I usually mark today’s holiday in the office, working. It doesn’t feel much like a holiday to me. Some years ago, I wrote this short fiction, prompted by the debate around keeping the holiday, keeping its name. I re-post it here today, in honor of the occasion.
I am looking for a way to begin. I find this:
A Failing Grade for the Present Tense
“Not only is the present brief, like a small bun to be swallowed on the run, those who live in the present, as we imagine cattle do, expect little from the future and remember nothing of the past. Any sense of continuity is quickly lost, for the present follows hard upon another the way a hard rain falls, and all those things that thicken the present with their reflective weight, that highlight one aspect and darken another, are omitted, because in the thin present, what remains of the world is in the center ring, in full focus.”
Rhode Island is the only state in the nation to still celebrate Victory Day. VJ Day, as it was once called. Victory over Japan Day.
I learn this fact the summer I meet D. It is a beautiful cloudless day. We meet at an outdoor concert. We are heady with liquor, with the heat, with hazy, nameless desire. The world a blur, anything seems possible, really -
Now, I am not Japanese. But perhaps you don’t know this. Perhaps it is of no interest to you at all. And although I think it at least somewhat safe to say that the particulars of one’s ethnicity – a quarter Irish, an eighth German, two-thirds Italian, etc., generally are of no immediate concern when first meeting, or being introduced to someone, I cannot say that this has been the case in my own experience.
For example, a gentleman approaches me at a cocktail party. An older man, one might call him distinguished-looking. He smiles broadly at me, runs his eyes up and down the length of my body in a manner that I would imagine he considers to be discreet.
“Hello. I have been waiting all evening to meet you.”
He makes some statement that is wholly incomprehensible to me, grinning still. Silence. He repeats it, embellishing it now, and adds a flourish of hand. Silence. The complete bewilderment must be visible on my face. He is becoming obviously ill at ease. The left side of his mouth twitches. He brings his drink to his lips.
“Those are the only two things I know how to say in Japanese.”
I smile, nod, the actions reflexive. “Ah so,” I might say, but I don’t. Instead, politely, and with what is perhaps the expected, demure girlish laughter, “Oh,” I put a reassuring hand on his forearm, “I am not Japanese.“
“So you don’t speak it?”
“I do know a little French, though.. .ha ha ha… Mais oui.” Why am I trying so hard, I think. He is visibly disappointed.
“Oh, Mr. So and So told me that you would be here, and I’ve been waiting all night to say these things to you.”
Here are some other things that people have been anxious to say to me:
Your English is so good!
What a shame that you don’t speak Chinese.
All you Oriental girls are so pretty.
Do you think I should take my laundry to the chinamen?
Can you teach me to cook Chinese?
What kind of a wok do you think I should buy?
Keep the J in VJ Day
“VJ Day is a celebration of freedom. On this anniversary, our great nation came together to defeat evil. That evil had a name, and we should not be afraid to name it. This is our victory. We conquered evil so that we could remain free.”
I want to say: These are the last few lines of the essay that won me the first prize in the seventh grade essay contest: What VJ Day Means to Me. And it could have been. I was, certainly, winner of essay contests (What Memorial Day Means to Me, What the American Flag Means to Me, Why I Love Catholic Schools, What Jesus Means to Me, How One Man (JFK) Can Make a Difference). It is actually the closing lines of a letter of the same title, which ran in our local newspaper, one of the flurry of letters generated each year, in the war of words around this holiday.
I am looking for a way to say: There is no way that these few pages can hold, can bear the weight of all that I want to say, of all that I still don’t know how to say, but I can’t help but keep going, rushing on in ignorance –
It is a beautiful day. A cloudless sky. The bright sunlight has cast a peace over the city. You are thankful to have been spared another raid.
There is a brilliant blue flare. It is more brilliant than anything you have ever seen. You are knocked against a wall. You are confused, dazed. The children -
Somehow, your three children have escaped without a scratch. They are sitting on the ground around you, trembling like leaves.
