to make plans. Maybe we'll be too tired to do anything, I said. We argued briefly. Then I nodded out. My nervousness and excitement had gone inwards, into somnolence. Over the next few hours, I dreamed of Mozart, Salieri, the images of Amadeus that flickered on the screen when I opened my eyes. I forgot where I was going. I was reading a book on Sartre, sentences about the lack of plot in Nausea , a new conception of action and event, dialogues stemming from the Resistance. And by the end of the fourteen hour plane ride, as we tumbled out into the terminal at Narita, I was exhausted and exhilarated. Frightened. Astonished that all the faces at customs looked like mine.
AN ARGUMENT: ON 1942
--for my mother
Near Rose's Chop Suey and Jinosuke's grocery,
the temple where incense hovered and inspired
dense evening chants (prayers for Buddha's mercy,
colorless and deep), that day he was fired...
--No, no, no, she tells me. Why bring it back?
The camps are over. (Also overly dramatic.)
Forget shoyu- stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick:
You're like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone, an old, old trick...
Mostly we were bored. Women cooked and sewed,
men played black jack, dug gardens, a benjo.
Who noticed barbed wire, guards in the towers?
We were children, hunting stones, birds, wild flowers.
Yes, Mother hid tins of tsukemono and eel
beneath the bed. And when the last was peeled,
clamped tight her lips, growing thinner and thinner.
But cancer not the camps made her throat blacker.
. . .And she didn't die then. . .after the war, in St. Paul,
you weren't even born. Oh I know, I know, it's all
part of your job, your way, but why can't you glean
how far we've come, how much I can't recall--
David, it was so long ago--how useless it seems. . .
from an interview with David Mura for the Teachers & WritersCollaborative
Posted on their Web Site (Interviewer -- Daniel Kane) October 20, 1999
Interviewer: Your poem "An Argument" refers to your mother's experience in the Japanese-American internment camps. Indeed, many of your poems name historical places and personalize them by inviting the reader to consider the author's own direct relationship to these horrors. Was it difficult to speak so directly about your family's personal experience?
David Mura: It was difficult in that I didn't have a precedent. When I started out writing poetry, the only other book Asian American poetry I knew about was by the poet Lawson Inada, who did write about the camps. But besides Inada there weren't that many writers that I was aware of who were writing about this subject. My parents, like a lot of their generation of Japanese Americans, didn't speak about the internment camps. This often happens when people go through traumatic political/historical events -- they don't talk about it to their children. My parents were imprisoned not for what they did; no Japanese American was ever convicted of any espionage. Instead, they were put in prison because of their race and ethnicity, because of the way they looked. Now this had a tremendous psychological and political effect on them. The message of the camps was "Don't call attention to your identity. Don't call attention to who you are. Don't call attention to your difference. Your difference is a crime." Given that, the silence of my parents is certainly understandable.
The poem itself deals with my mother's response of saying "No, no let's not talk about the camps." It's a little more subtle than that, though. Part of my parent's contention about the camps was that their experience there was not so traumatic; my parents would say things like "We were just children. As children, you just go where you go, and I was going to school, and I had my friends, and the fact that there were guard towers and people with machine guns...I didn't really think about it." I think there's a truth to that, and I want to get that into the poem. At the same time I don't think that's the whole truth. For one thing, their parents lost businesses they had worked years to build up; their families were given two weeks to vacate their houses, sell their belongings, and then they were moved to a barbed wire camp out in the middle of nowhere and were imprisoned under armed guard. In other words I do think my mother's memory is selective; there are things she's repressed.
Poetry is also giving voice to all different sides of an issue. For me, political poetry is not so much about espousing a view point. It's really about trying to write about the human experience of going through a political/social event, which is a different phenomena than proclaiming an opinion. At the same time, there is a political ramification to what my mom is saying, and if you take her viewpoint you have a different view of American history.
By writing about these things I'm breaking a family taboo. I'm going against my parents' desire not to look back at the past and even more importantly, not to speak about it. My parents have accepted my writing, though with certain reservations. They've said "You're a writer, we don't agree with what you say all the time, but this is your story, you need to tell it your way." On the other hand, I know my mother hasn't read my last memoir and doesn't talk to me about certain things because she's afraid I'm going to write about them.
