Monday, February 29, 2016

My Teasing Ways Explained

Many students--are you reading this Alicia?--have raised the issue of my personality--sarcastic, teasing, sometimes mocking. I tell them that its because I love 'em. I would never behave that way with strangers or acquaintances I have no special affinity for.

Well, I have a story to explain this, a story I told back in my Xanga days.

Originally posted 2004.03.24.

Two years ago today, my mother died. She died of cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I have never really come to terms with it. At least, it doesn't seem like I have. I stayed with her in the hospital through her last days, talking to her, trying to soothe her fears of reaching the end. And her ultimate death saddened me greatly. But I never cried, I never went through some kind of depression or mourning. And I've never been able to figure this out. Is something wrong with me?

When she passed, I merely accepted her death as another process of life that we all go through. Our mortality is something we cannot avoid. But still, it bothers me. Why didn't I cry at her funeral? Why didn't I fall into some kind of mournful depression, at least for a few weeks? Is something wrong with me?

I thought about this virtually everyday for the first year after her death, and off-and-on since. Sometimes for a fleeting few moments, other times for hours lying in bed. I often find myself attributing my attitude to her first heart attack in 1989. Back then, I was totally unprepared for death. I remember being in the hospital with my siblings, wondering, What the fuck are we going to do if she dies? After two surgeries, I took a leave of absence from school and stayed with her to help her recover--my dad was 77 and in no shape to take care of her. During this time, I had many opportunities to talk with her about death and it soon became just another topic of conversation. Something that was a part of our lives, something that we couldn't avoid, something we had to accept.

On special days, like today, or her birthday or Christmas, I will leave an offering to her at a kind of mini-shrine at my house. M will make chirashi-zushi, mom's favorite, and I will leave a glass of wine or sake for her--my mother loved to drink, a pastime we often indulged in together. And I often end up talking to her, or at least to her photos. It's kind of weird. I never talk to her in my heart or in other places. Only when I am looking at her photos. Often out loud. She probably thinks I'm weird, as perhaps you do, too.

In a way, I guess she is still alive to me. Perhaps, I am mentally unstable because by talking to her as if she were still alive, I seem to refuse to accept that she is dead. Whatever. I will deal with it in my own way, I suppose.

In any event, in memory of my mother, I would like to relate to you a story that might explain me, or my sense of humor. My friends, my wife, my students often tell me I'm sick, that I am overly sarcastic--to the point of sounding cynical--and have a sense of humor that often seems mean and base. They are right, of course. I hate to point a finger at the dead, but my mother does have to take some of the responsibility, I think.

I was about 7 years old, and our family, along with my uncle--my mother's younger brother--went to an amusement park in Long Beach, CA. I think we called it The Pike in Long Beach (CA)? Yeah, something like that. I don't remember the name exactly. They had games, a carousel, and a wooden roller coaster. They also had a House of Glass that I just had to try. No one wanted to go in except me and they let me... by myself--something that would probably be impossible in this age of helicopter parents. I walked in easily and continued deeper and deeper into the maze of glass, my parents becoming blurrier and blurrier as sheet upon sheet of glass separated us. Still, it was not scary. I easily reached the middle of the maze where there were mirrors bent in all kinds of shapes to distort one's reflection. One mirror made me look short and fat, another made me look tall and skinny (I could use one in my house now). The mirrors were amusing, but not as fun as it could have been had I been with a friend or simpbling. Bored, I decided to leave but... but... I couldn't. Going back through the maze was impossible. Every turn I made, I hit a dead-end. I could seem my parents and uncle pointing this way and that, urging me to go left, now right, but I always hit a glass wall. I was slowly beginning to panic. Can I get out of here? Will someone come and get me? I finally turned a corner and about 30 feet away I saw my mother and uncle clearly in front of me, waving for me to "come on down". I made it! I'm safe! I screamed to myself internally. I gleefully raced down the glass walkway toward their open arms when...


