Saturday, January 07, 2006

Not Living Up to Expectations

Originally posted on Xanga 2003, July through September--last edit July 23, 2008

I've read 3-4 posts lately by people who are feeling down about themselves, about how some earlier actions and past decisions have resulted in a life leading to nowheresville, where nothing seems to be working out. Well, some may be just ranting, to work out some stress. But if not, you guys still don't have to feel too down. There is always hope.

I realize that it sounds hokey, but its true. There really is hope. The only catch is that YOU have to make it happen. Been there, done that. Really. I don't want to bore you with the details, so let me be honest....

I was a total screw up in high school.

Bad grades, bad attendance. I'm surprised they didn't kick me out of school. Couldn't go to college like my friends so I went to work full time. Hey, all I wanted was money to put gas in my Camaro and go on hot dates. But I began to realize that maybe--just maybe--this wasn't the right path. But I thought, "Crapola, I'm 20 and going nowhere. I can't even get into school if I wanted to." So I started out at a junior college--took 5 years to graduate! hahahaha--and thanks to a professor who had a lot of faith in me, convinced me to apply to UCLA and the rest is history.

The point, of course, is that I could have given up: "Ah, its too late to change now." But I didn't. I made a conscious decision to act in the present and to dwell on the future, not the past, to finish school--time frame be damned--and see where it would take me. Now if this stupid-ass almost-high-school drop-out can earn a PhD from Stanford, then I'd bet that everyone who's read this far can work even greater miracles: cure cancer, bring peace to the Middle East, get Fox to cancel American Idol, y'know, the hard stuff, the long and heavy lifting. I'm serious...

Now How Narcissistic Can One Get?

Good question. In general, a blog is a log of one's thoughts; to wit, a journal. And a journal by any other name is still a journal: personal, self-absorbed, and free from constraint. So I will indulge myself. Will readership go down? Maybe. Doesn't matter. A weblog is an exercise in exhibitionism/voyeurism: I show, you watch; I write, you read. In a way, this is what autobiographies are like, and in many cases the first novel of new authors. Not that they intentionally write autobiographies, but many of the ideas in a "maiden novel" are taken from life experiences. Relax. I do not intend to write a novel here. But I will jot down the experiences of a Japanese American in LA in the late 60s, early 70s, something that some may find interesting to peruse, in that it is a "reflection" of the thoughts of one member of an invisible minority--y'know the one that doesn't complain, the model minority--at a time when civil rights were blossoming across the U.S. I wrote the following to qualify my above self-portrayal as a "total screw-up." I don't intend to justify it, just present some background in the hopes y'all will not think that a complete idiot got a PhD.

Now, some may be interested in who Ray Kanzaki is, what makes him click, what makes him write all these daily entries. He is, ahem, I mean, I am not interesting, per se; but my life has been different from yours, I'd bet, but I make no claims about my style or the worthiness of the content or my effectiveness as a writer, and I should warn you that I have been accused of writing boring stuff (then don't read it! I wanna say). Those of you not interested, change the channel now. (click, click)

Not Living Up to Expectation

I was raised in a modest home as the good, little Oriental boy--heretofore, Glob--of a model minority family--i.e. hard working, uncomplaining, compliant. In elementary school, I wasn't very bright, I had so-so grades, and my dreams were limited to what people around me believed: work hard, go to college, study economics or engineering or medicine. (In a very Oriental accent) "Oh, rearry? Okay, I try hawd!" But I didn't know how to try hard, or what it entailed, particularly as the son of parents who did not go to college (I'm not ragging on my parents; this is simply the way it was back in the day). I just watched "MyThree Sons" or "Leave it to Beaver" and wondered what I had to do to emulate such a "typical" American family.

I went to a private Catholic missionary elementary school and we were members of the church. We lived a rather isolated life. Actually most of the members did, I think. The school and church was exclusively Japanese American, and we, as kids, never had to deal with other races. We played with each other, and our parents socialized with church and school members.

However, that doesn't mean I was unaware of my difference. Once, when I was 5, Chuckles the Clown came by to East LA, to a nearby shopping center. As loyal viewers of his TV antics, my sister and I went to see him as many of the local kids did. We tried to arrive early to get a good seat and we were in the second row. Chuckles set up his show in the parking lot in front of Thrifty Drugs Store, and we eagerly watched his magic tricks and listened to his jokes. He then went into his balloon routine, you know, the one where he blows up long and skinny balloons and bends them into animals? He started making animal after animal and handing them out to the kids circling him. Moving clockwise, he finally reached us. Hands raised and screaming like everyone else, my heart was pounding in anticipation of getting a balloon from Chuckles himself. He hands over animal balloons to kids behind us, then to kids in front of us. Then he moves on... Didn't he see us? We were raising our hands like everyone else, crying out his name. Didn't he see us? My lasting image of Chuckles was his back, facing kids, white kids, to my left, handing them those stupid balloons.

Of course, my training taught me not to complain. I just accepted it, trying to understand what happened--he didn't see us, or maybe he reached for another balloon and forgot us--trying to justify it, as well as a 6-year-old kid could. As you might imagine, I developed a very real sense of security at school and at church where I was among people who looked like me.

From elementary school, I then went to a private Catholic high school run by Jesuits. "Ooooh." You're probably thinking, "That must have really screwed you up." Well, discipline can be good and bad, depending on how you look at it. The discipline administered by Jesuits is not violently brutal, but definitely limiting, and so usually has the effect of making one compliant or rebellious. As a Glob from a model minority family, I was expected to be compliant and uncomplaining, which I was, for the most part. But fortunately--the good--it planted the seeds for rebellion and festered within me until the most opportune moment: a part time job. "Huh? How can a part time job trigger rebellion?" Well, for a Glob from a very narrow world, getting a part-time job, meeting new and completely different people--including girls--was quite an experience. I should mention that I was kind of a dork up until then--maybe I still am--but the opportunity to meet people who had no preconceived idea as to my lot in life--or simply put, what a dork I was--was a relief, refreshing and even exciting. Here I was, with a brand new slate, ready to fill in whatever was necessary to create a new me: Anti-Glob, the embryo that was to grow into Onigiriman.

