Monday, 17 Jun 2019

Finding Home Against History

Celeste Chan


“They waterboarded your grandfather,” my dad says. He sits at the kitchen table, draws insulin up his orange-tipped syringe. He doesn’t look at me, face impassive, focused on the medicine. A Chinese immigrant in his 60’s, he’s already had a triple bypass. Sleater-Kinney sings “The End of You” from my boom box on the floor. Our table is cloistered with baos in a red bowl, newspapers, and dog-eared Sassy magazines. It is 2000 in Seattle, WA.

“The Japanese waterboarded your grandfather,” he says again. “Older generations—they hate the Japanese. But I have no hatred in my heart. I don’t mind if you go.” Shoulders tense. Dad left Malaysia as a scholarship student during the ‘60’s. This former British colony holds family roots from roughly the 1900s. I’ve heard fragments of this story before…. but the waterboarding is new. I sit silent for a couple beats. Then I nod. “I’m flying to visit my friend, who’s teaching English in the Japanese mountainside. I’ll be fine, Dad.”

So, I book my ticket to Tokyo—the most expensive part of this trip. I’m a queer hyphenate, child of a Chinese-immigrant and a Bronx born-and-bred Jew. Twenty years old. First generation Asian American, and I have never been outside of the States before.

I land in Tokyo, this place of bright pink and blue neon, green billboards and giant crossings, bullet trains, and subway packers. I arrive not knowing the language, but globalization is a bitch, so a couple of people around me on the train speak English. A middle-aged woman in business attire gives me directions to my youth hostel: walk right by the McDonalds, go past Shibuya crossing, and then take a left at the Sony billboard. Walking through Shibuya’s rainbow X, I’m surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of bodies crisscrossing. My feet move, but I can’t feel my legs or chest. My head is a detached cloudy pillow. Everyone is Asian. That’s a first.

I stay in a 6-bed youth hostel, tucking maps and journal under my pillow at night. Sleep in a sea-green slip, pull up the scratchy sheets, and hope that the balmy air yields no earthquakes.

During the day, I eat my meals of Salmon ongiri at 7-11, the pink fish peeking out from seaweed wrap and rice. I am this tiny blip of electric blue hair, in a city of 13 million. Just another Seattle alterna-teen who wants to “go find herself.” Here, I am not an oddity. No one stares at me among the swarms of people. The “friend” is a guise, otherwise my parents would never let me travel alone. Really, I am excited to search for “my people” – queers and subculture. Asian American, and I have never been to Asia before.

I wander the neon lights at midnight in Shibuya, and then Shinjuku. Shibuya is Alice in Wonderland on acid, swirls of candy colors, street style, and high fashion. H&M stands next to indie boutiques, bars and tiny pod hotels. Shinjuku is Times Square. Gay. Red light, seedy, full of clubs, and shiny skyscrapers. Bars and more bars – especially those catering to men. Shinjuku is thousands of bodies and cars and mopeds, whirring by all the neon and gigantic TV screens. Both areas emerged post-1945. Tokyo air raids destroyed more than 90% of these areas, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and displaced 1 million.*

Before the atomic bomb, Japan occupied SE Asia (Borneo; Burma; Indo-China including Vietnam; Malaysia and Singapore; Philippines; and Thailand). World War II. The Japanese army maimed and murdered, with bayonets and guns, mass graves and slow starvation. The war across SE Asia killed 10 million people.** “This is the holocaust no one talks about,” my dad says. My family lived in a relocation camp in Malaysia during the war, 1941-1945. We are Hakka, the guest people.

My family was lucky because no one died.

Wandering the streets of Shinjuku, I fall into a red-lit doorway. Welcome, guests of Club Rainbow. Why are gay clubs always called “Rainbow,” “Unicorn,” “Kissing Rose,” etc.? Cheesy, but recognizable. I walk down basement stairs. Saunter in, my sunburned face and red mini-dress screaming out, “I’m young and alone! There’s nothing and nobody to stop me!” Step out onto the dance floor, and I’m enmeshed in movement. My body sways, face surrounded by light and texture—from greased-back hair to crayon-colored wigs, gold feathers, and rhinestones. Sweat runs down my lip. Attractive. I see ravers in fishnet dresses and magenta pigtails, Rainbow Bright with furry unicorn, Strawberry Shortcake in stripy tights, faeries in stilettos and stockings, all dancing under disco lights. I’ve stepped into FRUITS, that Tokyo street-style book. Stretching my arms through the crowd, I find a silver wall to lean against. I try talking to the women next to me, but it’s too loud.

