The Things They Do Not Tell You
My dad loved T-shirts. Specifically, T-shirts from Broadway shows, ballet companies and Cirque Du Soleil. In many ways my father, in this country for nearly 30 years, looked like someone who had just gotten off the plane from somewhere in Asia. You know, one of those people who is wearing logos with no idea if they have any significance, but wearing them nonetheless because wearing clothes with English writing on them is cool. There is dad wandering around the Upper West Side with an American Ballet Theater 2016 Season Gala T-shirt carrying a tote bag that reads “Girls Got The Power” on it. Occasionally, he would top off this ensemble with another prized possession, his NJ State Police Department baseball cap. But my dad wasn’t someone looking to wear American worded clothing for no reason. My dad was a walking advertisement for our family. My brother was in the American Ballet Theater studio company. My grandpa, his father-in-law, was the former captain of the NJ State Police. And the girl power tote bag was from Eve Ensler’s play Emotional Creature that I was in Off Broadway.
One year for Christmas, a holiday that went over his head so much so that we had to convince (see: beg) him to close the restaurant on December 25th, someone in the family, I can’t remember who, got him a new T-Shirt. But when we gave him this gift he looked puzzled and said thank you and was very appreciative as always, but in my head I saw the internal monologue which was something like: “Thank you but I already have a shirt. Why do I need more than one shirt? Father’s Day is one of those American holidays designed to make you feel like you have to take your Dad out to an overpriced brunch and buy him a present. You know, something really materialistic- which is also something my dad also did not understand. And I am pretty sure I don’t remember his fondness for brunches either.
My father didn’t understand American holidays so Father’s Day was never much of a thing in our house. With that said, Father’s Day today should really just be any other day. And yet, of course it isn’t. Of course it is heavy. I think that it is fitting I am writing this on Father’s Day. Because, since he has passed, I feel unable to walk through the Father’s Day cards section of Duane Reade. And because since he passed I am fixated on the bridge between here and the unknown. I am haunted by the idea of where his spirit is now and the look on his face when he passed away in front of us, which I wish I could say was peaceful but was more or less like someone in mid thought, pausing before continuing - sadly and profoundly unfinished and not done yet. And also, with that feeling of a life cut short, since he passed I am feeling the immense pressure to achieve even a portion of what he did in his 58 years on this earth, for myself. So what I have learned today is that Father’s Day can definitely not be a big event in your house, but once you suddenly don’t have a father, your first Father-less Day hits you very hard. Does it make me more American to suddenly care about Father’s day, only now that I don’t have one? Do I just want an excuse to join in the “fun” of all my friend’s writing #MyDadRules on Instagram? I think that it is also fitting to be asked to write this now as I have had to come to the realization that I am continuing to talk about my father because, in a sense, it keeps him alive for me. He isn’t alive and I have to start accepting that, however his death has opened a pandora’s box of ideas on legacy and culture for me that will probably be alive for a very, very long time.
Understanding my father’s relationship with America is a difficult one. One that I have only started to comprehend recently amid a desperation born out of guilt and desire to be tied more to my own relationship with my father’s homeland. I was always aware my dad loved being Japanese. There was an occasion every 5 years, usually during lunch on Sunday since that was his only day off, when my mother would casually mention that my dad should totally take the Citizenship test. My mom would say, “look you have the Green Card but… why not just do it?” I would join in mentioning how my partner at the time passed it super easily. We would look up the questions on Google. He would lift his head from his corner, his special corner at the table piled with his Japanese books and his fish pictures and his special box that he glued origami paper to, which was home to his very specific collection of BIC pens. He would lift his head and grunt and say almost with utter confusion, “why? Why would I do that? I love Japan. I love being Japanese”. And that was the end of the conversation.
When I was a child visiting Japan, it was routine and obligatory and laced with an air of hostility because of the simple fact that my father had left Japan and come to America. That feeling of parents trying to be happy you’ve left the nest and flown, but also resenting that you have. The feeling I got from my dad was that he was obviously way happier there than he was in NYC. The way I think it made my mother feel to witness this. And of course the feeling that came with his obvious inability to enjoy the moment due to the looming end date of our visit. The fact that we would eventually get on a Japan Airlines flight across the ocean and go back to West 83rd Street was ever present and there was that weight the entire trip. My memories are hazy and probably idealized as I search for connection and meaning and understanding post his death. I want to think it was a perfect family vacation, I know it was not. I want to remember my great grandmother collecting snails off the road so easily because she was a hunchback and so close to the ground; presenting me with “new pets” everyday. I want to remember how the kids in the neighborhood were allowed, even at the age of four, to run around the neighborhood setting off fireworks in people’s backyards with reckless abandon. I want to remember the time my mom offered to run the family general store attached to the front of my grandparent’s house and how long it took her to make change with this foreign currency when someone came in to purchase one orange popsicle.
