Monday, March 28, 2011

Japanese Me

My American-born cousin is much more authentically Japanese than I'll ever be - not just because she's full-blooded, her parents both being Japanese nationals - but also because she's much more fluent in what is her first language, despite her California upbringing, and fluent enough to have worked in Tokyo without any American coworkers or translators.

She has been back home in America for several years now. Last week, she described how inspired she has been by the can-do attitude of people in Japan, after the recent earthquake and tsunami disasters. She told me it sparked something inside her, almost a reminder of what it means to be Japanese. As American as I must admit to being (if not always typically so), I understood, at least to a small degree, the pride she was feeling, of the graciousness people demonstrate to each other in Japan, even in times of crises.

Or maybe, especially during crises.

I am almost finished reading Honor Thy Children, the tragic true story of a Japanese American family that had lost all three of their adult sons. Two of them, the oldest and the youngest, had died from complications from AIDS. The story chronicles the graciousness and love that the parents gained for their sons and for each other, although via some of the harshest, hard life lessons and heartache.

I had been hoping to find the film documentary of this family's story, a DVD copy, but the family did not approve its release after it had been shown at film festivals. Domestic Partner told me that entire audiences who viewed the film had been in tears. But I found the book online, instead, written by Molly Fumia. Two of the brothers had hidden their homosexuality, at first. Their heterosexual brother, the "normal" one - the one that their parents had placed all their hopes on for marriage and grandchildren - had been killed by gunshot.

The Youngest Son, the last one to be lost, was handsome, outgoing, and charismatic. I had expected to read the book and realize a new role model in him, specifically, a gay Japanese American role model, even if he is no longer alive.

Being a true account, the book describes honest, human portrayals of the family members. So far, I haven't been liking a lot of who he was, the Youngest Son, who he used to be. The opening of the book includes a detailed tour of his wardrobe, and how perfectly organized all of the brand name clothes are, especially Ralph Lauren's Polo brand. In the book, the Youngest Son seems shallow and materialistic, a clothes horse who lives for the next wild party.

But I can't deny the significant amount of AIDS awareness he was able to accomplish in a small space of time, as documented in the book. During his last few years, in the late 80's and early 90's, his public speaking and seminars for high school students helped young people to realize that everyone, gay and straight, needs to be aware of the risk of HIV, whether they choose abstinence or safe sex. His work helped to open up dialogues about sex between parents and their teens.

And I cannot completely dislike this young-man-who-has-passed-away. He briefly discusses his attempts to be "less Japanese" by perming his hair and wearing blue eye contacts in the 80's. I never wore blue eye contacts myself, but I remember wanting to. I remember, while growing up, also wishing that I looked less Japanese, and "more American" so I could fit in better.

The book also covers some of the family's time in Hawai'i, and the Youngest Son's realization of feeling pride in being Japanese, or being Japanese-from-Hawai'i, as he puts it. I'm lucky I was able to return to Japan as an adult and work there for as long as I did. I'm feel fortunate that being in Japan meant I was finally able to view other Japanese men as attractive. Through that attraction I was able to achieve more self-acceptance and stop viewing myself as so inferior because I look more Asian than Caucasian, despite my interracial background.

I am like the Youngest Son in that respect, shallow like him in that I get too caught up in outside appearances. But I was in Japan long enough to learn a little bit about the graciousness of the people there, and of their spirit. I hope I can keep that spark lit and fan the flames of that Japanese spirit in my American self, especially as I get older and my looks fade.

I almost feel as if I owe it to a young, gay Japanese American man who didn't even get to live long enough to become middle-aged.

(The photo above is of me with my third grade P.E. class in Japan. Yes, I am the one pinching himself, I mean the one with his mouth hanging open.)


the Constantly Dramatic One said...

Do you have any family in Japan that was harmed during the tragedy?

Also, you were soo cute!

Peter Varvel said...

Everyone we know is safe, both family and friends. They are all in the Tokyo area, or further south, which is far enough from the real damage.
Thanks for asking, TCDO!