Essay

Reflection Across the Pacific

Around this time last June, I traveled in Okinawa to do fieldwork and to attend the 70th
anniversary of Okinawa Memorial Day. I remember the weather being humid and unpredictable between rain/sunshine throughout my stay, but skies were clear for June 23, this day of remembrance.

As a Japanese American, I felt conflicted while learning about the devastating history of the Battle of Okinawa, a battle that forced Okinawans to fight and die for their colonizer Imperial Japan against the US. Over 200,000 civilians died from the bloodshed that took place on the ground, on their own land which no longer belongs to them. This trip made me rethink how overseas US presence harms the local people it purports to “protect”, how the effects of colonization distort cultural and national identities, how we grieve and value the loss of certain lives over others when tragic events take place.

I think I felt conflicted because, until last June, I didn’t know that much about Okinawa other than its appeal as a ~tropical getaway~ and the sugar cane fields. But after studying about its history and having the privilege to visit different areas, I realized that the central government and the US silences the opposition voice of the people, dismissing them as uncooperative in bilateral relations. With silence comes absence of awareness about these indigenous struggles that not only take place in Okinawa but in other places around the world– Honduras, Palestine, Guam, Diego Garcia. Hell, none of my history textbooks in my American public education ever mentioned the Battle of Okinawa. After all, the winner gets to write history.

In light of the recent murder of 20­-year­-old Rina Shimabukuro at the hands of a male US civilian worker, has anything really improved for the people in this prefecture? How can the government ignore the persistent outcry of its own people, those who live through the trauma of their ancestors?

The wound remains fresh, a constant reminder of the lives that continue to be slain at the hands of colonial powers.

To this day I still think about Okinawa.

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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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Essay

Confronting Atrocity

I walked out of my class with more questions than answers
as confused as today’s weather
a patch of clear sky even when the rain pounded all around me

My professor broke down the difference between knowing and accepting
She said knowing can be powerful because “knowledge is power”
but not knowing can be powerful too– for it serves as an open door to a new conversation,
to question the unknown, the unfamiliar

then there’s accepting
accepting reality at its worst, even when we don’t want to fully acknowledge it.

When power dynamic among different racial groups come in play,
think about who gets the say in writing–and erasing–history

Countless examples pay so much attention to the perpetrator
(San Bernardino, Aum Shinrikyo, Nazi Germany, and so on)
shaming them for their crime, probing into their background…
but what about the victims who fell into their hands?
what about the survivors who lived through the victimization?
Don’t they deserve to be mourned,
to be recognized for their humanity, too?

Then I raised my hand and commented,
“This whole thing reminds me of what happened here a couple years ago. There was so much media coverage and condemnation toward the perpetrator yet so little sympathy for the victims.”

Immediately, I felt the atmosphere of the classroom change
as though it adjusted to the gloomy weather outside the lecture hall.

The conversation turned more disturbing
trying to dissect the racial dynamic of the perpetrator/victims and the choice of weapon taking away the lives of specific victims
analyzing the psychological and physical distance for murder
People shuffled in their seats uncomfortably
Several footsteps hurriedly headed toward the exit
to avoid taking in any further about the tragedy than they already have two years ago.

I must have thrown a curve ball at my professor because,
after a tense discussion between her and students, she muttered, “I didn’t expect that to be brought up”
and tried to squirm out of the conversation altogether…

Shit, did I say something wrong?
Was I being insensitive?
Too soon?
If we’re trying to process what’s going on in the world, isn’t it necessary for our understanding to ground it with whatever goes on in our backyard?

Maybe because I immediately left the country after it all happened,
didn’t stay with my fellow classmates, friends, and professors throughout the communal healing process for the following year,
that I had…the audacity…to bring it up in a classroom setting.

In hindsight, I acknowledge that we all deal with loss and atrocity differently.
Now I’m slowly realizing that I was completely absent when the local community made efforts to commemorate the lost lives.
Scholarships in their name, memorials in the park…
So maybe a majority of the class–who I’m assuming stayed longer than me–would have rather moved on than confronted it from a theoretical lens?

This made me question if the local tragedy was brought up in a classroom setting the following year. Because I didn’t know. So I asked a couple friends. One said it was a “taboo”; another said their class processed it by “talking about their feelings and writing about it.”

Personally, a critical discussion about the event is a crucial step toward accepting the inhumanity of it all, and then take the next step toward healing together (or individually). I think it’s especially important when students/people who were present at the incident will most likely leave within the next few years. In ten, twenty, thirty years, professors and students will discuss about it as another historical tragedy of the past, as part of a never-ending list of tragedies in our human society. Although this community constantly changes with the entrance and exit of students and people, I hope we continue to commemorate the six lives whose individual youth, potential, and passion was taken away too soon.

George Chen, James Hong, David Wang, Katie Cooper, Veronika Weiss, Christopher Martinez — I keep you all with me in my thoughts, in my heart.

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Essay

R(evol)ultion

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Collage by me. Floral diptych. Better Homes magazine cut-out, clear tape. Dedicated to my friend Ola who blooms as lively as sunflower and peonies, her fave flowers.

“Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.”

These are words I didn’t realize I needed to hear–until a woman said it to me this past weekend. Women are often held to impossible standards in their roles that overlap in the private and public spheres, and these roles demand a lot of their physical and emotional energy. More specifically, traditional gender roles relegate women to unpaid, emotional labor in taking care of the home and the family members who inhabit it.

In this day and age, on top of the aforementioned labor,  women seek paid work outside of the home in order to financially support themselves and their family. For this reason, they do not have time to care for themselves because they are so busy caring for others. And when they practice self-care, they get criticized for it, they get shit for being “selfish.” Across various cultures, women are expected to meet gendered standards that disadvantages them to men, and thus they often feel disrespected and hurt.

This hits me personally because I often talk down to myself very negatively in order to prove myself wrong. There’s something a little twisted about hurting myself so that I can feel better about myself. As a full-time student, a daughter of immigrants, and committed student group member in different spaces, I carry a lot of responsibilities that I feel willing and determined to fulfill.

However, being all three is exhausting.

I’ve been trying to find a balance among all these activities because I care about them and the people involved in it very much. Within all the chaos in my last three weeks of undergrad, I’ve also started asking myself, “Who am I doing this for?”

I do it for my mother who tirelessly puts her family, her students, and her parents before herself; I do it for the people in Japan whose demands for the right to live and the right to sovereignty are ignored by the central government; I do it for my friends from various backgrounds who feel unsafe and underrepresented by the larger system; I do it for the people who believe in shifting our society from an individualistic, capitalist society to a communal, egalitarian society.

Let’s be real, living independently can only go so far as a human being. Yes, having alone time is great for introspection. But my point is that despite the emotional roller coaster and responsibilities/obligations that burned me out many times during the past several weeks, my fire (well being) remains ignited. Why?

Because my family and friends–at UCSB and in different parts of the world–support me when I feel so lost and disconnected with myself, renew my sense of purpose behind the things I care about, and fuel me with so much love that I cannot contain it all.

Love is revolutionary; I truly do believe that the power of love serves as the driving force for those bigger changes in our broken society.

But the revolution of love begins with loving myself.

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Essay

Overheard at UCSB

This past Friday, I attended a career workshop for students who returned from studying abroad. When the workshop first started, there was only me and two other guys in the audience. A representative from UCSB Career Services asked if any of us attended the quarterly Career Fair that took place the day before.

Keep in mind that a coalition of students protested against the U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP), one of the participating entities attempting to recruit students for post-grad work experience. CBP has an extended recorded (and probably unrecorded) history of human rights violation under the pursuit of “protecting America’s borders.” Reaching out to a college campus stirs an intense level of anxiety and stress for undocumented students. Many have directly experienced the uncertainty of being able to live in the U.S. and the trauma of border authorities forcibly separating families.

Protesters shouted “Fuck your borders! Fuck your walls!” among many other chants aimed toward the unwanted presence of the CBP. Inside the Career Fair, protesters in professional attire camouflaged among the job-seeking students and distracted the CBP representatives from reaching out to other students. Though I don’t know the effectiveness of that tactic, the message was already loud and clear outside for anyone passing by the Career Fair.

With that context said, a guy sitting on my right raised his hand and went off on a rant:

Ugh the stupid protesters pissed me off so much!!! They were so loud that I had a hard time talking to the people there. I mean I was able to exchange some contact information. But, like, I just came back from studying abroad and then there’s a protest. They can take their protest somewhere else.

Talk about ignorance at its finest. I was so appalled by the string of words that came out of his mouth that I couldn’t shoot back at him with a rebuttal right away. He left before I could sit his ass down and teach him a lesson about the current situation with undocumented folks.

To that guy who was so upset by the protest for hindering his chance at a career that he’d probably leave in a few years anyway (because nothing is set for life in this new millenium, let’s be real):

Do you remember how racial integration became legal in American schools?

Thank the organizers who gave up their time and put their bodies on the line to protest nonviolently on the streets. Without their call for desegregation not only in schools and everywhere across the country, people of color would not have the same access and opportunity for (higher) education as white people, who have always lived comfortably in their privilege within the white-dominant system.

Besides, taking the “protest somewhere else” as you wished would defeat the very purpose of a protest. These students carefully planned this action because of the news that CBP would be present at the Career Fair. Plus, a protest helps bring attention to an issue that the mainstream media does not regularly cover, and deserves to be heard in the local community. The protesters clearly caused you annoyance for a few hours, but that’s little compared to the very real and painful experiences for those who live with uncertainty on a daily basis due to their undocumented status. Assuming that you are documented, you and I have the privilege of living comfortably without the triggering level of stress that undocumented folks must deal with–all on top of being a full-time student at the same university.

No one ever asked nicely to the higher-ups for better changes in their lives…

Anyway, just had to get that off my chest because I have friends who have been affected by the CBP and they deserve to feel safe on campus. As a child of immigrants who moved to the states for a better life than in their home country, I am in solidarity with the undocumented community.

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