Life story

A Day at the Gardner Museum

As Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month wraps up this month, I want to share a story that I’ve only told a handful of close friends because I get so emotionally riled up whenever I talk about it…

My mom and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in April. This one-of-a-kind museum displays all the antique furniture, artwork, letters, and collections by Isabelle Stuart Gardner, a wealthy socialite in the late 1800s-early 1900s with solid connections with people in the arts and literature world. In fact, she hired some architect to bring her vision of a three-story Venetian building to life, including a gorgeous indoor garden. She used her social status to establish a vibrant, cultural spot in Boston that continues to flourish today.

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Because of the small physical space within the rooms and hallways, the museum enforces a strict rule toward visitors to keep their hands, jackets, and/or bags to themselves. Otherwise, such items could knock down and potentially ruin the treasured displays. Unlike most art museums where there’s lots of open space within and between displays, the Gardner Museum is basically like entering the private world of a rich white woman.

Earlier on the ground floor, a museum guard had warned my mom to carry her bag over her shoulders so as not to swing it around and break something. We made our way to the third floor, looking around in awe by all the things Gardner acquired and preserved throughout her life.

My mom had been carrying her jacket and bag on her arm until a big museum guard of (presumably) Eastern European descent, “Lily”, told her to put the bag over her shoulder. Using minimal words and mostly gestures, Lily showed her how carrying a bag on the arm could increase the risk for damage. My mom understood and did as instructed, while keeping her jacket on her arm.

We walked through the hallway and entered another room, where another guard instructed my mom to wrap her jacket around her waist. My mom was a little confused since she was already asked to put her bag over her shoulder. Of course, Lily happened to walk by during this interaction and lightly interjected, “Oh, I already told her before, she means well.”

Lily told my mom to wrap the jacket around her waist, and then turned her head to me.

“Are you her daughter? Can you tell her she needs to wrap the jacket around her waist? I’m trying to tell her but she doesn’t understand English.”

I immediately shot back, “Excuse me, you never told my mom about the jacket. You only mentioned the bag.”

We exchanged a few more words and at this point my blood started boiling. How dare she assume that my mom didn’t understand English. Lily had only one job as a museum guard: be clear with the rules to visitors, not be a condescending scum about it.

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How I felt when Lily disrespected my mom

Frustrated, we took our grievance to the museum security supervisor, a gentle but assertive Algerian man.

After we explained our complaint and identified the guard, he called over Lily, who acted oblivious about the whole situation. We went to the basement of the museum and he mediated our conflict. My mom and I told Lily that she disrespected and humiliated us in front of everyone, to which Lily claimed only three of us were present to hear the conversation. Lily kept defending herself, trying to get away with it, saying that she’s never received that complaint in her two years of working at the museum until that day.

Nonetheless, Lily gave a half-hearted apology and left. The security supervisor profusely apologized on her behalf and told us she would be dismissed from her job if a similar situation occurs again.

More than a month has passed since this incident. I can’t help but think about the hardship that my mom endured as a Japanese immigrant who knew little to no English when she first arrived to the states in the 90s. The conscious decision she made to leave her homeland for a better life in the states, for me and my older brother to thrive. I can’t help but think about all the other revolutionary immigrant women and moms who came before me.

Here’s to the women who restart their lives on foreign soil, the women who constantly give their love and energy through their labor without expecting anything in return, the women who fight for racial and social justice in their communities.

Lily most likely has gotten away with saying “You don’t understand English” to other visitors who come from all over the world, from places where English is not their native language. As Asian Americans, we’re so often stereotyped as quiet, submissive, and complicit to the system. Mind you, this system has excluded Chinese immigrants from entering the country (see Chinese Exclusion Act 1892), arranged internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, forcibly separated families through US intervention in their homelands, among countless other cruelties. With the rise of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments today, these patterns of exclusion and misunderstanding will only tear people apart… unless we do something about it.

But I digress. I simply could not let this woman get away with her remark, belittling my mother’s non-native language ability– another small reminder that America is not her home.

As the daughter of an immigrant, I refuse to remain silent.

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Essay

Erika on the Shore

I picked up the English translation of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami when I dealt with a nasty episode of “What the Hell is Erika Doing With Her Life?” a.k.a. postgrad anxiety. At this point I had been waiting to hear back from a desired internship for a month and felt restless since I couldn’t map out my plans for the next several months. Curled up in my bed, I felt like an anime character on the brink of a breakdown. Tears poured out of my eyes like a pair of salty waterfalls. My housemate lent me his copy before I headed out to the beach for an afternoon in solitude and re-calibration of my senses. Bless him.

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This image of a Finn the Human doll face down at a party in IV accurately potrays my feels.

Much like myself, the main character, a 15-year-old boy named Kafka Tamura, runs away from his own set of problems. Doomed with an Oedipal prophecy, he takes the night bus from Tokyo westward to Shikoku, namely Takamatsu. His storyline intertwines with that of an older man, Nakata-san, who prefaces himself with the phase “I’m not very bright” and has the gift of speaking to cats. Kafka and Nakata-san get by in their respective journeys thanks to the generosity of people they meet along the way, and their eventual convergence gives way for readers to interpret their relationship as they like.