Well, as a new Anti-Glob I had to do what all the other anti-Globs were doing: hang out, smoke cigs, drink scotch, go to dances, talk to girls, and of course, NEVER study. "Wow, is this what everyone else does?" I was enraptured with this new, cool lifestyle....

Yes, it was a new, cool lifestyle, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I worked part-time at a Manju shop in LA's J-Town--officially known as Lil' Tokyo. It's there I first began learned to speak Japanese. I had heard it most of my life and even "studied" it in elementary school, but I never really understood it until I worked at the sweet shop, where both the full-time workers and the majority of the customers spoke nothing but Japanese. The first few weeks were a fiasco.

A customer would walk in, look at the sweets in the showcase, and say, "Eeto, kore to kore to kore wo kudasai." Give me this and this and this.With a face that begged for understanding, I stumbled over my own tongue as I tried to fulfill his request using my index finger.

"Uh, kore, ichi? Um, kore, ichi? Er, kore, ni?" Uh, this, one? Um, this, one? Er, this, two?

Whew! Fortunately for me, I understood more than I could speak and the owner did not fire me.

Even more fortunate, however was the weekend. I worked 5 to 10 on Friday and Saturdays and 5 to 8 on Sundays. I guess the hours weren't so fortunate. I was puzzled why the store was open so late. I mean, who would buy manju at 9pm? Well, J-Town was the place where many JAs gathered, especially on weekends, when they came to do their weekly shopping of Japanese goods. At night, however, it was the men who came to town to spend there money. First, there was Frank's pool hall in the basement of the Taul Building on the corner of 1st and San Pedro. It looked incredibly seedy... no, I take that back, it WAS incredibly seedy, with old men and young toughs shooting pool with cigarettes hanging out of there mouths at 45 degree angles. Weenies like me, who couldn't shoot straight, had to play short games, like nine-ball, so we could actually finish a game in decent time. But the regulars played straight pool, calling out numbers, "13 in the corner", then slide over the beads strung around the tables with each shot made. To these 17 year-old eyes, it was so cool to see these guys shooting for the money they had splayed on the table before each game. I would suck on a Coke as I watched the regulars play rack after rack of pool.

But pool wasn't the main form of entertainment then. What everyone did was drink and bullshit of hours. There were a number of places. Some of the tonier people would go to the bar in the Horikawa Restaurant for wine or Chivas Regal. The hard core drinkers went to a couple of the nameless bars on the north side 1st St. But the real action as at Eigiku Restaurant, where there was a form of entertainment that preceded karaoke: Namaoke, or a piano bar where the customers sat around and sang all night. My elder senpais would go and sit for hours.

"Hey, Ray, lets get a drink."

"Uh, I'm only 17," I would confess.

"Whatchu worried about, man. You with us. No one's gonna ask." And they were right, the confession was needless.

Well, all these men who went to shoot pool and drink for hours, had to go home to wives. But they couldn't go home empty handed. They had to take an omiage to appease the missus. So there actually was a demand for manju--or sushi--at 9 in the evening on weekends. These men, often slurring there words, would come in to purchase their peace offerings, as I struggled to complete there orders, all the while secretly wishing they would hurry up so I could close the store and go out.So the weekend hours were not ideal for a young, eager man like me, the presence of my weekend co-workers alleviated the situation: they were all girls from Roosevelt High School, a public high school... ooooh... lucky me. Why? Because all the hot girls who spoke Japanese worked in J-Town. And I got to chat with--and even stand next to--them... m(>_<)m. Of course, this was just my perception, which was actually blown out of proportion, because I was coming from a cloistered life in parochial school. I mean, for me--a dork--any girl was like a gift from God.

"Oh, thank you God, for giving me this opportunity before I die...."

Well, maybe I wasn't that hard up, but it was close....

Besides, I was soon to find out that Eastside girls looked hot, but Westside girls WERE hot. My metamorphoses began one New Years season, Shogatsu. In the sweet shop business, this period began the day after Christmas as everyone began to buy there stock of mochi, the rice cakes everyone eats on January 1....

I was hanging out with a new acquaintance who helped out during the Shogatsu rush. Dave (not his real name) was thinking of starting a band and he had a set of drums. I had a piano, and so he suggested we "jam". Well, I had pretended to be a musician, playing at church and boy scout functions ever so rarely--like once or twice. But of course, I had to say, "Uh, yeah, let's rock." How corny...

Well, one thing led to another and, voila, I was in a band. We were, to be sure, small time and very short lived, lasting nine months--three to get ready, and six to play gigs--in 1973. We played at Asian dances--dances sponsored by and advertised to Asians, mostly Japanese Americans. They were held at places like Roger Young's Auditorium, the Elks Club and miscellaneous restaurants. These dances were the places for the "in-crowd", to see and be seen, where guys came to show off their Camaros, Road Runners or Porches, where an Anti-glob could get an illegal drink without the help of "older" friends. I occasionally saw my high school classmates, which was cool, because it shocked them to see me in this kind of environment. But this was rare, which was also fine, for this meant there was a lesser chance of other finding out what a Glob I was.

This is where I also got my first real lesson in the demographics of JA women in LA. Before our band began playing at these dances, we would go out to scout what the other bands were playing. Bands with a brass section played songs like "You're Still a Young Man" by Tower of Power or "Beginnings" by Chicago. Brass-less groups played standard tunes that were so boring I can't even remember what they were. Of course, on these scouting trips, I was pretty incognito. Not a band member, just another Asian face in a sea of Asian faces. I hung with the other band members and met their group of friends, and soon learned the difference between Eastside and Westside. The Eastside chicks were hot looking, but the Westside girls were just plain hot. They could dance. They could talk. And they would NEVER tease. Eastsiders would act as though they were interested in you, but they'd be looking over your shoulder or at their watch waiting for something better to happen--which usually wasn't a long wait if they were talking to me. But Westsiders, what you saw was what you got. If they liked you, you were good to go. If they didn't, they let you know right from the start where you stood. It was easier and cooler to talk to Westside girls, because they didn't give you the business. It really was straight, and easy to handle, for a Glob like me.

