Saturday, February 16, 2008

Turning Japanese

Being a character in a book is flattering if the writing happens to be as good as "Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei" by David Mura (1991: Anchor-Random).
Across the boulevard, a Japanese woman strode straight toward me, wearing a dark coat, a black skirt, a black jacket, black stockings and long silver earrings. Her hair was permed, her face small, oval, a dimple like mine on her right cheek. Her lipstick was bright coral.
"Are you David Mura?" she asked.
"How did you know me?"
"Well, you said you'd be wearing a black coat and carrying a black shoulder bag."
"I wondered if you could pick me out as an American."
In many ways, Yuri looked like most of the Japanese women around us, but she possessed a flash that somehow wasn't present in the others. Perhaps it was her lipstick, or the energy of her small frame. Young Japanese women seemed to fold into themselves when they greeted each other. It wasn't just the gesture of bowing, it was the way their bodies always seemed to be stepping backward as they talked or giggled. Yuri had looked me straight in the eye and thrust out her hand in greeting. Her eyes and smile carried a wry, suspicious air. "Be forewarned," they said. "Nothing gets past me." Certain minority women in America have this toughness, this unwillingness to waste time with bullshit. Sometimes it's strength, sometimes bitterness, sometimes both. With Yuri, I couldn't yet tell.
She suggested a tempura restaurant nearby. Walking among the Japanese crowds, we talked in English. But I didn't feel self-conscious as I sometimes did with Susie. Yuri and I both belonged, and did not; we shared a dual privilege. Even our clothing matched; I was also dressed in a black coat, black pants, white shirt.
The walls of the resturant and the booths were paneled in pine. There was a tatami room in back. We sat in a booth. Yuri ordered in Japanese. I wondered if it seemed strange to the waitresses that the woman was ordering, or that we were speaking English to each other. By this time, I could read enough kanji to get by on basic menus, and I could order for myself. Still, I was relieved to let Yuri order.


Nodding, she told me that many Sansei males she knew in San Francisco felt insecure about their sexuality _ they just didn't feel attractive.
"And then, of course, they see white boys picking up on the Asian women ..."
Still, Yuri didn't always feel sympathy for the Sansei males. Many of them held traditionally Japanese chauvinistic values. They often felt that Japanese women, with their daikon legs _ short and thick like a Japanese radish _ square hips, and small breasts, lacked the beauty ahd glamour of white women. I felt pangs of self-recognition, and yet I was also relieved to know other Sansei men had similar uncertainties about their identity.
As Yuri and I talked, I thought how ironic it was that I had had to come to Japan before I could learn how other Japanese-Americans in my generation were dealing with their background. Oh, I had read Japanese-American novels and poetry, but they sometimes felt distant, almost mythical, unconnected to my experience in the white Midwest. Certainly Yuri had her biases, but she didn't try to hide them. I felt an easy camaraderie with her. I knew she had praised my work in an article in San Francisco Poetry Flash. And something in our sensibilities resonoated with each other. I admired her willingness to speak out, to stand apart from the group.
The poems she showed me that afternoon confirmed that we were mining the same territory. It wasn't just that they dealt frankly with sexual matters, or that her father appeared to have a temper like my father's down to the occasional violence of his rages. No, there was a plunge beyond the acceptable and well-mannered, a sense of sexuality as destructive and violent, as representing a dark limit of human relations where rage reveals itself, a sense conveyed by images which left both the reader and the writer hovering on the edge of shame, anger, obsession.

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