I ran right into a glass wall at full speed. I fell backwards on my butt, dazed, wondering what had happened. I propped myself up, rubbed the new bump on my forehead and squinted my eyes to focus on the spot where my mom and uncle had been standing. And there they were, bent over laughing as loud as they please. I'd been had. They had egged me on toward the glass and I fell for it. Ha, ha. Very funny, mom... Grrr, I was ticked. I picked myself up and soon found the exit. I stayed pissed, until they bought me an ice cream cone, the very least they could do since they had had their laugh at my expense.

*sigh* I'm sure a single experience does not a personality make, but it was one of many in my childhood. And because of them, we all grew up with the ability to laugh in virtually any situation. To see the humor in ways that may seem mean-spirited, but is ultimately harmless--except for a bump or two on the noggin.

I miss my mom...


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Memory

I haven't seen my daughter in a while--has it really been more than 10 years? I wrote about her a few years ago in an earlier post and am not inclined to write about our situation. To be honest, I'm not even sure there's a situation to write about anymore. But I do have memories and I thought I'd write about one that I recalled recently when talking to friends about Christmas.

Back in December of 1991, when I was in Japan for my dissertation research, my daughter, K, had serious doubts about Santa coming to visit our home. In the States, before we had gone to Japan, K spent her first three Christmases at my parents' house where there was a seven-foot Christmas tree set up in the living room near the fireplace. But in Japan, most houses--let alone condos--are small and do not have fireplaces. There is also little room for a ceiling high Douglas fir or Scotch pine, which they don't sell in Japan anyway. In our small, modest abode, we had a small artificial tree--the kind you'd see on a counter at a business office. This was the norm in most Japanese homes.

Well, you can imagine K's skepticism. She wanted a bicycle for Christmas and even wrote a letter to Santa asking for one, but was unsure about delivery of such a large present. It would be difficult enough for Santa to bring a bike down a real chimney. "How could he deliver a present to a house without a fireplace?" she'd ask.

"Good question," I'd say shrugging my shoulders.

"He couldn't get through the mail slot in the door, right?" I had to agree. She even glanced at the vent over stove. But then she looked back at me, and we shook are head in unison: "No way."

Of course, being the devious father that I was, I was simply setting up my daughter for the Christmas surprise.

I should note that K did not doubt the existence of Santa; she just couldn't figure out how Santa could get into our home. As for me, by sharing in K's skepticism, I had removed myself as a suspect in any phony Santa charade. If K did get the present she wanted, it could only have come from the real Santa, not the dad who seemed to doubt Santa could actually fit through a mail slot. So I bought a bicycle and kept it hidden in its box unassembled until...

Christmas eve: I told K to set out some milk and a cookie, "Just in case." K was still doubtful. "Do you really think he can come here?" she asked over and over. But she must have held out a sliver of hope because she set the treats with care on a table next to the mini-Christmas tree. By 9 PM, K was fast asleep, undoubtedly exhausted from all the hoping.

I assembled the shiny red bike, attached the training wheels and headlight, and placed it next to the table next to the mini-Christmas tree. I am no mechanical engineer so assembling it took me more effort than I want to admit, but I did an adequate job, accomplished after some trial and error over the course of a couple of hours. I set the bike next to the mini-tree and, exhausted, plopped down next to the table. I took a small bite out of a cookie on the table and attempted to wash it down with a sip from the glass of milk next to it, a mouthful of which brought me to my senses. "Oh crap," I muttered. I'm lactose intolerant, you see, so I went to the sink, spit out what I could and rinsed my mouth with water. Without a thought of what I had left behind on the table, I trudged off to bed and fell asleep worrying that I'd get a stomach ache from the milk.

And then I woke up with a sudden pain in my stomach. "Oh crap," I muttered again. But when I opened my eyes, I realized that the pain in my stomach was not from the milk. K was straddling my stomach, jumping up and down. With both hands, she grabbed a fistful of my T-shirt and was shaking me fiercely. "He came! He came!" she screamed. What are you talking about? I was so groggy, I don't remember if I said that or was just thinking it. But it didn't matter. K quickly jumped off and ran out of the bedroom still screaming. She returned in a flash.

"Dad! Dad! Come and see!" she commanded from the door.

"Who came?" I asked still trying to get my bearings.

"SANTA!" she screamed in that high-pitched voice that only a four-year-old girl can muster.