But things changed when our band started getting gigs. At a dance, Eastside girls appeared out of nowhere:

"Aren't you in the band? Ooh, I like the way you played guitar."

"Uh, I'm on keyboard." I would try so hard not to roll my eyes. I mean, they WERE cute.

"Yeah, I know! You guys are so good. I really liked the first song you played. I just heard it for the first time on the radio yesterday. How did you guys learn it so fast?"

"'Free Ride'? By Edgar Winters? Well, we try to keep our fingertips on the pulse of music trends." (I still can't believe I used to say shit like that...) But as I would say this, I looked over her shoulder for something better to happen, because I knew what was coming next.

"Really? No one plays that song at dances. You guys are so good. Uh, I'm Kathy, do you think you could get me and my friends in free at your next gig?"

Yes, dear, even we had groupies.

Alas, fame was fleeting. We got top billing at an Asian dance once, when the other top Japanese/Asian bands--Free Flight, Heavy Nations, We the People--had the flu or something. Our fifteen minutes lasted from midsummer to the end of the year and then we broke up. But not before I got to meet a lot of people who were not Globs, who taught me to smoke, and drink, and partake in other pharmaceutically unsafe activities. But most importantly, they taught me that I didn't have to be compliant, that I could complain if I wanted to, that I could be what I wanted to be, that I didn't have to meet the expectations set by someone else. The downside, of course, was that this was all happening when I was a junior in high school, a Jesuit high school at that. I would be hung-over or exhausted from lack of sleep from band practice, and I would ditch school. On days I felt fine, I didn't want to waste it at school. Better to go to the mall or to the beach. Fortunately for me, I had myself a Westside girlfriend, Aileen (not her real name), whose handwriting was exactly the same as my mother's. What a break. As far as the school was concerned, I was suffering from some sort of incurable malady. And in a way, I was: self-discovery. But while I didn't get into trouble for my attendance, my grades suffered severely. I can't remember getting a single grade higher than a D+ in any of my courses. Of course, if you miss more than a third of school, it's not surprising.

But even after the band broke up, I still had my friends and we still hung out together. I never reverted to a Glob. In my senior year, my grades went up just enough to graduate, third from the bottom, with an overall GPA of 2.1. I was definitely not university material. While all my classmates applied and got into major universities, I was stuck in limbo.But that was okay. I didn't have to meet anyone's expectation except my own. And I decided to bum around. This is when my mother intervened and said: "Go to Japan"....

Working at the J-Town sweet shop, my Japanese language ability had improved steadily. It opened a whole new world to me. Going to Eigiku with Mitchan (his real nick-name), I slowly began to comprehend the Japanese world that was swirling around me. He thinks she's cute. She thinks he's sukebe (horny). Wages were too low. The microphone was too loud. Do you wanna sing?

"Me? Uh, no thanks. I don't know any of the songs..."

But regardless of my unwillingness to partake in singing at a piano bar, my interest in things Japanese grew significantly.

"Hey, Ray," said a worker at the sweet shop. "Why don't you go to Japan? Lots of beppin there."

Beppin, a colloquial term for beauty, immediately caught my attention. While playing in the band and partying into the wee hours, I had learned, among other things, why God created women. So when my mother arranged for me to go to Japan to stay with my grandmother in her Tokyo mansion, I was excited. It was my mother's intention to give me time and space to think about my future--have I ever mentioned that I really loved my mom?--but little did she know that that was the reason she didn't have to tell me twice to pack my bags.

I arrived at Haneda Airport in Tokyo to a deluge of Japanese faces. Man, will you look at this? I look like everyone else here. Confident in the Japanese ability I developed at the sweet shop, I made my way through immigration, dealt with the agricultural control agent--who promptly cut the only twine that held together the case of four honey dew melons my grandmother insisted I bring--and passed customs after having my suitcase thoroughly searched for contraband, I entered the main lobby and searched through the dizzying crowd, finally hearing my name being called by my grandparents. My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Hiroshima and was an atom bomb victim, as was my mother. My grandfather--my grandmother's second husband--was an executive for JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization. He had lived many years overseas in countries such as Iran, Australia and Switzerland, and spoke English very well. As we traveled to Suginami-ku by taxi, I conversed with them eager to show-off my Japanese. They seemed pleased enough, and I was excited to see my room in this new mansion they had bought near Nishi-Ogikubo station on the Chuo line. The car stopped in front of a white, non-descript structure that looked more like an apartment than a mansion.

"We're here," my grandfather said as he paid the driver.

Puzzled, I lugged my suitcase and the honey dew up to the third-floor of this elevator-less building. Entering in the small entrance, we took off our shoes and they directed me to a room where I was to leave my suitcase. It was, to me, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. "This is where you'll sleep," my grandmother told me. "And, this is where we sleep," she continued, pointing to the only other room with a small TV in it.

"Is this where you live? Mom told me you bought a mansion."

I found myself in a situation that exposed my inability to grasp the cultural abyss between Japan and the US. All my life, I thought I was Japanese. In 1970, when the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! came out, My friends and I--about twenty of us--went to Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood with the intention of cheering the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. My friend brought his large Japanese navy flag and we ran around the theater waving it. Every time a Japanese bomb hit a U.S. battleship, we cheered. And with each cheer came hisses from the other people in the audience, some yelling to pipe down, but not much more when they realized what a big single group we were. It was, to be sure, childish, unproductive, and insensitive to the many who lost their lives in this war, but for a bunch of JA teenagers, it gave us a sense of pride. Images of buck-tooth Japs being drubbed by the likes of John Wayne were nowhere to be seen, and we felt empowered.

