Essays

This page is dedicated to personal essays about various topics…whatever occurs to me, really. The dividing line between “fiction,” “non-fiction,” “creative non-fiction,” and “story” is easily made by English-language literary agents, booksellers, and readers alike…but not by me.

No particular order here. Read as you like. (Of course, there’s only two right now…check back later for more…)


 

Thoughts on the eve of tomorrow

As I sit here in front of my computer late at night, on the verge of the 2016 US presidential election, I’m struck by the choice I had to make. Two different versions of a future US society: one that invites multidiversity and multiethnicity in all their chaotic, unpredictable combinations, and one that shuts the door and preserves a traditional us vs them, insider vs outsider mentality.

By all rights, I should support the latter. I’m from a small town of less than 3,000 inhabitants, close to 99.99% white, deep in the heart of Upstate New York. I grew up surrounded by people who basically looked like me, enjoyed camping and hiking, canoeing and fishing, playing baseball and football and video games. Driving. A lot. I did yard work when I was old enough to get my working papers (back then, you didn’t get your social security number until you applied for it after age 14). In the spring, I helped my father in the garden. In the summer I mowed lawns. In the fall I raked leaves. In the winter I shoveled driveways. In high school, I had a part-time at a local pizza place, then at McDonald’s, then washed dishes in a nearby town. All our customers were white. All of them spoke English. It was all just fine, everybody looking the same and acting the same. Everybody just like me.

But, of course, reality is more complicated, and memory is 20-20. My family moved into the area from another rural area down south, closer to Albany. So I was the “city boy” (despite having lived in an even smaller hamlet of 300 during elementary school). I was the outsider (despite my grandfather having been born in the new town). I was made fun of for being Irish Catholic and having lots of siblings. I was mocked for taking advanced subjects in school, for playing in band and singing in chorus, for wearing glasses. And of course there was always my name. Johnny Appleseed. Apple Sauce. Apple Juice. Apple Pie. Apple Computer (these were the days before Apple took over the world…)

So I tried to fit in. I tried to be a jock. I tried to hide my love of math, chemistry, history, literature. Tried going to parties. Tried the ethnic jokes. And all seemed OK. But the anger remained.

It could have been so easy to turn the anger to hate. Understandable. I couldn’t make more than minimum wage ($3.35 an hour at the time). I couldn’t get more than 20 to 25 hours a week. I couldn’t afford a decent car (mine kept breaking down all the time and sometimes wouldn’t start). Some of my friends and relatives got into “Japan-bashing” and signed pledges not to buy Hondas and Nissans (never mind that we were nowhere near any car manufacturing plants). Locals criticized “King Cuomo” for not allowing land development in areas near state parkland. Taxes were too high, they said. Rich downstaters and city people trying to tell us what to do with our own land. Lazy blacks and corrupt Jews taking handouts from our taxes. It wasn’t fair. The system was rigged.

Probably sounds familiar. This was the ‘80s, though.

I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to college, but I still had to borrow a lot. But I was lucky. Not just to get into college. Lucky to meet people that didn’t look like me. The first person I ever met at college, on my first day entering the dormitory, was a student from India who had grown up in England. I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. I soon met my roommate: Asian-American, from New York City. Then Malaysian students. Korean. Chinese. Japanese. Kenyan. Nigerian. South African. Serbian. Hungarian. French. Dutch. People from all over the US: San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, Nome, Boston, Cheyenne, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Louisville, Memphis. I was the outsider again. I was the local. The unsophisticated rural hick, feeling far out of my depth.

It would have been so easy to hate.

After a while, I started writing for the college newspaper, and in time became Assistant Editor, and then Editor-in-Chief. I was perceived as conservative. Anti-liberal. Anti-choice. Anti-PC. An opponent of interdisciplinary trends such as African-American studies and women’s studies; a supporter of the old-fashioned Eurocentric educational ideals.

It would have been so easy. Really.

But I voted for Bill Clinton in my first presidential election, in 1992, because I opposed the Persian Gulf Distraction. I voted for him again in 1996, despite feeling that there was no real difference between him and Bob Dole. By 2000 I was overseas, living in Japan and teaching English in high school, feeling distant and disconnected and thoroughly disillusioned.

I didn’t bother voting in 2000 or 2004.

Regrets. I’ve had a few.

But by 2008 I was voting. For Barack Obama. What had changed?

I missed 9/11. I witnessed the Second Gulf Distraction, from the outside looking in. The ill-prepared and ill-thought out invasion of two sovereign nations for the purpose of filling rich men’s pockets. The waste of human life. The increasing bipolarity of a country that shouted “Love it or leave it” at relatives who questioned supporting war.