My father came to America to work as a sushi chef- the trade that blissfuly controlled his life. He truly loved to work. But there was always an understanding that he would return to his family and his sushi master after his prearranged brief time in the USA had ended. Then he met my mom, a New Yorker. And he never went back to Japan.
Because of this, these childhood visits were interesting to say the least. On the surface it was a fun Hello Kitty themed holiday where my grandfather bought me every little trinket I so much even glanced at in an effort to bridge this cultural and lingual gap between us. But it was also painfully difficult for my father. We knew he didn’t want to just visit. We knew he wanted to stay. We knew. It was completely unspoken and completely evident at the same time. Much like everything he did. He hardly ever verbally expressed anything and yet, you never had to guess what he was thinking.
I understood so much more of my father’s struggle and journey when I returned to Japan as an adult. My father spent half his life in Japan and half in America. I understood how hard it must have been for him to leave his home in his twenties and come to a place where he did not know anyone at all or the language and how brave he was to make a life for himself in America. How scary and exhilarating and challenging and magical it must have been. I ended up in Japan on a whim. After buying a Groupon to go to Thailand, not leaving when the Groupon group left, ending up in Vietnam and Googling “places that are close to Vietnam” (because apparently even though I count myself somewhat intelligent, I am not good at reading maps) I felt some calling to the fatherland that was partially born out of desperation to connect, and partially born out of simply not wanting to go home to New York just yet. Being drunk on travel and the idea that I was wanderlust personified traipsing around the globe, I found myself in Tokyo. I had a hole in my sneaker, a tan from living on a beach in Saigon, and was in dire need of a winter coat as it was very cold there. It would end up being the most rewarding and difficult trips of my life, one that would bring my father closer to me, and ultimately allow him to die with his family and with Japan in his life again.
During this momentous trip, I fell in love with Japan. The people: hard working, polite, generous and punctual. The culture: vivid, bright. So clean. Like the entire country is continually going through a car wash. I fell in love with how safe I felt even on the darkest streets, alone at night with no one in sight for miles. I fell in love with its precision and order. Its unabashed yet humble understanding that things are pretty awesome. I fell in love with the vending machines that readily dispense hot coffee in a can for a few yen. I fell in love with Japan as an adult, trying to form a relationship with my family. As an adult trying to learn more about my own identity. And as a daughter trying so hard to understand her distant father. I fell in love with Japan as a foreigner wandering around a strange new but still somehow familiar place. I fell in love with Japan having no idea that the next time I would return would be a year later, to lay his ashes to rest.
Just as this place was foreign and yet familiar, I would soon find out that so was grief. I had known grief before, or so I thought. I thought I knew. I thought that because I had had my heart broken, I knew what grief was. I thought I knew so much. I thought that after months of watching him slip away in front of us, a little bit every day until he was barely recognizable as himself, that I was ready. I found out that I wasn’t ready. I found out that I was stupid for thinking I knew what grief was. I found out that comparing my broken heart from my failed relationship didn’t compare to this form of grief even in the slightest. I found that I felt guilty for ever thinking it would. I found out first hand that watching someone die in front of you, not figuratively but quite literally, is actually very traumatic. It could be anyone, it could be someone you don’t even know and it can stay with you forever. Factor in it being someone you know, and factor in it being your parent, and I can tell you one thing I know to be true. One thing that I wish I didn’t know to be true: you will think about it everyday. There is nothing romantic or beautiful about watching someone take their last final breath. It is haunting and terrible and absolutely mind boggling in every single sense. There will be days you will get solidly to 8 o’clock at night having not thought about it and just as you go to begin your evening routine the image will rear its ugly head. There you are again. There it is again. And nothing prepares you for it. All the self help books in the world cannot prepare you to be in the room with the body of your dead father. They do not tell you.
They do not tell you that when you try and get a black kimono off eBay for his funeral everything will say “Sexy Kimono Sexy Sailor Moon Cos Play Kimono” and you will laugh ‘cause God of course this would happen. They do not tell you that when he is dying you will realize that you spent your entire life wanting him so desperately to be quintessentially American, but that he was always doing the best he could and he loved you so whole-heartedly in his own very specific, very Japanese way. They do not tell you that you will feel stupid for wishing that just once you ran into his arms in a Elsa costume screaming Daddy! as he reciprocated, “there’s daddy’s little girl.” Why did you ever want this? This wouldn’t have been him. They do not tell you that you will watch your baby brother become a man right in front of your eyes. They do not tell you that the crematory will ask you questions like, "what was your father's mother’s maiden name" and you will have no clue. They do not tell you what a bad idea to force your brother to go to Tokyo Disney Sea the day after his funeral in an attempt to cheer him up. They do not tell you that you will think about death all the time, every single day after he dies.
When he died at the age of 58, he had spent as much time in the states as he spent in Japan. He was the hardest working example of the American Dream personified that anyone ever saw. He was oozing determination and worth ethic. They say you shouldn’t live to work, but watching my father one would rethink that statement. He truly did live to work because he loved it so much. That was his happiness, his joy, his world. The world retirement was not in his vision of his future, nor his vocabulary.