But now, in the fall of 1974, four months after I graduated high school, I was beginning to realize that maybe, I wasn't Japanese. Indeed, my first visit to Japan made it all too clear to me that I wasn't Japanese even in the eyes of the Japanese. I may have looked Japanese, but once anyone found out I was American, they treated me differently. Sometimes rudely, sometimes nicely, but always differently. I didn't think Japanese, and as it was pointed out to me by many, I couldn't speak Japanese either, at least not to their standard. And girls! Where were the girls? There were a lot of cute girls, but I was totally out of my element. I had a lot of time on my hands, but with no money and little knowledge of my surroundings, I was totally lost. I had hoped my second cousin, who was half a year older than me and a college student at Waseda, would help me out, but he was square. I mean four ninety-degree-angles square. Besides, I got the impression he didn't want to have anything to do with me, a borderline high school drop-out.

I ultimately spent four months in Japan getting acquainted with the many relatives I never knew, and returned to the U.S. with a whole new set of questions... Who am I? What am I? Where do I belong? I went to Japan thinking I was Japanese, but learned that I wasn't. I knew that in the U.S. I was not totally accepted or treated as an American either. So where do I belong? For the time being, no one could take away my birth place, and my passport said I was an American citizen, so I had to deal with my inner conflicts in LA, and go from there...

After my return from Japan, I had much to think about. How do I address this new realization that I am NOT JAPANESE. Looking back at this time with the clarity of years of experience, it was foolish of me to even think I was Japanese: I wasn't born there, I had never lived there, I didn't know the language as well as I thought I did, and my understanding of Japanese culture was anachronistic, a vestige of the Meiji/Taisho (late 19th/early 20th cen.) period. But in the winter and early spring of 1975, I did not have the benefit of hindsight, so I did what any confused 19 year-old would do: A little of this, a little of that, and a lot of bumming around...

As I sit here and try to recall the years between 1975 and 1980, I realize that they are not very clear in my mind. Many memories and the order in which they occurred before this five year period are stored in my mind in a clear and coherent fashion. My first major scolding: When I was 4, I managed to open a can of paint and proceeded to redo my red fire engine and my sisters bicycle; I was sent to my room where I think I threw everything I could get my hands on at the door in frustration... My first taste of scotch: 5 years old in our old house in East LA, given to me by my Uncle Frank, "Try it. It's adult apple juice"... The first time I realized that I might truly be different: The father of a friend down the block, Ricky Santa Maria (real name), used to call me tomodach, and I thought he was cursing me... Other times when I knew I was truly different: Getting beat up by local toughs when my friends and I at 12 rode our bikes past Belvedere Park on our way to the Library because we were japs and gooks and chinks (they couldn't make up their minds)... The first time I held hands: At Knott's Berry Farms on a field trip in 8th grade with a girl who today would probably even deny she knows me... My first cigarette: In the back yard, behind the garage at 14, with my mom's lighter and Kent's... My first real part-time job: At the sweet shop at 17, going downstairs with a girl two years my senior, who took me downstairs to get me an apron and had me carry up a case of boxes--it was my first serious crush... I remember all these events and the sequencing with a high degree of clarity...

Yet, the five-year period from the age 19 to 24 are blurred, jumbled together. I recall isolated incidents, miscellaneous dates, different jobs intertwined with each other. Perhaps all these are just proof of how really confused--if not just simply screwed up--I was. As I continue to log portions of my life on this public forum, it occurs to me that I am not here to provide fiction. Many write about current relationships (I argued with my boyfriend, I hate my boss, I love my dog) or about current incidents (I went to school, I saw a movie) or about dreams and goals (I wanna go to Japan, I want to meet the perfect guy or girl). Me, I am writing something that is just as personal--perhaps even more so, since it is something that has been a part of my life for that last 40+ years: my memories. It is something that I cherish and relive in my mind from time to time when I can't go to sleep, or when I'm sitting in the train exhausted, or when I'm feeling frustrated at work, or when I'm just feeling sad with a glass of scotch in my hand... So it really bothers me that I can't articulate this five year period coherently. I don't want to make anything up, so I've even gone back to look at old records and photos to see if they might jog my memory, but no luck. So I will instead provide a basic timeline and relate isolated incidents that I remember that might prove to be salient to this selected record of my life...

Back in LA, I did very little. I went back the sweet shop, but their new hire was competent and I worked only on the weekends. While all my high school buddies were going to universities, I led an aimless existence Monday through Friday. I wasn't sure what to do, and I still struggled to understand where I fit in the greater scheme of things: am I Japanese, or Japanese-American, or American? Compounding to my confusion was the absence of a parent. When I returned to my home in East L.A., I learned that my mother had decided to leave the house. The marriage between my parents had been strained for a variety of reasons--which I am not prepared to discuss on as a public forum as this--but I will say that she was in many ways frustrated by the limitations life placed on her as a wife and mother... or more specifically, as a Japanese wife and Japanese mother.

As a result, I had very little to do during the days except read a book or watch TV. I never reconnected with my band buddies--we had all sorta went our separate ways--except for one: our female lead singer, BA. She had kept in touch with me while I was in Japan, and we saw each other from time to time after I cam back. By the summer of 1975, we had committed to a relationship. Of course, a relationship, as defined by a 19 year-old with no direction, was a pretty shallow thing. But a relationship it was, and BA was just the person for me. She could sing, she could play the piano, she was a cute Westsider, she was an honor student, and went to the other major university in LA (UCLA, of course, being the premier post-secondary school in the city). She had looks and brains. She was kind and generous and thoughtful, and she could cook... Far too good for the likes of me... but she was mine.