Ah, the bicycle, I smiled. When I entered the living room, she was sitting on the bike pretending to pedal it.

"Wow, did Santa really bring you this?"

"Yes!" she said beaming. "I know for sure he did."

"Oh? And how do you know that?"

"Look!" she said.

I moved to where her finger pointed and, sure enough, there was a half-filled glass of milk and a half-eaten cookie. K jumped off the bike and scooted over next to me. "Look at that," she said outlining with her fingertips a jagged semi-circle in the cookie. "You see that? Those are Santa's teeth marks."

My eyes widened as I slowly recalled the sequence of events that led to K's discovery. But all I could do was smile and nod in acknowledgment. Who was I to question such irrefutable proof of Santa's visit?


Being a Dad

[Originally posted Saturday, 05 June 2004; edited 2010.12.25]

I have one daughter who I'll call K. Although a bit headstrong and stubborn, taking after her father--this, according to her mother (ex-wife)--she is a good kid, which I attribute to solid rearing at a young age. She was born at Stanford and she was a talkative child from the start. Before K was born, I would talk to her through my ex-wife's stomach every chance I got, telling her how much I loved her, where I would take her and what we'd do once she was born. When she was born (Caesariean section), the doctor immediately showed her to mother and father--I was in the operating room, as well--and I said, "Hi K!" She opened her eyes and looked right at me as if she recognized the voice. The anesthesiologist monitoring the procedure and the nurse monitoring her mother were surprised, saying that it was as unusual a reaction as they had ever seen. But I could guess why. K had joined the world of the talker to whom she had been listening for nine months and she wanted to talk back. And once she did start talking, she wouldn't.

At Stanford, her mother and I would talk to her in a mixture of Japanese and English and she would understand everything we said, as kids will, but she would only talk in English as that was her environment. At day care, she was a leader--as many talkers are--and never took shit from anyone. One overweight kid had to learn this the hard way. He would take whatever toys he wanted, pushing aside anyone in his way. All the other kids would give in to this bully, but K--all of 18 months old--finally fed up with his antics, bit his cheek as they struggled for a toy. Oh, he cried and cried. When I went to pick her up after school, I was confronted by two very upset Jewish parents. They were coddling there precious bully and they showed me his cheek. Clear teeth marks remained embedded on his cheek. K had bitten hard enough to cause pain and leave an indentation that lasted a few hours, but not enough to break skin. What control! I was a bit worried, because the parents were threatening to sue. I apologized to them, but the teacher told me privately that K had done what every other kid wanted to do--even the teacher--but could not, so if they tried to pursue legal action, they would stand up for K. When I got home, I gave K a quiet but firm talking to: I told her that she stood up for herself and that was a good thing, but she should not have resorted to violence. Then I gave her a hug. What I really wanted to do was give her a high five, but she would not have understood that particular action.

When K was three years old, we went to Japan for my dissertation research and she had trouble adjusting. She was thrown into a world where suddenly she could no longer communicate. She could understand what others were saying to her, but she could only express herself in English, so she basically shut up in front of strangers. We enrolled her in daycare, where she was "semi-introverted": She got along well enough with everyone as long as she didn't have to speak. Then one day, about three months into daycare, as the class sang a song, she suddenly chimed in with the loudest voice: O te-te, tsunaide... According to the teachers, it was a wonderful moment they had been wishing for. Unfortunately, they did not know the concept of being careful of what you wish for. Once K knew that others could understand her, she wouldn't stop communicating.

Once, the class went on a field trip to Mt. Takao. One of the kids was handicapped, had trouble keeping up with the class and was trying desperately to hold back her tears. As they headed toward the picnic area for lunch, one of the teachers noticed that K was not with the group. Two of the teachers were about to go look for her, when K popped out of a wooded area with a bunch of flowers in her hand. The teachers were ready to admonish her for breaking away from the group and going off by herself--how un-Japanese!--but she walked right passed them straight to the handicapped girl, gave her the flowers and told her to cheer up, that she'd stay with her for the rest of the trip. Which she did. When I went to pick her up at the end of the day, her teacher related the events of the field trip to me and at the end asked, "How are you raising your child?" This time, on the way home, I did give K a high five...