In the dim light coming through the mouth of the shelter, you can see a huddle of half-naked people strewn about the entrance. Their bodies are inflated like children’s balloons, skin peeling off in strips, hanging down like shreds of a rag.
You clutch your children to yourself as best you can with as much strength as you can muster. You are weak, you are dizzy. You are hot with fever.
It is twelve hours later when your daughter dies. Suddenly, without warning. Convulsions wrack her small body. Once, twice, and the third time, her body is still. She dies more quickly than you can say: What’s wrong, my daughter?
Past midnight, your second child. He stretches himself out on the floor. Whispers “Daddy,” and closes his eyes. You are thankful for his peaceful passing. And just like in life, the middle boy follows his older brother like a shadow. From one hour to the next, your children –
You cremate the bodies. You go around and pick up pieces of wood from ruined houses. You make a pyre three feet high and put the bodies on it, face up, and light the pyre from the bottom. First the girl’s body catches fire, then middle son, then your firstborn. The bodies disappear into the flames. The charred backbone of your firstborn falls off the pyre when the flesh has burned away.
Before the fire dies down you hear noises from near the school, like a crowd of people sobbing. The noise comes closer. Your neighbor runs down to see what has happened. He comes back, weeping, falls to his knees. Japan has surrendered. The war is over. You sit down beside the pyre, numb. All you have left is the ashes of the dead.
You can see small fires all around you where people have continued to cremate their dead. You watch the flames illuminate the sky, blue, orange, blue again.
I am looking for a way to say: I am not Japanese. I am not Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Pearl Harbor. I am not your green grocer, your dry cleaner, your doctor. I am not your maker of rugs, your supplier of rice.
If your think your Asian women petite, then I am enormous. If you think them adept at the arts of love, uninhibited and adventurous, then I am frigid. If you think them submissive, I am loud, uncompromising, demanding, overbearing.
I am graceless. I speak loudly.
And see this, I am confrontational. I am so very, very confrontational.
At the college I attended, they had organized what they coined a transition program for third world students a week before the normal (read: white) orientation began. While I myself, having been raised in a comfortable suburb of New York City, did not identify with the term “third-world,” I would gladly have called myself a slanty-eyed fishmonger if it meant that I could leave home ten days earlier. But that is another story altogether.
D., teller of jokes, tells me this one: A little boy goes to the circus with his father. They sit in the front row. The boy is so excited. At some point during the show, a clown comes over to him and asks him to come onstage. The boy is elated. Well, it turns out that the clown just wants to make fun of him, and starts insulting the boy, calling him a loser, a jerk, ridiculing his shoes, taunting him. The boy starts crying and of course, the clown just becomes more merciless, until finally, he runs out of the tent, sobbing. He is traumatized, and vows that somehow, some day, he will get back at that clown.
He spends the next twenty years of his life dedicated to seeking his revenge on that clown. He enrolls in classes for public speaking, theatre. He joins Toastmasters. He studies comedy, reads countless books on psychology, fills pages of notebooks with his taunts and jokes, just so he can get back at this clown with the perfect, consummate insult. So, years later, he goes back to the circus when he thinks he is finally ready to confront his clown. He sits in the front row. Sure enough, the clown, now rather old, is still there. Oddly enough, the clown remembers him, invites him onstage. The man jumps at the opportunity, of course. The clown begins to tease him, insult him, poke fun at him. Well, the man is finally ready for him. He waits until the clown pauses for a moment, his face so close he can feel the rubber of the clown’s nose on his own, smell the cakey, powdery, sweaty smell of the clown’s make-up, feel the tickle of the nylon curls of the clown’s wig on his forehead. Then, with the clown breathing his coffee-smelling clown breath on his face, he takes a deep breath, looks the clown in the eye and says: “Fuck you, clown.”
G. notes an increase in the number of women writers. In the use of first person. In the use of the present tense. G. refers to “women more foul-mouthed and macho than Mailer. Angry voices.”