Thanks to BA, I had a sense of where I wanted to go. The stability of her presence--her outlook, her attitude--gave me a sense of direction: Go to school, get a "regular" part-time job, and none of this J-Town, coolie-wages gig... Yes, BA was not into the JA scene. She became singer of our JA band almost by accident, through the introduction of a casual friend. She knew no Japanese, and little about its customs and history. I wouldn't mark her as a "banana"--yellow on the outside, white on the inside (Marja tells me that it's "Twinkie" now, but it would seem to me like the skin is too thick)--but she showed little interest in JA issues and things Japanese in general. But actually, we were a pretty good match. I introduced her to a few things Japanese which she liked, and she showed me how JAs coped in the "real" world, outside the insulated environment of J-Town. I went back to school--a local community college, because my grades in high school prevented me from matriculating into a four-year institute. I also got another job, working at a major bank--the one that consolidated with Nations Bank. I felt that I was beginning to understand what it was all about. Being JA was cool, but you had to temper it with a dose of reality. I got along with my fellow workers at the bank--I was the only Asian and that was a completely new experience for me. I could be a bit assertive, casting aside the yoke of the reserved Glob (good little oriental boy). There was a trade off, of course. There was no more running through theaters waving a Japanese flag. But that was okay. I felt like I could cope in this world now.

It sounds so obvious, its ridiculous, but for me and many of my friends it was not so. Going to an all Japanese American elementary school and church. Shopping and working in J-Town, where virtually every worker and certainly most visitors were of Japanese descent. Hanging out and going to dances where practically everyone I associated with was Japanese American. It was a comfortable world, a world where Chuckles the Clown would never invade. But it was also an isolated world, one where I would never grow up.

I owed a lot to BA. She was the best thing that could happen to me at a time when my family situation was rocky, and she and her family accepted me with open arms. But of course, young men at 19-20 years of age are boast a psychological age of a 13-year-old, or at least I did. After about 14 months, we broke up because I was selfish, narrow-minded and just plain stupid... and did what I had to do... find another girl...

Hindsight is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it allows you to see past mistakes in the context of subsequent--sometimes painful, hopefully, better--experience. The curse is that your selfishness, narrow mindedness, and stupidity stands out in relief, and has the potential to haunt you for an extended period of time. Looking back now, I think the main reason I broke up with BA was because she just wasn't "Japanese" enough. I had been going through an identity crisis of sorts, and I could not give up the notion that I was tied, in some shape or form, to "being Japanese."

After breaking up with BA, I sought--I suppose subconsciously--the other extreme, and found MM, a girl who was from Japan, whose English had not yet fully developed. She was a senior in high school and relatively cute, and in many ways, very Japanese. But--as I was to learn--perhaps too Japanese. I don't want to generalize and offend anyone, but at the time, MM seemed like the typical Japanese girl: spoiled and dependent. One Sunday afternoon in 1976, we spent strolling along the Redondo Beach pier.

"Oh look, cotton candy! How nostalgic! How nice..." "Want some?" I asked. "Sure!"

I got her the cotton candy and she started eating small bites of it when all of a sudden, she noticed apples dipped in red dye 39, lined up in short rows upside down...

"What's that?" "That's candied apple. I used to crave these when I was a kid." "Really? I want to try some too." "Uh, what about the cotton candy?" "This? It's too sweet anyway."

She handed me the cotton candy and told the guy at the counter she wanted one. The stick of the apple securely in hand, she headed down the pier again. The guy eyed me with a "She's with you, right?" look, and held his palm out.

I jog to catch up with her only to find her grimacing. Now what?

"This is too sweet. How could you have craved something like this?" "........." "I don't want this anymore." "You want the cotton candy then?" I asked hopefully. "No, I need something to get all this sweet taste out of my mouth."

She promptly dumped the candied apple into a trash can already overflowing with the wasted food other children had thrown away...


I had this image of a Biafra poster in my mind, but it was too difficult equate confections with food staples...

As I have learned, subsequently, her actions are not necessarily spoiled, but they reflect what Takeo Doi revealed in his book, An Anatomy of Dependence (Amae no Kōzō). Perhaps, had I read Doi's book first, I would have understood her behavior and accepted it... or maybe never have dated her in the first place. It's hard to say...

MM exhibited what I now recognize as amae 甘え, the Japanese trait that permeates the very fabric of many males and females in Japan. In a broad sense, it deals--as I see it--with two major issues: emotional dependency and security. A child receives unconditional love from a parent--primarily the mother; in return, the child offers complete loyalty to the parent. This act is often taken to the extreme when the child acts as selfishly as he or she wants. This in turn develops into a relationship of dependence: a child relies on a mother for everything--understanding, ; the child can act in any manner s/he wants, fully aware that the mother will always provide love, understanding, and security--have you ever seen a 5 year-old in a supermarket screaming for something--買って買って (buy it, buy it)--and the mother NEVER getting angry or even embarrassed? This relationship beginnings in infancy when a child sleeps nestled against mother who is willing to nurse the child at any moment. This turns into joint bathing, and whenever the child needs love and attention, carrying it in front (dakko) or piggy-back (onbu).

The single element common to all these behaviors is the physical contact between mother and child. I don't mean to suggest that there is an incestuous relationship--although some people suggest it, including a TV show from a few years back called 誰にも言えない (I can't tell anyone). The physical closeness is regarded as such a crucial element in the development of a strong parent-child relationship, that it even has a pseudo-English term, "skinship".

This relationship is neither good nor bad, it is simply the Japanese way of things. Many open-minded people in the West who subscribe to ideals of independence and self-reliance may find this strange, if not unhealthy... Indeed, I've heard of a story where a white female American gained custody of a child during a divorce because the Japanese father had taken baths with their daughter when she was a young child. The wife understood the Japanese practice, but used it to appeal to the court's western sense of "morality" vis-à-vis this case. In the Japanese mind, there is no sense of immorality. Indeed, public nudity with the same sex is not a major concern. Although many may exhibit varying degrees of modesty, nudity at public baths and hot springs is not viewed as abnormal. But still, it is linked to a sense of vulnerability, and so being naked with others fosters a sense of trust. Being naked with a parent--not the same sex, but perhaps more importantly, the same family--nurtures a similar sense of trust.