I have a bunch of other stories, but there are only 24 hours in a day... Anyway, since I returned to the US, she has been reluctant to visit me--I get the sense that she thinks I abandoned them. But in my own defense, I would say that I believed that when we first went to Japan, the family would eventually return to the States when I got a job to teach. But when I got that job, my ex--a Japanese national--suddenly decided that she wanted to remain in Japan. There are a lot of details that I will not bring up here--marriages can be so complicated--but in the end, had my ex been willing to come as I thought we had originally planned, we probably would not have gotten a divorce. But we did and, as a result, I do not get a chance to see my daughter. I email when I can, but I haven't seen her since the summer of 1999. Since I remarried, I have been unable to go to Japan for variou$ reason$, and every year I ask K if she won't come visit me for the summer, but she flatly refuses. For the first nine years of her life, we were very close--she used tell everyone that I was the scariest (I'm strict) and nicest (we did everything together) dad in the world. I wonder what she says now. I hope that someday we can talk about what happened and that she will forgive me for not being with her for that last eight years.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

The American Who Could Speak English

[Originally posted May 21, 2004; edited 2010.12.12]

I've lived many years in Japan and I fancy myself an adequate teacher of Japanese Language and Lit, but I was born and raised in SoCal, and did not learn to speak Japanese until I was an adult. My first language, my mother tongue, is English. But I have worked hard to learn Japanese and depending on who you talk to, my Japanese is considered near native...

Or not...

I find now that the longer I live in the States, the more my linguistic abilities falter. I speak Japanese at home with M, but the topics are usually limited to domestic issues and I have little opportunity to expand my vocabulary, so I read a lot... well, not a lot, but enough. But when I lived in Japan, my speaking was near-native by most accounts. Indeed, when I worked at a think tank in Tokyo, my boss accepted me as another Japanese worker and occasionally introduced me to others as the American who could speak English. This sounds strange, I know, but it was, I think, a compliment, albeit an awkward one. Not only did I look Japanese, my Japanese language skills were such that he could accept me as an equal, and since many Japanese still struggle with English, my English ability--for a Japanese speaker--was remarkable.

Anyway, the first time I lived in Japan for an extended period was in 1984. I studied at Waseda for a year under a Mombusho grant and also earned some extra cash teaching English, as many of us foreign students are wont to do. But these jobs were not always easy to get because I did not fit the profile of an English teacher: I had neither blue eyes nor blonde hair. But before you rant about the Japanese, remember that the same phenomenon manifests itself here in the US. When I was teaching at UCLA, students who had a white TA would often come to me to confirm what they had learned because, I guess, I should know better, since I looked Japanese. Of course, I didn't know better.

But I digress...

Once, I was going to work at Fujitsu Corp. in Hino City to teach another not-so-interesting English class to a not-so-eager group of engineers. I took the train from Waseda--Tōzai line--and switched to the Chūō line at Nakano. From there I took the express to Toyoda, a station between Tachikawa and Hachiōji. I was standing near a door of a sparsely populated car staring at the sprawling towns as they passed by: Kōenji, Ogikubo, Kichijōji, Mitaka. Each station had a cluster of retail stores surrounding it, but the area between stations was one vast suburb of two story houses packed closely together. Staring vacantly at the sprawling sameness, I realized that virtually every house was white with blue tile roofing. Each had a white wall or wall of shrubbery surrounding the house which barely separated them from their neighbors with whom they lived shoulder to shoulder. Whether I was looking at the homes squeezed in between the stations of Asagaya and Kōenji or between Nishiogi and Kichijōji, they were all the same. On the train next to me, staring at the same expanse of undistinguished homes, was an elementary school kid who must have been around 9 or 10 years-old, easily identified by his ransel--the leather book bag all elementary school kids carry. I don't know if he was as bored as I was, but his gaze looked as vacant as I felt.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the conductor enter the car to check everyone's ticket to make sure that everyone had the proper fare. Sitting on the bench were two Americans--tourists by the look of their backpacks--chatting calmly. The conductor reached them and asked for their tickets using made-up sign language. Apparently, their fare was insufficient, and he tried to explain that they needed to pay him the appropriate fare. But the two Americans did not understand. What's wrong? What do we need to do? Do you speak English? The conductor began to get flustered, and resorted to speaking Japanese slowly and clearly, as if this technique would somehow break the language barrier. Of course, the Americans continued to be lost, so in the name of civic duty--but really to break the monotony of a long train ride--I walked over and acted as interpreter. I explained the situation, the Americans forked over the money they owed, and the conductor, relieved, thanked them.