There is a certain type of writer that likes to take everything out from under the table -- stuff that no one wants to look at -- and say "Let's look at this." For better or worse, that happens to be what fascinates me.
Interviewer: Have you ever wondered what it might be like to write indirectly about this history? I've noticed you've quoted Theodor Adorno, who is notorious (if unfairly so) for claiming that poetry wasn't possible after the Holocaust. What do you think about having a history of oppression and writing about it not in the language of fact and detail, but in another, perhaps more allusive or elliptical language?
DM: I love, say, Edmund Jabes's work and Paul Celan's work, and I even tried to write about the internment camps under the influence of both of those writers, who refer specifically to the Holocaust without "naming" it as one might expect. But my poems weren't any good when I tried that approach. One of the differences between the Holocaust and the internment camps was simply the magnitude of the Holocaust; people were killed and tortured, whereas the Japanese Americans were not -- obviously, that's a huge difference. The Holocaust is in a way a much more difficult subject to write about in terms of dealing with this unspeakable horror.
Secondly, there is historical documentation of the Holocaust which is part of the popular imagination; that doesn't exist really with the internment camps. If you're writing about something indirectly that is already there as part of the culture, people understand what you are referring to and have an historical picture to frame it against. The critic Fredric Jameson states that behind every modernist text there is a realistic text which the reader reads against that modernist text, a palimpsest or screen that the reader reads against. For Japanese-Americans in certain ways, our experiences are still so obscure that you don't have that "realistic text" in the readers' imagination. Maybe for writers in the generation after mine, things will be different.
Interviewer: The first stanza of your poem sounds elegiac to me -- the italics that you've used asks the reader to imagine these words lyrically, no?
DM: I almost imagine the use of the italics as helping me present an alternative voice which is telling the story of what happened in the community. I'm alluding to the fact that after W.W. II broke out a number of Japanese-Americans were fired from their jobs, they had their stores damaged or painted over. The first stanza is me writing a poem about all of this, so when the italics abruptly end in the second stanza -- the lyrical italics replaced by hard caps -- this shift underscores the sudden presence of my mother, almost as if she's looking over my shoulder saying "No, no, you didn't experience this. Let me tell you what really happened."
Interviewer: That second stanza was a surprise -- it seems that the way you wrote in this poem can be read as a metaphor for the tension between a lyric voice and a narrative voice. Is there a fair distinction between lyric language and narrative language, and how do you balance those two?
DM: I think of this poem as in the tradition of the dramatic monologue, which I take to be not quite narrative and not quite lyrical. Dramatic monologue has a variety of tones in it -- one of the reasons I tend to write longer poems is that you can make these poems polyvocal or polyphonous, which I'm doing here on a smaller scale.
Interviewer: As someone who doesn't speak Japanese, the Japanese words you've employed here provide me with a music I don't ordinarily get from wholly English-language poetry. Are you conscious of your non-Japanese readers as you write these words into your poems?
DM: Although after spending a year in Japan I can now speak a little Japanese, I'm conscious because I didn't grow up speaking Japanese myself. I grew up as a boy wanting to assimilate -- it was only as an adult that I began too question the wisdom of that. So I'm very conscious of the Japanese words that I use -- I'm conscious of them as something I had to learn, I'm conscious that they add a different texture to the poem, that they're part of the way my parents used to talk as opposed to the way I grew up talking. In my poetry books I'll provide readers with a glossary at the end of the book: Shoyu is soy-sauce; furoshiki is a scarf that people used to carry bundles in; mochi is rice-dumpling; benjo is a toilet; and tsukemono are pickles.
Interviewer: On a surface level, also, there's a musical pleasure one feels on simply hearing these words even if one doesn't understand them. I think that's a useful lesson in poetry. There has to be that initial seduction into the poem, though, if one is to deal with language one doesn't understand. I can refer back to Pound's Cantos, where so much of the language in the book was a complete mystery to me, but nevertheless remained attractive in the context of his grumpy, ecstatic, funny crazed style.