I'm no sociologist, so I should not go any deeper into this very complex Japanese trait. But I should say that I had a Japanese mother, and as such I too was a participant in this practice. My loyalty to my mother was total, and the amae I indulged in--the belief that my mother offered unconditional love and support--was, according to Musubi-chan, manifest... Which bring me back to MM. She seemed to manifest this desire to amae, to indulge in my unconditional love and support of her. Little did she realize that I was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to offer it... Am I being too honest, or what!?!

MM manifested a characteristic I was not familiar with... at least not on the giving end, which exposes me now as a selfish, self-centered brat. And I was, so I did what any selfish, self-centered brat would do, I broke it off... again. And I was so cool... uh, I mean, so uncool about it. I created a situation in which it made it seem like she was at fault... It was kind of a three-strikes-and-you're-out deal, and I made sure that the strikes were acts she was bound to perform: lies... Not that I have never told a lie, but she had a way of straying from the truth, much like children do when they don't want to be caught... Anyway, she ended up being too Japanese for me, and we did not last very long. Actually, she didn't last very long, for I had another already prepped.

Okay, before you go and judge me as a jerk, please note that I am already fully aware of that fact. Indeed, I was even aware of it back then, but it didn't stop me. I was young and rarin' to go. I won't bore you with the details, 'cuz the point of this story is to convey the idea that I had not lived my life like the Glob--good little oriental boy--I was supposed to be. I did things the way I wanted, and I was very selfish at that...

But I was also trying to find myself within my JA skin. I went back and forth with different girls: YI was from Japan but spent many years in NY and seemed pretty close to ideal, if not for her parents--she was the daughter of a shōsha-man (businessman in a large Japanese multinational corporation)--and they kept us apart very successfully. (Actually, I've always thought that they were pretty perceptive.) CN was a JA who was born in Japan but came to LA at a young age. Her Japanese was good, but her attitude toward life was similar to mine: defy the stereotype. We liked to dance, drink, sex, all party all the time. But I think we were too much alike and we basically got bored of each other.

I soon quit the bank job and school--again--to work full time at the sweet shop in 1978. I had been promoted to plant manager at the tender age of 22, and became a "semi" big-shot in J-Town. It was pretty much a joke, as I think back about it now. A 22 year-old punk planning and managing the plant that supplied sweets for three retail stores and a wholesale market for Japanese confections. I am embarrassed to discuss the details of the job, because I did so poorly, but my social life was active. Unfortunately it mostly involved drinking and drinking and more drinking. In fact, I had turned into an alcoholic. I can't believe some of the things I did. I went to my favorite bar with my buddies from J-Town 8 days a week. I drank Cutty and water, 6-8 double shots a night. I'd flirt with every girl in the bar--many were not so cute, but then, as I was gaining weight from all this drinking, I was no beauty either... After a couple of scuffles in the bar and blow outs at home--my mother had returned by then--I came to the realization that I was out of control. At first, I thought it was cool hangin' with my JA buds, being JA, talking Japanese, being cool. But this "cool" was not worth my sanity, my self-respect, my future, my life...

During this two-year "lost weekend", I met JI who was a tamer version of CN, and I thought it would work. By the end of summer 1979, I had removed myself from the manager's position, and decided to go back to school to see if I could still do something with my life. I came to realize that J-Town was not in my future, that being JA didn't necessarily mean that I had to associate with this particular segment of society. JI was a remnant of this J-Town legacy and she didn't seem to fit into the scheme of things, socially, intellectually... Intellectually? What a ridiculous notion. When the hell did that enter into the equation?

Well, actually, I can't tell you the exact date, but it was a process that began when I entered a singing contest in J-Town... and won...

In the summer of 1979, I was still hanging with my J-Town buddies at the bar we always went to in Monterey Park. There was a singing contest sponsored by Suntory held in J-Town, and the producers--a small, local Japanese TV production company--went to all the local piano bars--there was no Karaoke back in the day--to hold tryouts for the "Second Suntory Kayōkyoku Butsuke Honban Grand Champion Taikai" At the bar I frequented, Sanchō, I was considered--at the risk of sounding immodest--one of the better singers. When the tryouts were held at our hangout, I sang a song by Azusa Michiyo called "Futari de osake wo". The producers chose only two from each establishment they visited and I was not one of them. My buddies and even the owner of the bar were surprised.

"They should have chosen you," said James through his cigar.

"Yeah, who's that guy anyway? He's usually drinking at Eigiku. What's he doing here?" Tom stared at the intruder.

The owner, of course, was all business. After talking to the producers and congratulating the contestants for the contest. She came back to the bar where all the regulars sat. "Apparently, they had more than two singers at Eigiku that they want to compete, so they distributed them to other bars so they can eventually be chosen as contestants... at the expense of one 'legitimate' patron," she explained, looking at me sympathetically.

With my chin resting in my left palm, all I could do was stare at the cutty and water I stirred aimlessly with a swizzle stick. I was not especially surprised, but I was depressed.

"What am I doing here?" a recurring question in my life.

A bit bummed out, I began the process of reorganizing my life. One of the things I specifically pegged as a major problem to fix was my drinking. I had been drinking scotch and water everyday and I found myself uneasy, jittery when I didn't have a drink. I was also dissatisfied with the way my life was developing, the direction in which it was headed. So I forced myself to take stock, to figure out what I should do to resolve these issues. I concluded that life in a JA only world was to small, confining. Everyone knew each other, and everything you did and said was open to scrutiny... and gossip.

"Did you see Marumaru-san last night? He was so drunk."

"Yeah, I heard he went home with the girl from XYZ..."

"Her? That girl went to the doctor the other day because she's been sleeping around and caught something, y'know..."

"Well, if Marumaru-san catches something, he better not give it to his wife."

"Won't happen. I heard they sleep in different beds now..."

"Did you hear about Kanzaki?"

"Yeah, he got the shaft, but maybe he wasn't that good anyway."

"Maybe. Even if he was chosen second, its obvious that he wasn't as good as the other Sanchō singer..."