My tongue is dumb. I am ABC—American Born Chinese.

Fumbling against the wall, I don’t know the culture(s). And there’s so much subculture! What distinguishes Gothic Lolitas from Sweet Lolitas and Rockabillies from Ravers? Novice is my name. From the subways and streets, maps and hostel sheets, I am learning. Here’s how to find what you need. It’s too hot. I take out my bottle, splash some water on my face.

Splat. My grandfather’s head tilts upside down, as they bring buckets and buckets to hit his face again and again. Wave after wave. He’s sputtering, spitting, suffocating. Screaming water. It comes down his nose, into his eyes, mixing with tears and snot and blood. Gasp. Eyes shot. Drown. A baptism. Covered by cloth. Body strapped down to a wooden board.

He came home a new man.

He failed to salute a lieutenant, or maybe he didn’t do it fast enough, or maybe they didn’t like how he looked. Did it matter? He could never remember things as well after. Grandfather got his times and dates mixed up. My dad, who was 6 at the time, doesn’t know exactly what happened. But we were lucky: he survived. The army interrogated, detained, and killed thousands of others.

Waterboarding can dilute your blood.

I guzzle water, and then grab my backpack to go. Exit Club Rainbow. I stop in Shibuya 21 and buy sparkly silver and blue knee socks; nothing else fits my chubby, mixed-race frame. Barely out of my teens, I am a misfit Asian American queer girl, drinking beer out of vending machines and hanging out on Tokyo streets. Manic panic blue mingles with sweat, drips down my neck. It is August. No one’s words stick to my back. There is no sexual harassment.

I ride the bullet train to visit my friend in the country, a small village between Kyoto and Osaka. Mountains loom like giants. I flash my point-and-shoot camera, steel posts and sky and mountain whir together into silver, green, and blue streaks. This odd, indeterminate metallic shot. The train stops, and I get out. Everywhere there is green grass, a narrow road of brown dirt, a cluster of people on bicycles and Japanese conversation. Maybe I am the lone English speaker, among this smattering of 20 people.

Then I find my friend. Ironically, he’s the only straight white guy around.

We hike up a mountainside to attend a rave. Two people greet us by a clearing of junipers. Nestled against these trees, dozens of paintings glow against dark sky. Inside, there are 300 people dancing to synthetic beats. Tiny glow sticks and candy necklaces pulse to the music. People twirl ribbons, red satin slashing against brown earth. We join the “dance floor,” where modern hippies greet us with hugs. At a rave, everyone is your friend. Techno thumps till 6am. Day-Glo art vibrates against the night while I count the stars. Sagittarius, the archer, or what looks like a centaur, winks back from the sky. We are dancing with modern shamans, clusters of us in fake fur pants and vinyl backpacks, arms akimbo, legs swaying to the beat. Bonded by exhaustion and endorphins. We are a collective mass of movement.

During the Japanese occupation, my family ran and hid in the forests of Malaysia. “If you don’t go to a relocation camp, they kill you.”

What does safety cost?

Japanese occupiers tortured, killed, maimed, raped, and starved many others. There was never enough food to eat, “we all had malnutrition. My mother suffered the worst. Feet swollen, can’t walk, all because of malnutrition,” my dad said. “We were just happy to survive.”

I am the lucky generation.

We rave until sun kisses the ground, until crust coats our eyes. We hike to a small café. It’s just me and my friend, dehydrated and sleep deprived. We order breakfast. “I love it here. My job’s easy, and they pay well.” He looks giddy, hands waving in the air, a crooked smile on his face.

Then he leans forward, looking down and half-whispering. “I’m surrounded by Asian women and they’re so submissive. It’s the culture. They love to please men.” After this confession, he sits up, fiddles and flashes his camera at a couple of women standing outside the café window.

What fails to register in a snapshot?

After a beat, he turns to me. “You’re holding your chopsticks wrong.” I glance at my hand. It is a claw, bunched up pointer finger and thumb near the tip of my chopsticks. My stomach pinches. Throat dry and lumpy. I say nothing. I do nothing. Then I shift in my seat, look over his head and pretend to read the menu. I leave shortly after. Escape his gaze and the lonely Japanese countryside.