DM: William Gass used to say he read certain things and if he shook the page and the words fell off, he'd know they weren't worth his time. In other words, you want the words to stick to the page, to induce what you call that initial seduction and to continue to seduce after repeated readings.
But how do you reach that point? Is it simply a matter of technique? Or trying to write the “perfect poem?” I think the process is a lot messier than that. There are sometimes things that you want to write about where you know you're going to write badly at first. You're going to write badly because it's coming out of a part of your unconscious that you have not understood yet, or because it's related to experiences which your culture has not given you a language to express yet. Part of the impetus for poetry is to find a language for experience, and feelings, and thoughts, that haven't yet been expressed. When you're breaking that new ground, you can't expect perfection or excellence right off the bat. What happens sometimes with writing students is that they get to writing a certain type of poem or story, and they know how to do that well. Then they don't want to leave and go to some other place where really there may be something of great power if they can get at it, but they'll have to write badly and fumble their way to it.
Interviewer: The last line of your poem "David, it was so long ago---how useless it seems..." suggests to me that the poet in this case has a job. Like Homer, the poet has to record what happened. Do you see yourself as much a scribe as a poet.
DM: Yes, I do. Certain of my poems involve my imagining what my parents went through, since they won't talk about it. In fact, I say this outright in “The Colors of Desire”:
....Where is 1944,
its snows sweeping down Heart Mountain,
to vanish on my mother's black bobbing head,
as she scurries towards the cramped cracked barracks
where her mother's throat coughs through the night,
and her father sits beside her on the bed?
The dim bulb flickers as my mother enters.
Her face is flushed, her cheeks cold. She
bows, unwraps her scarf, pours the steaming
kettle in the tea pot; offers her mother a sip.
And none of them knows she will never
talk of this moment, that, years later,
I will have to imagine it, again and again,
just as I have tried to imagine the lives
of all those who have entered these lines.
Writing about and around my parents' silence has been very revealing in different ways. When my father got out of the internment camps, he went to college in Kalamazoo; you could be released from the camps and go to school as long as it wasn't on the West Coast. In my memoir Turning Japanese , I wrote a section imagining him in Kalamazoo, Michigan on V-J Day. I wrote about how he would have felt with the celebration going on around him, and I asked myself: Would he be able to simply walk down the hill and walk downtown to take part in that ceremony? I realized that he couldn't have. By imagining him there, I realized that he hadn't told me the whole truth about his experience.
Interviewer: Finally, how might teachers of poetry go about discussing "An Argument" with their students, and is there anything you might want to say yourself about this particular poem?
DM: Yeats said "We make rhetoric out of arguments with others, and we make poetry out of our arguments with ourselves." For me, even though this seems like an argument between my mother and me, it's an argument with myself, because my mother is inside me. (In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” Yeats also divides himself into two voices.) One of the things that I feel ultimately about my own writing about the camps and our past is that I have my own viewpoint, but I want to get my parents' viewpoint, one which I may disagree with, into the writing. In a way, my viewpoint is true, but their viewpoint is also true, and what certainly is true is that both of those viewpoints exist. The reader has to contend with the existence of those two voices. That's one of the things I like about the poem.
from THE COLORS OF DESIRE
1 Photograph of a Lynching (circa 193__)
These men? In their dented felt hats,
in the way their fingers tug their suspenders or vests,
with faces a bit puffy or too lean, eyes narrow and close together,
they seem too like our image of the South,
the Thirties. Of course they are white;
who then could create this cardboard figure, face
flat and grey, eyes oversized, bulging like
an ancient totem this gang has dug up? At the far right,
in a small browed cap, a boy of twelve smiles,
as if responding to what's most familiar here:
the camera's click. And though directly above them,
a branch ropes the dead negro in the air,
the men too focus their blank beam
on the unseen eye. Which is, at this moment, us.
Or, more precisely, me. Who cannot but recall
how my father, as a teenager, clutched his weekend pass,
passed through the rifle towers and gates
of the Jerome, Arkansas camp, and, in 1942,
stepped on a bus to find whites riders
motioning, "Sit here, son," and, in the rows beyond,
a half dozen black faces, waving him back,
"Us colored folks got to stick together."