G., can it be that there are stories to tell that don’t quite fit into your mold? Is it possible that what needs to be said, what is waiting to be said, cannot be contained in your sentences? Could it be that we are bursting with words that assail us at different angles, that don’t sit easily on our skin, that hang off us like cast-off clothing? An increase in women writing. First person. Present tense. Angry voices. You’re a smart man, G., do the fucking math.
Among the most useful things I learned from my “Third World Transition Program” was the following list of ethnic slurs. I have arranged them rhythmically for your listening pleasure:
Ah-so cherry blossom ping pong ching chong china doll dragon lady jap chink chinky;
Charlie chan miss kim lady kim gee chee goony gook goo goo eyes, slanty eyes slitty eyes;
Dink chink clink coolie coosie charlie chino chow;
Ming moose monkeynip mustard moon-eyes;
Nippy nipper no tickee no shirtee tojo slope slopy gal segoony skibby rice rice belly yellow belly buddhahead fortune cookie pigtail flied lice li'l eyes chinky eyes.
And of course, who doesn’t know: me Chinese me play joke me put peepee in your coke.
When the thing with D. begins, I am taken by his boyness – his baseball cap, his faded jeans and white t-shirts. He is drawn to the exotic – the black-wearing, chain-smoking, poetry-quoting – the smallness, the darkness of my body next to his –
I am looking for a way to impose order on chaos. A way to separate those things that follow some sort of logical order from those that do not. I fear that this is not a productive way to proceed.
Our affair limps through the hot summer without much occasion. He calls me dude, wears his baseball cap, sometimes even in bed. It begins as a simple argument really. Reading the newspapers, passing off sections.
“What an asshole, here, look at this,” I say and pass him the letter about our victory over evil.
He reads, becomes quiet. Says, “Well, dude, he’s right.” I say, “Are you joking?”
He says, “No. I mean, dude, we were at war. And fuck it, we didn’t start it. What about Pearl Harbor, dude?”
I want to say that that was the end of our tepid romance. I want to say that I leave his room, go back to my apartment, drink coffee and fire off a snappy letter to the editor. I don’t want to have to say that when he comes over later that night, sloppy and drunk, I let him in. I don’t want to have to say that when he starts kissing me, undressing me, I let him. I don’t want to have to say that when we are naked and he is on me, rough and angry, I ask him to stop. That he doesn’t stop. I don’t want to have to say that I beg him to stop.
(Don’t you like it like this, dragon lady?)
I don’t want to have to say that it just keeps happening.
(How do you like that, china doll?)
My lip bleeds. I have torn a little and that bleeds too. A slight puffiness of my cheek, a bruise on my thigh.
I stay in my apartment in my stained bed. I don’t immediately run and take a shower or scrub myself with soap till my skin bleeds, or any of the things one might expect someone in my situation to feel compelled to do. I sit up, light a cigarette, and watch the sun rise over Providence.
When I began this, I had been writing toward this line: And as he lowers himself into me, I can feel all the muscles in his red-blooded American body, all the cells in his bones, in his uncompromised marrow screaming: Victory –
I want to say it was as simple as this: That he was angry with me for what I represented to him. That he hated me. That he was a troubled child from a broken home. An abusive father. An alcoholic mother. His father was never there. His father was too intrusive. His mother did not want him. His mother loved him too much. He played with guns. He played with dolls. What I mean to say is: I don’t know.
And I wonder how G. can say that the present has no memory of the past, no history, when I carry the history of years on my face, when it is written across my skin.
I am Japanese. I am Chinese. Vietnamese. I am Cambodian. Thai. Filipina. I am your green grocer. Your dry cleaner. Your exotic wildflower. I am your Lotus blossom. Your cherry.
I am exotic. I am angry. I am damaged. I am a story of survival, of hope. I am everything and nothing at all.
Today I remember you. Your nameless face, your nameless children. Today I am you, my body filled with a poison I do not even yet understand. Today, I watch my children die for no reason that I can determine. Today, I am Japanese if that will ease your pain.