I am Asian, but not Asian enough. I am wrong and a woman. Trying to find home in diaspora. Here, I am the impostor.

In Tokyo, I become American in ways not possible in the States. It is not home, yet feels more like home than anywhere I have been before. Back in the US I hear, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” and in preschool, I heard “What’s wrong with your face? What’s wrong with your eyes?”  ABC. Foreign lives on my skin.

Within 24 hours, I leave the mountainside and the only person I know in Japan. Take the bullet train back to Tokyo. I am back to machines and metal and people bustling. Pink neon lights my face, as I lean against a steel building in Shinjuku.

“I think that’s brave, you came all the way here and you don’t know anyone” says a pixie-faced, skinny blonde working at a nearby hostess bar. I stand in front of her with my backpack and red mini-dress, hair held back with blue baby barrettes. I have to show ID to prove I’m over 18. Feeling free and female in one of the world’s largest cities. No one can sell you that feeling. At 23, she’s an older woman. We chat and exchange phone numbers. We’re both strangers—she’s from Berlin and I’m from Seattle.

Young women. What price is our safety? We’re not supposed to walk solo, feel the kiss of night air, nor count the stars while dancing till 6am with strangers. We’re not supposed to wander 5,000 miles from home, traveling alone. The night is not ours; adventure is not ours to claim.

Yet here we are. Two young women amidst nightlife, a sparkling sea of strangers, in worlds made for men, not speaking the language, not knowing anyone. Standing outside the hostess club in Shinjuku, we are the only women. We are the only female travelers. Cleave through what we know, of home and homeland.

The Japanese held my family during war, put them in internment camps seventy years ago. How can I wander around and feel free for 10 days in Tokyo?

Freedom. Ugh, so tired, so cliché. I don’t mean it like yoga woman with arms outstretched, a commercial sun salutation where ocean meets sands. This is not running through fields of red poppies, young white women twirling gauzy gowns, faces thrown back in ecstasy. It can’t be contained in a stock image.

Instead, it is messy. Contradictory. Like when you’re at the Doctor’s office, and they can’t find your pulse, but duh, you know you’re alive. Veins beat, pound rhythm against your skin. You drive in the rain, car almost crashing into a 16-wheeler. But you don’t die, drenched by waves of water. It’s a queer sense of belonging and possibility, to be a tiny light, in a city of 13 million, in a country of 125 million, and in a continent of 4.3 billion.***

My last day in Japan, I walk past silver trains, kaleidoscopic billboards, wander small against the giant crowds. With the sound of Japanese pop and scooters humming along, daylight turns into night, and then it’s 2 am. The ground rumbles; I lean against a tree. Gonna find home. I’m just another Asian American queer girl dreaming. Did I really think I could be like Kerouac, looking for “girls, visions, and everything”? Poor me, college student traveling to Tokyo, while my “Aunt” (Mom’s childhood best friend) is 65 and working three jobs in south Brooklyn.

I’m a tiny figure with a backpack, lit by fluorescent billboards. The ground quakes: new cement on top of centuries old dirt. I stumble for a few minutes, and then find the street back to my hostel. The room is dark, packed with sleeping bodies. I sit on my bunk-bed, breathe quietly among the six guests. I’m a tourist in Tokyo, and a foreigner in the States. “Asia for the Asians”—that was the Japanese occupation slogan. Somehow, I am finding home against history.

*Matthew Carney, Tokyo WWII firebombing, the single most deadly bombing raid in history, remembered 70 years on (, 8 March 2015.

** Yinan, He, The Search for Reconciliation: Sino-Japanese and German-Polish Relations since World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 117.

***These three statistics from, respectively, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, About our city: Tokyo’s history, geography, and population. 1 October 2012. Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs Japan. Monthly population estimate. 1 September 2015. World Population Statistics, Continent Populations. 20 May 2013

Celeste Chan is an experimental artist, writer, filmmaker, and organizer. Her writing can be found in Ada, As/us, cream city review, Feminist Wire, Hyphen, Matador, and beyond. A Hedgebrook, Lambda, Soaring Gardens, and VONA Alumna, she has presented and curated work locally and internationally as Co-Director of Queer Rebels.