How did he know where to sit? And how is it,
thirty five years later, I found myself sitting
in a dark theater, watching Behind the Green Door
with a dozen anonymous men? On the screen
a woman sprawls on a table, stripped, the same one
on the Ivory Snow soap box, a baby on her shoulder,
smiling her blond, practically pure white smile.
Now, after being prepared and serviced slowly
by a handful of women, as one of them
kneels, buries her face in her crotch,
she is ready: And now he walks in--
Lean, naked, black, streaks of white paint on his chest
and face, a necklace of teeth, it's almost comical,
this fake garb of the jungle, Africa and All-America,
black and blond, almost a joke but for the surge
of what these lynchers urged as the ultimate crime
against nature: the black man kneeling to this kidnapped
body, slipping himself in, the screen showing it all, down
to her head shaking in a seizure, the final scream
before he lifts himself off her quivering body...
I left that theater, bolted from a dream into a dream.
I stared at the cars whizzing by, watched the light change,
red, yellow, green, and the haze in my head from the hash,
and the haze in my head from the image, melded together, reverberating.
I don't know what I did afterwards. Only, night after night,
I will see those bodies, black and white (and where am I,
the missing third?), like a talisman, a rageful, unrelenting release.
Cut to Chicago, June. A boy of six.
Next year my hero will be Mickey Mantle,
but this noon, as father eases the Bel-Air past Wilson,
with cowboy hat black, cocked at an angle,
my skin dark from the sun, I'm Paladin,
and my six guns point at cars whizzing past,
blast after blast ricocheting the glass.
Like all boys in such moments, my face
attempts a look of what--toughness? bravado? ease?--
until, impatient, my father's arm wails
across the seat, and I sit back, silent at last.
Later, as we step from IGA with our sacks,
a man in a serge suit--stained with ink?--
steps forward, shouts, "Hey, you a Jap?
You from Tokyo? You a Jap? A Chink?"
I stop, look up, I don't know him,
my arm yanks forward, and suddenly,
the sidewalk's rolling, buckling, like lava melting,
and I know father will explode,
shouts, fists, I know his temper.
I'm in that dream where nothing happens--
The ignition grinds, the man's face presses
the windshield, and father stares ahead,
fingers rigid on the wheel...
That night in my bedroom, moths,
like fingertips, peck the screen;
from the living room, the muffled t.v.
As I imagine Shane stepping into the dusty street,
in the next bed, my younger brother starts
to taunt-- you can't hurt me, you can't hurt me. ..--
Who can explain where this chant began?
Or why, when father throws the door open,
shouts stalking chaos erupted in his house,
he swoops on his son with the same swift motion
that the son, like an animal, like a scared and angry little boy,
fell on his brother, beating him in the dark?
from Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality & Identity
At the age of five, in every picture of me, I've got a pair of six guns cinched about my waist. Or else I'm pointing them at the camera, my black cowboy hat pushed back, my mouth snarling with a bravado and toughness I evinced only as a pose or when alone, walking down the dark steps of our apartment building out to the street. At each step I'd wave to the fans at the rodeo, shouting "Howdy folks," the way I imagined Roy Rogers stepping into the arena and onto Trigger, the Wonder Horse. Before I went on to collect baseball cards, I collected cowboy cards, with the heroes from various television series, wrapped up together with a slice of chewing gum for a nickel. Have Gun Will Travel, Sugarfoot, Maverick, Gene Autrey, the Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, The Rebel, classic American icons of the fifties.
In one of my poems, I picture myself riding in the back of our Bel-Air, shooting at the glass, bouncing up and down in gun fight delirium, wearing the black cowboy hat and cold cocked steely gaze of Paladin, who'd leave his calling card, Have Gun, Will Travel, everywhere he went. When a Japanese Canadian playwright, Rick Shiomi, read the poem, he remarked, "Do you remember what happened at the beginning of that show? This Chinese guy with a pig tail would come running into the hotel lobby, shouting, 'Teragram for Mista Paradin, teragram for Mista Paradin'?"
I don't remember this Chinese messenger at all, whose name, Rick informs me, was 'Hey Boy.' All I see is Richard Boone striding down the stairs, the epitome of cowboy cool, his pencil thin mustache and tight glinting gaze.