And me.

I bowed my head slightly in acknowledgment and walked back to my spot by the door. The elementary school student stood there, staring up at me, apparently as happy as I was for the distraction.

"Wow, that was cool. Your English is really good," he said in awe.

I looked at him and smiled.

"Well, I studied hard," I said in a tone my current students would instantly recognize. "If you study hard, you can speak English, too."

He nodded earnestly, and we resumed gazing at the dark-blue tiled roofs passing by the window. Today, that kid would be about 30. I wonder if he ever became a Japanese who could speak English?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Earthquake! A story I rarely tell...

[From July 2008] Yesterday, the LA area was hit by an earthquake. I haven't experienced one in a long time, and the 5.4 magnitude would seem to be strong enough to scare many, but it wouldn't cause much damage except to old structures and outdated infrastructure. Indeed, except for the items falling off store shelves, the damage I saw on TV was mostly limited to old unreinforced brick walls and the water lines in older areas in town, like City Terrace. I'm not trying to make light of the situation. I'm just glad that nothing catastrophic happened.

Born and raised in California, I have had my share of earth moving experiences. The first big one I felt was the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, which was a 6.6 magnitude jolt. It woke me from bed and many things from my shelf fell to the floor. We called school and good ol' Loyola High School said there would be classes as scheduled, but when I got there I was told to go home as they found cracks all over the old main building and city engineers needed to inspect the building before they'd allow anyone in it. Finally, our tax dollars at work, my dad had said.

SF quake opposite sideI also lived through the big one in San Fransisco. Actually, the epicenter was closer to Santa Cruz and is known as the Loma Prieta Quake. This is closer to where I was at Stanford, and it was humungous. My then-wife had gone the pick up our daughter from daycare when the 7.1 quake struck and she told me that cars parked on the street literally rose and fell in waves. My sister lived in the Divisadero section of San Fransisco, a landfill area created for the 1915 World's Fair. As you probably know, landfill reacts like quicksand in a major earthquake and many of the homes in the area were utterly destroyed. I went to pick up my sister and it looked like a war zone. I remember going with her to an evacuation center at a local elementary school to find out the status of her flat. We walked over the sidewalk that had buckled everywhere, and walked by classrooms in which the elderly apparently in shock were lying in army cots or sitting, eating bologna sandwiches distributed by the Red Cross. My sister received a yellow card, meaning that the status of her building had yet to be determined--this was three days after the quake. Fortunately, her apartment was deemed safe, but it took three weeks until she was finally able to move back in, and even then she had no water and electricity. 

As for me? Well, you sports fans will remember that it was the opening day of the World Series and I was getting ready to watch the first pitch. I had the beer chilled, and got the chips out. And not wanting to have to run to the bathroom between innings, I decided to take a dump right before the game. So there I was, sitting on the can on the second floor of our student housing residence--it was like a mini-faux-townhouse--when the place jumped up and down with a jolt, then started rocking left and right. Not to get overly graphic, but I was only halfway finished and I didn't know what the fuck to do. I heard books falling and dishes crashing to the floor--Shit! (no pun intended) Was that the Doritos?!?. I opened the door to the bathroom and from the throne, I could see the ceiling lamp that hung above the staircase landing swinging like a pendulum in a 90 degree arc. I was in panic mode, trying to think of a course of action--What should I do!--but all I could do was think, Fuck. Is this how I'm gonna die? Taking a shit? They're gonna dig through the rubble and find my body with my pants bunched around my ankles?!? Fuck, what a way to die!

Then it stopped. The walls did not come tumbling down. The floor did not collapse. And I survived with my dignity intact: Ass wiped, pants pulled up. Whew!

FYI: I often embellish my personal stories for "dramatic" (read: humorous) effect but this story is pretty much exactly as I remember it.