This is an essay in a series of b-sides to The Texas Review All-Essay Issue. (More info at the end of this post.)
I wrote the first version of this in 1998, yet it remains relevant today.
Rhode Island is the only state in the nation to still celebrate Victory Day. VJ Day, as it is colloquially known. Victory over Japan Day.
It’s on this day one summer that I meet D. Beautiful cloudless day, an outdoor concert. The sun is bright and hot. We are heady with liquor, with heat, and with hazy, restless desire.
Victory Day is observed the second Monday in August, to commemorate the Japanese surrender in World War II. The surrender that comes the day after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki and four days after Hiroshima.
Now, I am not Japanese. But perhaps you don’t know this. Perhaps it is of no interest to you at all. And although I think it at least somewhat safe to say that the particulars of one’s ethnicity—a quarter Irish, an eighth German, two-thirds Italian, etc.—generally are of little immediate concern when first meeting, or being introduced to someone, I cannot say that this has been true in my experience.
For example, a man approaches me at a cocktail party. An older man, one might call him distinguished-looking. He smiles broadly at me, runs his eyes up and down the length of my body in a manner that I would imagine he considers to be discreet.
“Hello. I have been waiting all evening to meet you.”
He utters a wholly incomprehensible statement, grinning still. Then repeats it, embellishing now, with a flourish of hand. The bewilderment must be visible on my face. He looks confused first, then irritated.
“That’s the only thing I know how to say in Japanese.”
The left side of his mouth twitches. He brings his drink to his lips.
I smile, nod, the actions reflexive.
“Ah so,” I might say, but I don't. Instead, politely, and with what is perhaps the expected, demure girlish laughter, “Oh,” I put a reassuring hand on his forearm, “I am not Japanese.”
“So you don't speak it?”
“I do know a little French, though...ha ha ha...Mais oui.” Why am I trying so hard, I think. He is visibly disappointed.
“Oh, my friend told me that you would be here, and I’ve just been waiting to say that to you.”
Here are some other things that people have been anxious to say to me:
“Your English is so good!”
“It’s such a shame that you don't speak Chinese.”
“All you Oriental girls are so pretty.”
Sometimes, instead they have questions:
Once, on the sidewalk on Lexington Avenue, “Hey, do you take your laundry to those Chinamen on Third Ave?”
In the cookware aisle of a department store, “What kind of a wok should I buy?”
In the waiting room of the doctor’s office, “Do you have trouble with your vision?”
Every year, as the date approaches, the letters defending it, show up in the news.
“Victory Day is a celebration of freedom.”
“We conquered evil so we could remain free.”
“Who did the attacking, them or us?”
“They have no right to tell us they don’t like VJ Day because we won the war and they lost.”
When I was in graduate school many years ago, we read all the men whose names you don’t need me to repeat. They told us what to read and what to write and how. I remember most clearly a vehement criticism of the present tense.
“Those who live in the present, as we imagine cattle do, expect little from the future and remember nothing of the past.”
It is a beautiful day. A cloudless sky. The bright sunlight has cast a peace over the city. You are thankful to have been spared another raid.
There is a brilliant blue flare. It is brighter than anything you have ever seen. You are knocked against a wall. You are confused, dazed. The children –
Somehow, your three children have escaped without a scratch. They are sitting on the ground around you, trembling like leaves.
In the dim light coming through the mouth of the shelter, you can see a huddle of half-naked people strewn about the entrance. Their bodies are inflated like children's balloons, skin peeling off in strips, hanging down like shreds of a rag.
You clutch your children to yourself as best you can with as much strength as you can muster. You are weak, you are dizzy. You are hot with fever.
It is twelve hours later when your daughter dies. Suddenly, without warning. Convulsions wrack her small body. Once, twice, and the third time, her body is still. She dies more quickly than you can say: What's wrong, my daughter?