Silence & Desire (from WHERE THE BODY MEETS MEMORY )
One night a few years ago, I was working on a poem about my daughter, trying to take in her presence, trying to link her life with the past--my father and mother, the internment camps, my grandparents. In the poem I pictured myself serving her sukiyaki, a dish I shunned as a child, and her shouting for more rice, brandishing her hashi (a word for chopsticks which I never used as a child, and only began to use after my trip to Japan). As I described her running through the garden, scattering petals, squashing tomatoes, I suddenly thought of how someone someday will call her a "gook," that I knew this with more certainty than I know she'll find happiness in love.
Later, I talked to Susie about moving out to the West Coast or Hawaii, to a place where there would be more Asian Americans. Samantha, I said, would meet more children there like her (in Hawaii, almost half the children are happa --the Hawaiian term for mixed race; she'd be the norm not the minority). I spoke of the need to spend more time living in an Asian American community. My writing comes out of that community, is addressed to that community. I can't tell its stories if I'm not a part of it.
As I talked about moving, Susie started to feel uneasy. "I'm afraid you'll cross this bridge and take Sam with you, and leave me here," she said.
"But I've lived all my life on your side of the bridge. At most social gatherings, I'm constantly the only person of color in the room. What's wrong with living awhile on my side of the bridge? What keeps you from crossing?"
Susie, a pediatric oncologist, works with families of all colors. Still, having a hybrid daughter has changed her experience. When Sam was younger and Susie took her to the grocery store, someone would always come up and say, "Oh, she's such a beautiful little girl. Where did you get her?" This happened so often, Susie swore she was going to teach Sam to say, "Fuck you, my genes came all the way over on the Mayflower, thank you."
These incidents marked one of the first times Susie experienced something negative over race that I haven't. When I'm with Sam, no one asks me where she came from. For Susie, the encounters were a challenge to her position as Samantha's biological mother, a negation of an arduous pregnancy and the labor of birth and motherhood. For me, they stirred an old wound. Those who mistake Sam for an adopted child can't picture a white woman married to an Asian man.
I'm speaking on multiculturalism at a conference for high school teachers. It's a speech I give frequently, half on the psychological barriers in dealing with racism, half on the various stages of my Japanese American identity. At the end of the speech I ask for questions.
"You've talked about how your parents didn't teach you much about Japanese culture," says one of the teachers. "How are you doing to change that for your children?"
I hear this question almost every time I speak.
"I'm trying to do things differently. I read them Japanese fairy tales, show them Japanese art; they've got some videos of Japanese folk tales, like Momotaro. I'd like them to live a while in a Japan. But it isn't easy. As a parent now, I realize how hard it would have been for my parents to teach me about Japanese culture, given the cultural climate around us. And I probably would have hated it if they had tried to send me to Japanese school."
This answer usually suffices. But then I add, "What seems more important to me than teaching my children about Japanese culture, is to teach them about what it means to be a Japanese American and a person of color in this country."
I don't let out, though, my misgivings towards the initial question, however sincere. I feel audiences often ask me about Japanese culture because haiku or The Tale of Genji aren't as threatening to our images of America as the history of Japanese America. Those traditional cultural artifacts go down easier than the internment camps, the Asian exclusion laws or the racial stereotypes perpetuated by our media.
What can I teach my daughter of the past? My Japanese American identity comes from my own experience, something I know. But I am still trying to understand that experience. I am still struggling to find languages to talk about the issues of race. It's simpler to pretend multiculturalism means teaching her kanji and how to conjugate Japanese verbs.
I know every day my daughter will be exposed to images which tell her that Asian bodies are marginalized--The women are exotic or sensual or submissive; the men are houseboys or Chinatown punks, kung fu warriors or Japanese businessmen, robot-like and powerful or robot-like and comic. I know that she will face constant pressures to forget she is part Japanese American, to assume a basically white middle class identity. When she reaches adolescence there will be powerful messages for her to conform to an unspoken norm, to disassociate herself from the children of recent Asian immigrants. She may find herself wanting to assume a privilege and status which comes from not calling attention to her identity, or from playing into the stereotype that makes Asian women seem so desirable to certain white men. And I know I will have no power over these forces.