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And these were guys! Helping to manage a business was pressure enough, but to have your private life hung out like dirty laundry was beyond the pale. Recalling my time with BA, I decided to step away from this JA/J-Town life and the first step was to quit my job as manager of the sweet shop factory--not that I was any good at it anyway. This would lessen the number of times I came in contact with my J-Town "buddies", reduce undue stress, and allow me to clear my head. I have often wondered if I was running away, just because I wasn't chosen to participate in the contest... and I guess, in a way, it was. But there are times when you need to escape, need to retreat, to back up to a previous fork in the road and see where the other road takes you. Life does not always afford this luxury, but when it does I felt that I should take advantage of it. I stayed home, and thought about reapplying myself academically by going back to the local community college again. This was my start, as mundane as it was, going through the ELAC course catalog to figure out what classes I would take for the Fall semester, when I got a phone call.

"Hey! Whatcha doin'? We haven't seen you in a while! Why don't you come by Sanchōs anymore?" asked James.

"Uh, well," reaching desperately within myself to find an excuse. "I've been kinda busy."

"Man, you quit the sweetshop, and you don't come to Sanchō. We thought you committed suicide. Hehe..."


"Anyway," James continued, "T asked me to call you to tell you to come by. She has something important to tell you."

"I'm kinda busy, figuring out my future..."

"Well, T thinks this will affect your future, too."

"I doubt it."

"No really. The first round's on me."

"Make it the first three." I figured I may as well make him pay for pulling me away from my deliberations.

"We'll be waiting."

I get in my car--did I mention its a midnight blue '73 Chevy Camaro?--and drive the five minutes it takes for me to get there. I walk into the dark bar on this late-afternoon Sunday. The restaurant didn't open until 6, but James an T are sitting at the bar, as the employees run around getting ready for business.

"N-san is on a business trip and can't make it to the contest. I want you to represent the restaurant," T said matter-of-factly.

"Huh? What happened?"

"The TV people were going to replace N-san with someone else, but I told them the replacement had to come from this establishment. And I want you."

"Really." I said, not knowing what else to say. It took a few minutes before what she said actually sunk in. "So what am I supposed to do?"

"Practice," T replied.

And I did. Every night for two weeks. The pianist at the bar, K, suggested I forget "Futari de osake wo" and sing another Asuza Michiyo song called "Melancholy." I didn't know the song and was hesitant at first, but relented after she convinced me that a newer song sung by fewer people at piano bars would have a greater impact. I had to admit that "Futari" was a popular--and hence, tired--song at piano bars. But this also meant that I had to memorize the lyrics of a song a barely knew...

On the night of the contest, I was nervous as heck. I went to the contest with my sister, two high-school friends and one drinking buddy. My parents were somewhere in the Grand Canyon--"Do you think you really have a chance?" my dad chortled as he left the day before. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see my uncle and two aunts there in the audience, as well as two ladies from the retail shop of the sweet shop.

The contest was held in the hall of Koyasan Temple in the middle of J-Town. When I got there, I found out I was 29 out of 32 contestants. My friends and sister entered the hall and I went backstage to wait my turn. The first few singers were pretty good, nothing spectacular, but passable. The thing that got me though was the fact that each contestant was on stage for a long time. It took thirty minutes to get through the first 4 to 5 singers, meaning it would take another hour and a half before I was called on stage. Nervous to begin with, the waiting made me all the more so. I went out the side door and headed toward a local sushi bar in Japanese Village Plaza. It had a small service bar where maybe four people could sit. Jim, the bartender, served me a couple of Cuttys as I played the lyrics in my head over and over.

Mickey CurtisAfter three belts, I returned to Koyasan Hall, no less nervous, but perhaps a bit braver. I went on stage on cue and sang "Melancholy". I'm not sure if my experience with the band had anything to do with it, but once on stage I sang and walked around and always kept my eye on the audience, looking at the judges--which included Mickey Curtis, (fading) star of film and music--looking toward the back of the hall, to the sides, trying to make eye contact, even though I couldn't see anyone beyond the second row. It was like old times, sorta. I wasn't sitting at the piano, but I was center stage... What a ham, my friends would tell me later, but at that moment, I was totally relaxed and confident.

After the requisite interview--Yes, I'm sansei. Yes, I work at the M sweet shop where I learned Japanese--I went off stage. I found one of the producers who informed me that after the last contestant, the judges will deliberate for a while and then they will announce the winner. I stepped outside to grab a smoke and found some my friends out there, including JI. She told me that she thought I would win. The people she was with said the same thing. They thought I had a stage presence that the others lacked--yeah, Ray, you looked like you've been there before.

I became nervous all over again, but with a different sense of anticipation. Did I sing that well? Did I nail it?

They announced that the judges had made their decision and we were to gather on stage. With great anticipation, I waited eagerly as they announced the names of the winners in reverse order. 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd...

"And 1st place goes to Sam F."

I was at a loss. I mean, I felt pretty good on stage, but everyone else also said I performed so well. Shit! I didn't even place in the top five. I should have known better. I should have just ignored all these idiots and focused on selecting the proper courses to take at the community college. I mean, seriously, what am I doing here?!?

Photographic Evidence Yes, that's me in the center. Is this not the face of someone who is completely surprised?!?

I looked around the stage. Which is the fastest way off. I'm sure there's an exit behind that curtain... When suddenly everyone applauds and cheers. I hear my name and some one grabs my arm and pulls me to the front. What's happening?

"....plause for this year's Grand Champion, Ray Kanzaki, who sang...."

I was stunned. I thought I lost and was looking for a way off the stage. It never occurred to me that Grand Champion did not equal first place? What? Oh, yeah, the prize.

"...a round trip ticket to Tokyo, Japan..."

Will someone please pinch me?

Well, I learned that the prize wasn't all that great. I first had visions of grandeur. The Suntory Corporation would pick me up in a limousine at the airport and whisk me away to a posh Akasaka hotel. The reality was much different.