Murakami’s prose brings these characters to life, illuminating the complex wonders and flaws of being human in a postwar society. He blurs the boundaries between reality and dreams, often probing into Kafka’s inner alter ego, a boy named Crow. Sometimes I was unsure what could be considered real and unreal, such as incidents of objects falling from the sky. In the novel, the news media make a big deal out of it. They all speculate why these things occur, but as some of the characters put it simply, “that’s the way it is.”

Side story, but still relevant: I remember when I watched Spirited Away when I was in second grade and freaked out when Chihiro’s parents turned into pigs. I asked my mom why they transformed into pigs and not other animals, to which she answered, “That’s the way it is. Japanese people don’t really question those things.”

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Image via Meal-en-Scene, I recommend reading their analysis on the relationship between food and the characters, really cool

Looking back on this conversation, I’ve realized a couple things. One, such magical transformations are a standard trope in Japanese mythology and folklore, which could explain why my mother didn’t think much of it since she grew up with these stories. Two, the “that’s the way it is” philosophy reflects a dimension of Japanese social culture that I’m not particularly fond of. On a deeper level, Japanese culture doesn’t encourage people to question critically, and instead people passively accept whatever comes their way. Conformity plays a significant role in accommodating to everyone in group settings, making it difficult for people to express their individuality. This is something I struggle to reconcile with in my Japanese-American identity, as I continue to attempt to become a better critical thinker and resist the comfort of existing in a patriarchal, capitalist society.

Now back to my reflection on the novel.

My experience from reading the book was visceral in that my extended family members and my parents have lived in Shikoku for most, if not all for some, of their lives. My father and his side of the family were born and raised in Ehime Prefecture, a lovely rural region famous for their juicy, sweet mikan (Japanese mandarin) in the wintertime. On the other hand, my mother grew up in Kochi Prefecture and her parents now live in Ehime.

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Mountains in Niihama overlooking the Seto Inland Sea, taken August 2014

Murakami’s description of the rustic landscape in Takamatsu and the densely green forest in Kochi took me back to my travels in Shikoku during my childhood and my study-abroad year. The cheap diner run by friendly middle-aged women serving Japanese breakfasts, the mosquitoes in the forest fiending for human blood in the middle of a humid summer, the neighborhood cats on the prowl– such vivid sceneries depicted in the novel makes me long for Japan. Moreover, his brilliant ability to create absurd scenes in ordinary settings, complemented with his subtle social commentary on Japanese society, lures me in his magical world.

Prior to this novel, I’ve always felt a bit insecure about telling people about Shikoku because I always thought it wasn’t as hip and recognizable as Tokyo. But as Japan continues to rapidly modernize, the trend of people leaving their rural countryside home like Ehime for the large metropolitan cities highlights another serious problem in Japan– a rapidly declining and aging population in rural regions. I definitely noticed a change in landscape between my visits in 2009 and 2015, such as the rice paddy fields being replaced with new homes or convenience stores.

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My grandma is a baddie; don’t mess with her.

My heart hurt a little from those observations, but I felt reassured by my grandmother’s wisdom and opinion on certain issues. For one, we both disapprove the restart of the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant located in her prefecture after the ugly catastrophe in Fukushima. Even Murakami himself has openly criticized Japan’s policy on nuclear power, expressing that Japan should have said no to nuclear in 1945 when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He calls for the audience to be unafraid to dream dreams as “unrealistic dreamers”; he addresses that “we should not allow the dogs of misfortune named ‘efficiency’ and ‘convenience’ to overtake us.”

As for me, I dream of a time when we all consciously shift our anthropocentric mindset toward a worldview that puts Mother Earth before ourselves. Mother Earth is so precious in nourishing us with basic essentials to live. Yet here we are drilling into the ocean to extract oil and exploiting natural resources on enormous scales. I dream of the day when we collectively liberate ourselves from an oppressive system that benefits from anti-Blackness as well as from the various industrial complexes that prioritize profit before the people. I dream of creating social change toward peace, equity, and justice with transformative love in a world that has become desensitized by warfare and violence.

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Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin atop the edge of a deck in Naoshima, an art island part of Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. Taken August 2015

Kafka on the Shore renewed my appreciation for my Japanese heritage and beautiful, beautiful Shikoku. The story’s blend of traditional, classical Japanese elements and Western pop culture references yields a modern aesthetic that truly speaks to me. When I feel like I don’t belong in neither Japan nor the U.S., when I’m exasperated from having to prove my Japanese-ness or American-ness in order to be accepted into certain groups, I find solace in Murakami’s literature. It also inspired me to step up my Japanese language game. With the English translation of his works already leaving a profound impression on me, I can only imagine how his words convey in Japanese text.

I’ll leave off this entry with a quote that lifted my spirit amid the battles with my own demons:

As long as I was alive, I was something. That was just how it was. But somewhere along the line it all changed. Living turned me into nothing. Weird… People are born in order to live, right? But the longer I live, the more I’ve lost what’s inside me–and ended up empty. And I bet the longer I live, the emptier, the more worthless, I’ll become. Something’s wrong with this picture. Life isn’t supposed to turn out like this! Isn’t it possible to shift direction, to change where I’m headed?

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