The difficulties are caused by more than a lack of knowledge; there's the powerful wish not to know, to remain silent. How, for instance, can I talk to my daughter about sexuality and race? My own experience is so filled with shame and regret, is so filled with experiences I would rather not discuss, it seems much easier to opt for silence. Should I tell her of how, when I look at her mother, I know my desires for her cannot be separated from the way the culture has inculcated me with standards of white beauty? Should I tell her of my own desires for a "hallucinatory whiteness," of how such a desire fueled in my twenties a rampant promiscuity and addiction to pornography, to the "beautiful" bodies of white women? These elements of my story are all too much to expect her to take it in. They should not even be written down. They should be kept hidden, unspoken. Better to claim the forces that shaped me do not exist.
In the end, what I want to give to my daughter are not my answers, but the courage to ask her own questions and to keep asking them, no matter how confusing, frightening or threatening they may be. I keep reminding myself there is too much to know, too many questions I can't solve. All I can give her are the tools to find her own answers.
A friend who's a therapist tells me of this phenomena she's noticed with several young Asian American women clients. Each of these women says that the thought of going out with another Asian fills them with revulsion. It would be, say these women, like going out with their brother. Indeed these women find this feeling so strong that when they think of making love with an Asian man, they feel nauseous. They want to vomit.
I asked my therapist friend about the specific ethnic background of these women and where they grew up.
My friend said that now that she thought about it, they were all Japanese Americans. All but one had grown up in the midwest.
When my sister dated a Chinese American medical student from Yale, she said it felt incestuous to her. She didn't say if she felt like vomiting.
She never dated another Asian American. She married a Jewish medical student. Now she dates a WASP bond trader.
What, I wonder, is natural? What is sexual attraction? How is it formed? When an Asian American falls in love with someone of another race--almost always a white person--how are we to interpret their explanation that they were attracted to an individual, that race wasn't a factor?
If the Japanese women in Japan felt like the Japanese American clients of my therapist friend, there would be no Japanese race.
And yet, when I questioned my friend, she said she never really examined this phenomena very deeply in her sessions with these clients. They had other, more pressing problems. This anti-Asian nausea was merely a curious quirk.
I should add that my friend is Jewish and is married to a Chinese American man.
These things are, I think, more complicated than they first appear.
We were discussing all this at dinner, my friend and her husband, my wife and I. My wife asked my friend how this made her feel about the sexual desires of her children, how others might look at them. Somehow my friend never quite answered that question.
Her husband and I both agreed it was, in part, race, and, in part, the condition of growing up in the midwest, where most of the Asians these women had known were probably relatives. Neither of us talked about the fact that we both had married a white woman.
I am thinking of desire--why I desire you, why you desire me. It's confusing, though. We have been together so long, have delved each other so thoroughly we no longer dazzle, no longer elicit delirium from each other. We are the long, thoroughly married; our arousals are expected, squeezed in between work and children, your schedule and mine, the crammed hours of our days.
And yet, we are, certainly, the type of couple that intrigues me--an Asian man, a white woman. There are so few examples of us. I like the disorder we represent, the oddity. What we have written on each other's bodies. And where that writing has led us. There's a constant surprise there, an unwieldyness. We are not in the books, we are not expected.
What do people see when we walk down the street? Last week we went shopping with my sister Linda and our children. A couple people mistook Linda for the wife, the mother.
I sometimes wonder: do your colleagues, your patients and their parents look at you differently, after they've met me?
Most people--even Asian Americans, even you and I--are less articulate about why you were attracted to me than vice versa. There's a zone of silence there, an absence of thought and observation. A couple like us isn't really a taboo anymore; we're just odd, unremarked.