I left America. Did that mean I didn’t love it?

In 2005, I married a Japanese woman. Or, rather, I should say that a woman from Japan chose to marry me. Me! Of all people. We now have two children, two “biracial,” bicultural (and hopefully bilingual) daughters, who have both Japanese and American citizenship.

My family doesn’t look like me. But they kind of do. I don’t look like them. But I kind of do, in a way.

You see, it’s taken me 44 years and living in four states and two countries to realize that what I was taught as an elementary school kid in a rural hamlet in Upstate New York was not exactly accurate.

American culture and society aren’t a “melting pot,” in which people from various backgrounds dissolve their differences and turn into “Americans.” People in the US may think they look alike, but they don’t. Americans are obsessed…obsessed!…with genealogy. They are completely absorbed in finding out where their families came from, who their ancestors were, what cities and towns, what countries and cultures they came from. White people are especially interested in finding where in the world their great- and great-great grandparents hailed. From all different parts of England, Scotland, and Wales. From different areas of Ireland. From the Netherlands, France, Belgium (Flanders, Wallonia…) From “Scandanavia” (which hasn’t been a combined kingdom in a millennium). From what is now “Georgia” (Kartvelebi). From Armenia. From what used to be the Kingdom of Poland, but what at the time was parts of other countries and now is Poland again. From Greece and Macedonia (or are they the same…not judging here….) From the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. From what used to be Czechoslovakia but is now the separate countries of Czech and Slovakia. and Yugoslavia but are now several smaller independent countries. From what is now called Germany but until 1870 consisted of dozens of smaller states. Same for Italy. From Austria and Switzerland.

And now these are all “white.”

My own ancestry is mostly Irish, but also German, Dutch, French Canadian, and English, with possibly some Kazakh and/or Native American (unconfirmed). In school I was already “multiethnic” and didn’t even know it.

In America’s past, the Scotch-Irish were called “squatters” and loudly complained about. The Germans were sent to the worst farmland, followed by the Polish, the Russians, the Ukranians and Scandanavians. The Irish were given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, before the Chinese and Japanese appeared and were discriminated against in turn. “No Irish.” “No Chinese.” And of course “No Colored.” Catholics, Jews, Huguenots, Mormons. Each of us in turn. Once we get settled in after a generation or two, another new group arrives to take its turn.

Latinos. Mexicans. But of course, they were already here. (Florida, “New” Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas…)

Build a wall? Sign another Alien Exclusion Act?

Americans are not part of a melting pot. We are part of a mixed salad, better together than separate, forever adding and subtracting and multiplying. Some want their salad with white ranch dressing. I prefer a thousand islands. Another mix that tastes better together than separate.

Today, I picked up my older daughter from her after school program, on my way home from work. I walked home with her, talked about her school day and her homework. We switched back and forth between English and Japanese. Different languages and cultural identities. There was no confusion. My wife came back a few minutes later with my younger daughter, who launched into a lengthy, detailed description of how she had been walking along the hallway in her nursery school when a boy in her class, running quickly, bumped into her and hurt the side of her face. They both cried, and he apologized to her. Should she have become angry and violent?

We live in a dangerous world, one candidate says. We can’t let any more of these people in. Who knows what they’ll do. We need to protect our borders. We can’t tolerate difference. Different ways of thinking, believing, acting. Different people. They don’t look like us.

Half a century ago, my marriage would have been illegal in many parts of the US. My children reviled, openly discriminated against, made to feel inferior because they were not “pure.”

Is this the America you want to revert to?

I’m a “white” man. Not Asian, black, Pacific Islander, Latino. Not a woman. I will never truly know what it feels like to be discriminated against in the US. But I’ve been mocked. Made to feel separate and isolated. Worked low paying jobs and felt ignored by a larger society. I have every reason to hate the system.

But to what avail. Will hate help my daughters? Will it help my wife, my family…myself?

I see my children…multiethnic, multicultural…and my students…multi-selved, flawed but filled with potential and looking for opportunity…and I reject hate. Categorically.

I made my choice. Flawed, yes. Imperfect and occasionally too stubborn to listen to the counsel of others, perhaps.

Hateful?

No.

I choose hope over hate, facts over innuendo, truth (or even half-truth) over bald-faced lies. Determination over desperation. Inclusion over exclusion.

Us and them. Not us vs them.

Stronger together. My conscience is clear.

It’s your choice.