It was never about money. It was never about business. He was many things, but a businessman was not one of them. He was a food artist, if such a thing exists, and he loved his art. Sometimes to a fault. No matter how hard it was for him to be away from Japan - I know my father’s time in America was never a waste. None of his time anywhere actually, was ever a waste. He slept on his one day off, only to emerge eventually and read more about fish, more about Japan, more about sushi. Over his almost 30 years in the States he trained many chefs from all over the world, of all genders. In an occupation that was deemed only acceptable for Japanese males, my father only cared if you wanted to learn. He didn’t care if you were Asian. He didn’t care if you were a woman. That was in a way something that made this super Japanese man, so very liberal. And now that I think about it, so very American.
His legacy is not just his children or his tireless, yet at almost all times unspoken, devotion to my mother. His legacy lies within all the chefs who consider him their master. I believe in many ways, as hard as it was for him to stay in the States and be away from Japan, being able to teach those who wouldn’t have otherwise ever learned his art, kept him satisfied, and was worth more to him than any monetary success. That was his legacy. That was his contribution. That is why he was here.
As he was dying, he started to forget English. We watched him revert in many ways to his former self, day by day. Soon, he only spoke Japanese and soon, even speaking any language at all proved difficult. We hung paper cranes in his room. Pictures of Japan. We played the string quartet version recording from Miyazaki’s Totoro on a loop. We brought in a Buddhist Priest. We brought in the origami his mother had made.
On my last trip visiting Japan before my father’s death my grandmother sent me home with several of her new set origami creations including a very large flamingo, a bizarre looking crane that looked like it was carrying a small baby and a pig cradling a flower. They were so large that they needed to be wrapped in saran wrap in order to make it back on the flight back from Narita to JFK. I delivered them to my father so that he could put them in his restaurant, as per her request. He said they would probably be best kept at home on a shelf. I think this was his polite way of saying that they were funny looking, and he thought they were kinda silly, but of course at the same time, when he was dying, he asked me if I could bring them into the room.
We continually played the Japanese TV channel. We knew it was the end now and if he wants fireworks and unicorns— we are making it happen. If he wants Celine Dion to show up on the bow of a boat singing— we will make it happen. But he only wants the Japanese TV channel. So it needs to happen. And it did, thanks to my mother. My grandmother also makes things happen. She makes things happen so much that people don’t think she needs anything or anyone. She is so strong I don’t even see her break when I arrive in Japan, a week after my father’s death, delirious and jet-lagged, and hand her the ashes of my father in a box.
She says, “my son is home”.
She doesn’t cry.
It is only when she hugs my brother, who is now the closest thing she has to her own son, that I see her wiping tears. They have never met before. My brother is 24 years old. My grandma is 80 and her face is unchanged and stoic. She doesn’t weep. I don't think you would even notice she was crying if it weren’t for her continually wiping and touching her eyes. She had not seen her son for over ten years. The last time my father came back to visit he returned from that trip saying, “never again. It is too hard.” By the time he realized he wanted to be in Japan, it was too late. He was dying. He saw his mother one last time on FaceTime while he lay in the hospice and she was wiping the tears from her silent unmoved face, just as she was now.
My father is buried in a beautiful grave a few steps from where he grew up. His mom, my grandmother, will lay there too after she passes, beside him. Their names engraved side by side in Japanese. When I first saw the engraving, I told them it said the incorrect age and the wrong date of death. It was explained to me that he was buried with his Japanese age. And the date that he died in Japan. In Japan you are one year old when you are born, and the date that he died in America was one day later in Japan. So my father lived an entire year of a life before he was born and died a day later.
The house he grew up in is still there, beaten down by typhoon and time, it is still there- give or take a few roof replacements. A giant thing that has outlived him. When I walk up to it the first time since his death, I search for a manifestation of feelings I think I should have. I think if I envision him in it maybe I will find myself closer to him? Maybe I’ll suddenly be super Japanese and not American at all. I wonder why I didn’t encourage him to come back sooner.
I am fascinated by things living longer than people and things that people literally touched or places people lived in, still remaining after they have gone. The chair in the corner of the apartment that my father sat in at Monday night dinner. The front door knob he touched everyday to leave and go to work. The special BIC pens in the origami paper covered box, the Japanese books piled up. His iPad. His “Keep Calm And Eat Sushi” mug. All those logo T-shirts.
My preconceived notions of what a father daughter relationship should be and could be, were so ferociously tied to American perceptions and perhaps not at all to what I actually needed. Just as you can live an entire year before you are born in one place and not in another and die on Thursday the 4th in America but Friday the 5th in Japan.
It has taken me a long time to be able to say I miss you. To be able to say I miss the you that I knew, and the you that I hoped to get to know better one day. But I am happy to know that you are finally home.
Happy Father’s Day.