Past midnight, your second child. He stretches himself out on the floor. Whispers “Daddy,” and closes his eyes. You are thankful for his peaceful passing. And just like in life, the middle boy follows his older brother like a shadow. From one hour to the next, your children—
You gather wood from ruined houses. You make a pyre three feet high and put the bodies on it, face up, and light the pyre from the bottom. First the girl's body catches fire, then middle son, then your firstborn. The bodies disappear into the flames. The charred backbone of your firstborn falls off the pyre when the flesh has burned away.
You sit down beside the pyre, numb. All you have left is ash. You see small fires all around where people are cremating their dead. You watch the flames illuminate the sky, blue, orange, blue again.
I am not Japanese. I am not Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Pearl Harbor. I don’t speak Chinese. I am not your green grocer, your dry cleaner, your doctor. I am not your maker of rugs, your purveyor of rice. I am not exotic. My feet are not small. I don’t see crooked from these slanted eyes. I don’t cover my mouth when I laugh.
If you think your Asian women petite, then I am enormous. If you think them adept at the arts of love, uninhibited and adventurous, then I am frigid. If you think them submissive, I am loud, uncompromising, demanding, overbearing. I am graceless. I speak loudly.
And see this, I am confrontational. I am so very, very confrontational.
D., teller of jokes, tells me this one: A little boy goes to the circus with his father. They sit in the front row. The boy is so excited. At some point, a clown invites him come onstage. The boy is elated. Well, it turns out that the clown just wants to make fun of him, and starts insulting the boy, calling him a loser, a jerk, ridiculing his shoes, taunting him. The boy starts crying and of course, the clown just becomes more merciless, until finally, the kid runs out of the tent, sobbing. He is traumatized, and vows that somehow, some day, he will get back at that clown.
The kid spends the next twenty years of his life dedicated to seeking his revenge on that clown. He enrolls in classes for public speaking and theatre. He joins Toastmasters. He studies comedy, reads countless books on psychology, fills pages of notebooks with his taunts and jokes, so he can get back at this clown with the perfect, consummate insult. When he finally thinks he is ready, he goes back to that same circus, sits in the front row. Sure enough, the clown, now rather old, is still there. Oddly enough, the clown remembers him, invites him onstage. The man jumps at the opportunity, of course. The clown begins to tease him, insult him, poke fun at him. Well, the man is finally ready for him. He waits until the clown pauses for a moment, his face so close he can feel the rubber of the clown’s nose on his own, smell the cakey, powdery, sweaty smell of the clown’s make-up, feel the tickle of the nylon curls of the clown’s wig on his forehead. Then, with the clown breathing his coffee-smelling clown breath on his face, he takes a deep breath, looks the clown in the eye and says, “Fuck you, clown.”
The critics note an increase in the number of women writers. In the use of first person. In the use of the present tense. They refer to “women more foul-mouthed than Mailer.” They call out “angry voices.”
These present-tense tales, they say, “are stories shorn, not only of adjectives and adverbs, but of words themselves, almost as if their authors didn’t know any.”
Here are some words I know. They are among the many ethnic slurs that have been used, in the past and in the present, to address or describe Asian-ness. I have arranged them rhythmically to enhance sonic pleasure.
- Ping pong, Ching chong
- China doll, Dragon lady
- Jap, Chink
- Chinky Chan, Charlie Chan
- Miss Kim, Lady Kim
- Geechee, Goony, Gook
- Goo goo eyes
- Slanty eyes, Slitty eyes
- Dink, Clink
- Coolie, Coosie
- Charlie, Chow
- Ming, Moose
- Nippy, nipper
- Slope, slopy gal
- Rice, rice belly
- Yellow belly
- Fortune cookie
- Flied lice
- Li’l eyes
And of course, the beloved playground taunt we know by heart: “Me Chinese. Me play joke. Me put pee-pee in your Coke.”
When the thing with D. begins, I am taken in by his boyishness—his baseball cap, his faded jeans and white t-shirts. Something clean cut and suburban. What does he see in me? The small darkness of my body next to his? A haunted girl, wearing black, chain-smoking?