En

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning…

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

The clapping began as the graduating students slowly filed out of the gymnasium, walking single file between rows of their seated kohai. I waited outside the gym with the other teachers, who all continued to clap as the graduates walked between our two rows. Both girls and boys were crying, some holding hands and covering their eyes with a hand or arm. They continued down the hallway to their homerooms, where they would listen to their homeroom teacher and sit with their classmates for the final time. It was the second graduation ceremony I had attended since coming to Japan, but the first time to see my students, students whom I had actually taught, leave the school forever. As always, their school journey began and ended with a ceremony. And with those three simple words:

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

Stand up! Attention! Bow!

In addition to my high school “base school,” I was also teaching at three junior high schools on alternating Mondays in the spring of 2001. That March, I taught my last lessons of the school year at a tiny junior high school of 18 students, deep in the mountains of Nara Prefecture. Since the students had already finished their final exams, and the third graders had already taken high school entrance exams, rather than teaching new phrases we played English word and memory games using words the students had already studied during the year. I also played guitar, and even convinced some of the students to sing along in English.

But at the end of the day, there was no ceremony, not yet. I would’t be coming to that school’s closing ceremony. Instead, a graduating student took my picture for the third graders’ memory book, and then everybody went home. I was left standing at the front door, watching the last of them straggle up the snow-covered driveway, laughing and jostling each other, disappearing behind a row of neighboring houses. In addition to the student I would be missing, I had no doubt that, in three weeks time when the schol year began again in April, some of the teachers I knew at that school would be gone — transferred to another rural school by the prefectural government. There would be a ceremony for that, too, but I would not be present. The knowledge of that alone gave me an empty feeling which still I have not quite filled.

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

After just a few classes of hearing this during my first month in Japan in September 1999, I managed to convince high school teachers to make a small change. From then, at the beginning of our English Oral Communication A classes, the head student said, “Stand up!” and then we all said “Good Morning!” or “Good Afternoon!” At the conclusion of class, we said, “Goodbye!” or “See you!” It was a simple change, but one which allowed us to keep the ceremonial aspects of opening and closure, while allowing us to help the students feel just a bit more comfortable speaking English out loud. Morever, the students appeared to enjoy this seemingly simple exchange of conversation. The ceremony for beginning class might be important, I thought, but at times it also felt somewhat constricting to me. I wanted my students to talk to me and to relate to me as if I were just another person, not a cardboard figure or living tape recorder at the front of class. At the same time, I knew the students needed structure, and they needed to know exactly when class began and exactly when class ended.

Naturally, the same words of “Stand up! Attention! Bow!” continued to be said at the beginnings of other classes, even in other English classes, even with the same teachers with whom I team-teach the oral classes. Yet that’s as it should be. I changed the ritual for my classes, but I did not have the right to change other classes. After a while, I came to understand that the idea of ceremony was too integral to Japanese society, too much a part of the daily routine to be removed. Remove the words, and students and teachers alike would show signs of confusion, signs that a necessary part of the class schedule were missing. Such words may seem constricting to me, but to others, they are necessary—necessary for their peace of mind.

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

Teachers in Japan asked me once what kind of ceremonies my high school in the US observed. When I responded that, besides graduation and the occasional assembly or two, there were virtually none, my colleagues seemed perplexed. Accustomed to placing great importance on beginnings and endings, maybe they were thinking: How odd, how unusual, how dissatifyingly empty, lonely, and individualistic the American high school experience must be! Before coming to Japan, before teaching in a Japanese classroom, I could only see ceremony as a meaningless waste of time. The Japanese high school students, when I asked them, told me that they hated the opening and closing ceremonies and felt them to be tedious and boring. Before, I would have instantly agreed.

And yet…

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

I remember when I first arrived at the high school, and, upon being informed that I had to make a speech in front of the entire school, how my heart skipped a beat or two. During my welcoming ceremony, there was much I didn’t understand, but I did understand that the students were curious and eager to see me for the first time. When I introduced myself to each homeroom again and again at the start of my first classes, students unfailingly asked me the same questions. How old was I? Did I have a girlfriend? What did I think of Japan? What did I think of my new town? The first two weeks, I introduced myself no fewer than twenty times.

After a while, I really got sick of myself.

Some of the students’ questions seemed personal, and, in the beginning, I was somewhat reluctant and embarrassed to answer. But I soon realized that the students were simply trying to become acquainted with me, to feel comfortable to have me as a teacher. The students were honest and friendly, and as I opened myself to them, I gradually became more at ease in the classroom. Beginnings were, indeed, important.

