You stuff your bag into the overhead compartment. You sit down across the aisle from your mom who has planned this trip to Japan, her homeland, in a last-ditch effort to gather and pull the thin string that holds your small family of mom, dad, sister, and you together.
“There are girls like you in Japan,” she once said. You had come out to her maybe a year or two earlier shortly after graduating from college. “Just wait ‘til I tell my brother.” She shook her head in a “Damn, I got a defective one” way. You marked this as progress from her earlier responses, which ranged from sobbing to donning a gold cross necklace. “You’re not Christian,” you remember stating. “I pray every day you will be change,” she said. You said nothing about Buddhism’s underpinnings in the idea of change. That maybe she could change.
You had been to Japan only once before this, when you were eight. You remember the bright slippers at the temple of a hundred golden statues. You remember sobbing into your father’s hand at a funeral ceremony for your grandfather, whom you never knew, but felt was with you. You remember laughing with your mother’s brother until you both cried while watching Japanese commercials. You remember playing on wooden swings with your sister and four cousins and the department store that dedicated a whole floor to toys. You think it has been sixteen years since then.
You land in Narita. You breathe in the cool air, sensing the age of this land. You feel that you understand a little of why you don’t fit in the United States. It is like a young, showy colt—fast and sloppy—while Japan is old and careful like an elephant. You have always been old. You feel that you are small in the long history of this place. You feel a sense of home for the first time, as if nothing you could experience would be something someone else had not already felt before you, again and again. You feel less lonely. You think this must be jet lag setting in.
You accidentally get drunk on the first night at the beautiful dinner your aunt has made. They fill your cup so that it always looks at the same level. So, you have no sense of how much you have drunk until the room grows distant and silly. You watch your uncle not eat as he enjoys watching his sister’s family be in his home.
You sleep on a mat and wake in the night. Your mother is up. She rarely sleeps more than a few hours each day. This has been so your whole life. She stands in her cotton nightgown and a sweater, her arms folded in front of her as she looks out the window, just as she does every Kansas morning. It is barely dawn. She is never awake this early at home. You ask if she would come back to Japan if anything happened to Dad. She says she wouldn’t fit anymore.
“It’s different here now,” she says. “The language is different from my old-fashioned Japanese.”
You leave it at that and get ready for the day, wondering if your short, boyish cut will cause staring in the city, your queerness undisguisable.
You are near Tokyo. You spot some people who could be gay. You see other gaijin in the streets. One young American boy yells toward you or your sister in the street, “I haven’t seen an ass like that since…” You feel you are sleepwalking, that nothing here is real. You wonder if your Japanese family understood what he said. You wonder if your dad heard. In America, you might have shouted back. In Japan, you look down and keep walking.
Back in your uncle’s home, the one with the warmed toilet seat, you fight with your sister about how long she takes in the one bathroom to get ready. You are trying to be quiet about this, given you are guests here. You are replaying a teenaged fight. You feel unseen by your mother and sister. This has always been — the general queerness of you in relation to the two main women in your young life. You never quite fit. “You should have been a boy,” your mother often said when you were small because you didn’t primp, didn’t enjoy shopping, and preferred working on the car with your dad.
You are at a museum or maybe a train station. Your uncle says something to you that you can’t understand. You ask your mom, who looks exhausted from constant translation. “He said, Mimi always look so nice. Very natural and doesn’t have to try.” You tear up. How does this man who you have met maybe four times in your life see you better than your mom and sister? At the same time, you curse your Americanness, which makes you so unsophisticated about your feelings — the pain just oozes ugly and glaring for anyone who is looking to see.
Your father is snippy with your mother. You enjoy this jet-lagged version of him, one who stands up for himself and even for you. Before the trip, you had approached him about your childhood and how you are mad at him for not defending you from verbal and emotional abuse. He admits you were your mom’s verbal punching bag. It was the most uncomfortable conversation you have ever had with him. You are glad you talked. You see his pain.
His wife left her home for him. Her mother learned to write in Romanji just to send packages to her daughter in the U.S. Her parents had accepted him, an American, in the aftermath of World War II. His mother did not approve of the marriage to a “Jap.” His father, for the first and only time, threatened to divorce his mother if she did not come to the airport to meet the woman their son chose to marry.