I am looking for a way to impose order on chaos. A way to separate what follows some sort of logic from what does not.
Our affair limps through the summer. I’m bored but restless and needy. One morning, in a newspaper, I find another letter about the importance of remembering our victory over evil.
“What an asshole, here, look at this,” as I pass it to him.
“He’s got a point.”
“Are you joking?”
“No. I mean, dude, we were at war. And fuck it, we didn’t start it. What about Pearl Harbor?”
I want to say that was the end of our tepid romance. That I storm out, go back to my apartment and drink coffee, while I fire off a snappy letter to the editor. I don’t want to have to tell you that when’s at my door later that night, drunk and ready to pick a fight, I let him in. That later, we undress.
I don’t want to have to tell you that when suddenly, he shoves me down hard, I tell him no, not like that.
That I ask him to stop. That I say please.
My lip bleeds. I have torn a little and that bleeds too. A slight puffiness of my cheek, a bruise on my thigh.
I stay awake in my stained bed. I think about showering but I’m too sore to get up. I sit up, light a cigarette, and watch the sun rise over Providence.
When I started writing this, I thought I was writing toward this line: And as he pushes himself into me, I cannot help but hear a chorus of American voices cheering him on, urging him to victory ¬–
It is that and it is not that. It is the past and it is the ever-present. And I wonder how anyone can say that the present has no memory of the past, has no history, when I wear the history of nations on my face, when this history is written on my skin.
I am Japanese. I am Chinese. Vietnamese. I am Cambodian. Thai. Filipina. I am your grocer, your take-out, your chopsticks. Your lotus blossom. Your fortune cookie.
I am angry. I am damaged. I am tired.
I am a story of survival, of hope.
I am everything and nothing at all.
Today I will remember you. Your nameless face, your nameless children. Today I am you, my body filled with poison it will take generations to understand.
Today, I watch my children taken from me. To live and die a continent away.
Today, I will be Japanese for you if that will ease your pain.
I have always loved the B-side of records or cassettes, being let in on the secret/unreleased or more unexpected strangeness that awaited from artists. The B-side, in its essence, offers a singular delight in a promise that you, the audience, will not (or may not) be able to recreate the experience the B-side offers anywhere else. It says welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat.
In the spirit of the B-side, The Texas Review asked contributors of the All-Essay Issue (Vol. 40, #3/#4, 2020) to contribute essays to a B-side compilation. We want to offer, here, a moment of singular delight as accompanied unexpected strangeness or echo location or dancing and braided conversation in conjunction to the contributors’ essays featured in the All-Essay Issue.
Please enjoy the following B-sides by: Mary-Kim Arnold; Piper J. Daniels and Nicole McCarthy; Lily Hoang; Vincent James; Michael Martone; Ander Monson; Katrina Otuonye; Danielle Pafunda; Monica Prince; Addie Tsai; Julie Marie Wade; and Nicole Walker.
Thank you (and genuflection) to all of the contributors featured in our pages: Danielle Pafunda; Sejal Shah; Addie Tsai; Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint; Temim Fruchter; Raquel Gutiérrez, Muriel Leung; Monica Prince; Ander Monson; Janice Lee; Piper J. Daniels; Camellia-Berry Grass; Wendy C. Ortiz; SJ Sindu; Dinty W. Moore; Michael Martone; Lily Hoang; Nicole Walker; Mary-Kim Arnold; Katrina Otuonye; Vincent James; Julie Marie Wade; Caroline Crew; Diana Khoi Nguyen.
Thank you to Ander Monson for giving us the space of Essay Daily, and as ever thank you to Nick Lantz, Editor of The Texas Review.
Welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat.
Katie Jean Shinkle, Guest Editor, The Texas Review
If you would like to order a copy of the All-Essay Issue: http://www.thetexasreview.org/issues/
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