The ticket to Japan turned out to be a one-year open round trip ticket from LA to Tokyo on China Airline. Further, the only connection the sponsor, Suntory, had with the contest was providing money for the low-budget plane ticket. Indeed, the Suntory name was supplied by the local Suntory office, and the Tokyo headquarter had nothing to do with it and knew nothing of this contest. So all dreams of being "discovered" went up in smoke. As I think of it now, I was pretty naive.

But still, I got a free trip to Japan, so I wasn't complaining too loudly. I decided to go in my favorite season, Fall, and left LA around the beginning of October. In Japan, I stayed at my grandparents condo again in Nishi-Ogikubo, but they were not living there. My grandfather was sent to Australia by his trading organization for a few years, but they had my cousin Alvin--who was by then a Waseda student, and still reminded me of a chipmunk--house-sit the place while they were gone. So I had a room to myself, little of my grandparents house-cluttering items, and a cousin who usually spent time at school and with his friends, so I could spend my time as I pleased.

For a week, I puttered around local areas, going to Shinjuku a couple times to get my self oriented to Tokyo, again. I also went to visit my relatives in the boondocks of Fukushima for a week or so. It was kinda embarrassing. I told them that the contest was no big deal, that Suntory was only lending its name and had no real interest in the contest or its winner, but they would have no part in it. One look at the photo, and they figured they had a bona fide star in the making... or something. My cousin--Issei on my dad's side--got all the relatives and a couple of the local council members who were friends to come over for a party to celebrate my winning the contest. My family on that side will use any reason to hold a party. I wanted me to sing the song I won with, and Akio, my dad's cousin, searched the entire village for a karaoke tape of the song--Karaoke was in its infancy back then--but he couldn't find one, so I ended up singing at the party a cappella...

One thing I wanted to do while I was in Japan was meet up with YI, the girl I went out with for a few weeks after MM...

One thing I wanted to do while I was in Japan was me up with YI, the girl I went out with for a few weeks after MM. She was pretty cute and smart and spoke Japanese. Sorta like BA with Japanese and English skills. The only reason why we broke up was because at the time 1976 she was a senior in high school (18) and I was 21. Her parents were not amused. Anyway, I went to see her but she was out with her friends--stupid me, I didn't call before I stopped by--and left with her mother the omiyage I brought for her. Her parents' condo was near ICU, where she went, and I decided to visit the campus--who knows, I thought naively, maybe I'll run into her. Well, you've probably guessed that I ended up strolling the campus by myself, seeing a whole lot of nothing. I decided to head back to Nishi-Ogikubo and hopped on the bus back to Mitaka Station. As I gazed out the window, wondering if I would ever see YI again, some called out to me in English.

"Ray? Is that you?" "JU? What are you doing here?" "I'm a ryûgakusei. From UCLA" "Man, I haven't seen you since when? Boy scouts? Karate?" "About six years, I guess, huh." "Man, no shit." Kinda lonely about not being able to see YI, I thought it would be fun to hang with JU, who was a couple of years younger than me. He was in the same patrol--the Firebirds--in our Boy Scout troop and we also took Shotokan Karate together at our church. "So what you doing now? Got a date? Going to work?" "No, I was just going to go to the station and do some shopping." "Screw that. Let's go to Shinjuku and get a drink. My treat." "Yeah, okay."

Well, we went to Shinjuku, and found a small dive outside Nishiguchi west of the station on the main thoroughfare Omekaidô. We ate lightly but imbibed rather heavily in o-sake. I think we finished more than a bottle (one bottle = 1.8 liters)... I think. I don't really remember much after reaching the bottom of the first bottle. What I do recall is paying 18,000 yen--pretty hefty for 24 years ago--and helping my friend throw up onto the tracks from the platform of the Chuo line. I sorta recall being warned by someone to take care of him as he seemed pretty bad off. I was pretty drunk, but I guess I can "appear" more sober... Anyway, I couldn't send him back to school in this condition, so I brought him home... much to the displeasure of my cousin. Hahaha. He was really put out. Alvin is a really square dude; naive as naive gets--even in Tokyo--and he couldn't wait to call Australia to report to my grandparents. All i could do was put my friend in a futon and let him sleep it off. Next morning, I wake up to find my cousin gone to school. I wake up with JU and he's still groggy as hell, but he insisted that he had to go back to school, so I went with him as far as Mitaka Station to make sure he got on the right bus.

It was November 5, 1979. I remember the date rather distinctly. I returned home with with a headache and a woozy stomach. I laid down on top of the futon and turned on the TV, hoping the static of Japanese would lull me to sleep. News. Some kind of turmoil in some unnamed third-world country. I couldn't really tell, because while my Japanese was passable for everyday conversation, I still had problems with the more sophisticated language of news. I changed the channel and recognized the same footage. Damn, I need some stupid daytime drama to put me to sleep. I click a again and its still the news. What's going on? Something pretty big must have happened, so I tried to focus and understand what the newscaster was saying. Iran, American taishikan? That's "embassy", right. Hitojichi? I look it up in the dictionary: "hostage"... What the...? I wasn't really sure what happened, the newscasters spoke too fast for me in language I was too unfamiliar with. But I got the gist: Some Iranians entered the American embassy in Tehran, Iran and took hostages including marines. Late afternoon, I hurried to Nishi-Ogikubo station to buy the evening paper. I return home and try my best to read the newspaper with a dictionary. I was struggling but I understood more: So-called students stormed the embassy and took marines and embassy personnel hostage. They were crying for the death of the US. I was shocked. And angry. How could they do that to us... "Us"? Did I just say "us"?

I learned two things on this trip. One was the new form of entertainment, karaoke, where one could sing a favorite tune accompanied by music that was pretty close to the original. This was a revelation. This was, to the best of my recollection, the very first time I thought the Japanese were world leaders in "having fun". But, the other thing I learned was more revealing: I was an American.

And that I probably would never see YI again...

Should I finish this story?

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