In the books, in movies, there's always the white man with the Asian woman, Joy Luck Club, When Heaven and Earth Change Places, Teahouse of the August Moon, Shogun. The images, the stories so characteristic of the West meets East, the white male's seemingly natural prerogative. But the other way around, there's only a few examples, Marguerite Duras-- The Lover; Hiroshima, Mon Amour --the BBC's The Ginger Tree , or that long forgotten film, The Crimson Kimono , where the white woman actually chooses James Shigeta over the white man. I keep those works, those films, in my head like talismans. I feel the need of precedent. It's part of my obsession, my sickness. It's nothing my father or mother would know, though they must have dreamt it. After all my brother, my sister, also married white. It would have been odd, to all of us, if they had done otherwise, though I don't think my siblings or my parents could articulate why.
Do either of my siblings go on about this like I do? No. It doesn't matter to them.
Or, as my sister once said to me, "You talk about things I would rather sweep under the rug."
from Angels for the Burning
There are 150 first languages in our schools
and so many aliens even E.T. would go unnoticed,
though if your tongue moved one way in the land of your birth
it must move another now, awkward at first.
There are blacks here who've never been to Africa;
Africans who've never heard a Baptist prayer,
much less the solemn dirges of Lutherans
or how the artist formerly known is some sort of Prince.
In the anthology of American Buddhist poetry
you will find not one face of a Tibetan
but they are here with girls and boys named Tenzin
and one, my son's good friend, throws a hard mean spiral.
Esmir is not the name of a girl but a Bosnian
boy who crouches at a table and glues a lamp together
and later with my other son conspires on a book--“A Touch
of Rabies”--a heartbreaking tale of good dogs gone bad.
(Why tell a soul of the sieges that brought him here
or stories of the Dali Lama or the temples destroyed
or troops of the war lords in the streets of Somalia,
the borders dividing death from safety if not evil and good?)
Say you're Egyptian or Haitian: Here you're singular,
not part of a Big Apple ghetto. If you're Chinese,
most likely you're adopted, or else your parents study
engineering at the U. And have I mentioned the Mexicans?
In West Side Story the rumble starts with Puerto Ricans
and working class whites in a high school gym;
this year Maria's still Natalie Wood white to Jamaica's
half-black Anita and the Jets sport blacks, one Tibetan,
and my happa daughter who still doesn't question
such casting, or why Bye Bye Birdie last year
just might not be the choice of half the school
for a song and dance they could take on as their own.
Still at the spring school dance J-Lo and Ja Rule
set the awkward bump and grind of junior high girls
and the boys watch on the sidelines as boys that age do,
whether Bosnian, black, white, Somali, Tibetan.
I'm told we live in the Land of Great Lake Wobegon
where all the women are strong, the men good looking,
and the children above average--and, I always add,
everyone's white. Hey, Tenzin, Nabil, go tell Garrison:
Not now. Not quite.
(for Latasha Harlins)
The angel walked into the corner store
and opened the back cooler
and whether the orange juice she placed
in her back pack said convenience
or shoplift, we'll never know. All
we know is her mother one night
danced this party to Earth, Wind and Fire
and the air smelled of eucalyptus,
cigarettes, smog, liquor and perfume,
black bodies awash with each other
and when the night was over, a knife
like an exclamation point stood
upright from her chest, and the partiers
vanished into the dawn like spirits
or ordinary black folk who must do
what they do. And her daughter? All
we know is she had found herself
having left her grandmother's house
and on her way to school, face
to face with a harpy or a human
mask of fear, a Korean or mother
to someone she'd never know,
but they knew each other, customer
and owner, arguing over whether
she'd paid for it all. And then the stool
came out on the counter, snapped
her young black hand, strewing
change on the counter, and one fist shot
at that mask, one grabbed a steel leg
and like a wishbone between them
they pulled it apart, like a game
between two children tugging at war
and no thought of the moment
coming up in the twenty-two
like a viper risen from behind
the counter, a will all its own,
calling out for her life, once, twice,
three, four times, and though she,
the owner, has seen it all
on the video tape of the monitor,
she cannot recall how the girl
turned her back to her and revealed
two tiny wings there, fluttering
with the gift of forgiveness or flight.
Note: The poem refers to the video made by the store monitor of this incident. Sun Ja Du, who shot and killed Latasha Harlins, was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a five-hundred-dollar fine. The sentencing occured five months before the jury in the Rodney King trial reutrned not-guilty verdicts on all charges, execept one count of excessive force against Office r Power (a mistrial was declared on that count).