Your father stood by and will always stand by your mother. To stand by your mother, he must, apparently, betray you. You think about this while standing in line with your family. You don’t remember what you were waiting for. You cry. You wonder if you are embarrassing your mom with your tears because that is how broken you are. She before you.
Your uncle takes the whole family to visit the ancestors’ graves. You pour water over the stones. You place fresh food to feed your dead. You joke about wasting good food, but you can’t tell if the joke goes over well. Their emotions do not ooze in the same way yours do. Water over grandmother and grandfather — your grandfather, who your mom says you resemble like a samurai. You feel so proud of this, a brave and honorable warrior.
There is another stone. “Who is this?” you ask your mom. She acts as if she doesn’t hear. You wonder if you aren’t supposed to talk during this ceremonial offering. You are never sure you are doing the right thing, especially in Japan, where you cannot read the full subtlety of vocal tone and body language. “Mom, who is this?” you insist. She does not look up from the ground. “I’ll tell you later.” You pour water over the stranger.
Later, you kick yourself for not being better at Japanese because the car is buzzing with paragraphs of conversation followed by your mom’s one-sentence summary. Your mother’s father, you learn, had been married before he married your grandmother. Your grandmother was in an abusive marriage that she left. Two brave divorcees at time when ending a marriage was taboo. The daughter did not live with your mother for long. That daughter was much older and moved away. That daughter killed herself. That daughter lives beneath the other stone.
You ask why she killed herself. No one knows or no one is willing to say. Your grandmother felt so much guilt and grief that she slept with the urn of ashes for years. “They blame the mother for everything,” your mom says. You immediately connect with this unknown, unnamed woman. You imagine she is who you would have been had you lived in Japan in the 1940s. You imagine she loved women and could not belong. You cry for her regardless of her reasons for leaving. Your grief surprises you. You wonder why all the lies. The lies further convince you she was queer in some way — a strong feminist, a lesbian, a transgender person, a neuroatypical person. You wish to know her. You think she might get you. And the chance is lost. You cannot ask again. The window for secrets has been sealed and locked. The glass papered obscure. You know not to ask ever again.
At the last family dinner of the trip, someone asks what your favorite part of the ten-day visit has been. Your sister says just seeing everyone. You want to be more specific but say something dumb about how you liked going off with the cousins to an Italian restaurant without all the parents. It isn’t a lie, but you can’t say what you really feel. That you are so tense around your own mother that “fun” is not a word that applies to your relationship, even on vacation. You are constantly watched, evaluated, critiqued by her. You can’t say that you can’t believe your dead aunt has been unknown to you. She has been disappeared and this makes you want to scream her unknown name in their faces. You wonder if she is just lucky to have a grave with the family, given tradition.
Some years later, you sit in the nook in your little attic with its yellow walls and small, square windows. The wind comes in cool around your bare arms and shoulders. You click on the Zoom link to enter a session with a shamanic practitioner about ancestral healing for Asian-Americans. Six faces. Six Asian-American and mostly queer faces. Several bi-racial among them. You take a belly breath. You’ll be fine, better than fine. You’ll be safe. You are ready to connect with your ancestors, especially your aunt.
Your grey cat stays purring until the drumming music begins. You take a deep, slow breath and call to mind your unknown aunt. You ask for entrance into the higher world. Ten Japanese men in work pants and long-sleeved shirts arrive. They wear old straw hats. Farmers, they are farmers. Their smiles show in their eyes. They know who you are, though you can’t place them. They pick you up and lift you to a next level. You ask for permission to enter. Then, your body moves halfway up into the new level. She is there. You can’t quite see her, though you wouldn’t know what she looks like, as you had never met. But your aunt is there. Tears stream down your face and your insides ache with pain — yours and hers. You open your mouth and she begins pulling the pain out of your body. It comes out like sickened hot dogs or long, slimy intestines. It is not like vomiting. There is not discomfort. You are thankful, so thankful as she is pulling.
When she is done, you are lighter. She wordlessly says this pain does not have to be your pain. Even so, you don’t want the memory of her to die in a pile of ancestral shame of dishonorable suicide.
She tells you her name. She is gay. She combs her white hair.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: ivva/Flickr Creative Commons