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

I first met Tachibana-sensei in October 2000 while on an outing sponsored by a local international exchange center. A retired teacher of sado, or tea ceremony, Tachibana-sensei invited me to visit her home at any time and urged me to bring as many friends as I liked. And so, a week or two after our initial contact, two friends and I found our way to the Osaka home of Tachibana-sensei and her husband, a Buddhist Jodo Shin-Shu priest. Entering the front door, I was surprised to be greeted by a full bow, from a seiza seated position, with hands on knees. “This is the proper way to introduce oneself,” she told us. “This is an important ceremony you must do when you come to someone’s home.” By that time, I had visited the homes of some high school teachers, and none of them used as formal a ritual as this.

But, of course, Tachibana-sensei was a sado-teacher, and because of this, it made sense that she should observe such rituals. Later that same evening, she performed the tea ceremony for us (“A short version,” she said, “The long version is two hours.”) and taught my friends and me the proper words to say upon receiving the tea. Despite her flair for slight informalities, such as explaining her motions to us and thus breaking the traditional silence of the ceremony, Tachibana-sensei’s very demeanor and deliberateness of motion displayed her mastery of the ceremony. Everything has a proper beginning and ending, she said, and tea ceremony is no different than any other human activity in that respect.

After the brief ceremony was concluded, Tachibana-sensei wrote four Chinese characters vertically on a small piece of paper. The four characters were read “Ichi-go ichi-e,” a phrase which all high school students learn, we were told. The meaning is “one time, one meeting,” and although the meaning on the surface seemed clear, we all failed to grasp the inner significance. No matter how much Tachibana-sensei or her husband tried to explain, we could not understand. Somehow, we were asked to understand, Fate is tied up in this phrase; Fate, or at least the sense that something brought us together for this one moment, and the beginning words and ending words of the ceremony were like bookends which marked the fleeting moment we had captured.

This same topic of fate resurfaced at my next visit to the Tachibanas. While enjoying dinner with a group of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean friends, I learned of the concept called “en.” As I struggled to comprehend en, the increasing frustration on the faces of my companions became obvious as they tried to explain that which was unexplainable. En is a necessary part of Asian cultures, they said, with religious and social aspects so closely related and intertwined they cannot be separated. En is created by the Buddha, one person said. No, it is a result of Fate, stated another. It is true friendship, offered yet another. Tachibana-sensei reminded me of ichi-go ichi-e, and said that the two concepts were reflections of each other. We only meet once in the same place, and there is a mysterious fateful quality about that moment in time. This circle of friends who have come together from different countries and different backgrounds is a group of unrelated people who have finally made fateful connections, the connections they were meant to make, connections which can never be broken or forgotten. This creates en. This is a creation of en. En is…en.

The more I try to wrap my mind around it, the more I cannot help but think that, like the tea ceremony, endings and beginnings form crucial links in this thing called en. And the more I think about it, the more I begin to realize that the closest English equivalent to en—“personal relationships”—simply lacks in meaning and substance. And the more I think that maybe this is because in relationships in English, such as the ones I am used to at home, there are no distinct beginnings or endings, nor distinct rituals or ceremonies, and time only flows into and out of itself, with no way to freeze or capture the moment. Without the importance of the beginnings and the ends of things, English can have no en.

Kiritsu! Kiotsuke! Rei!

Stand up. Attention. Bow. Three simple words which begin and end every class and ceremony at Japanese schools. So would a textbook description of Japanese life read. But life, like en, cannot be so easily described, and there are meanings which words cannot suffice to explain. Similarly, I cannot explain the tea ceremony, and I cannot express the feelings which participating in such intimacy brings. Perhaps that is just another part of the mystery of meetings and leavings, and of the relief and emotional support proper greetings and farewells bring to those who know at the bottom of their hearts that they must treasure these temporary windows of time.

As I encountered more and more rituals and ceremonies during my high school teaching career, there were times when they became tiresome, and often I found myself once again thinking how much I wished the ceremonies would end quickly. But I always held one thought at the back of my mind: Like the graduating students that March, one day I, too, would say goodbye to my Japanese high school. I would make a sadly sweet-memoried speech, a student would make his response speech, and we would bid each other formal farewell. Perhaps by that time I would have already said my goodbyes to individual teachers, students and friends. Or perhaps the goodbyes would come afterward before I board the bus, the train, or plane which would take me onward to the rest of my life.

But when that moment actually came, that moment of ichi-go ichi-e, that ceremony which formerly I would have thought full of pomp and circumstance and void of interest or meaning, I found closure, a fitting way to mark the last time I would see my students and fellow teachers in the same place and time. In the end, as it was in the beginning, when the speeches have all been made and the farewells have all been said, the circle of my irreplaceable Japanese en was completed by three small, simple words:

Kiritsu!

Kiotsuke!

Rei!