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Archive for December, 2002

THINGS THAT ALWAYS MAKE ME THINK OF X-MAS

Chef Boyardee Raviolis: When I was a kid, I always used to get to pick whatever I wanted to eat on X-mas eve before we opened up presents. We always used to open presents up on X-mas eve, too . . . although later on, there was an inexplicable switch to X-mas morning, I’m not sure why. At any rate, I got to pick any dish of my choice . . . and I should probably mention that my mother is an extremely good cook . . . and I always picked my favorite, which was Chef Boyardee Raviolis. I still kind of like them to this day.

Shag Haircuts: I remember being downtown one X-mas eve, and my father bought my mother a wig, which was apparently something she’d been wanting for X-mas. It was the late 60’s, and she got a black pixie shag wig, a la Joey Heatherton. It came in this really great hot-pink vinyl box with groovy black designs and a black plastic strap on top. There was a gold twist-button clasp, and when that was undone, the front of the box swung smoothly open to reveal the wig sitting on its styrofoam head. My mother and I both enjoyed brushing the wig with the special wig brush. Years later, when I was in high school, I remember being mortified (because I was in high school, and easily mortified) when my father (who is bald) wore the wig to an English Department Halloween party. This was the same X-mas where my parents took me to see Santa Claus downtown. I remember sitting on Santa Claus’s lap, and spotting the barest smidge of adhesive which held his beard on. That wasn’t the real Santa Claus, I announced when we got home.

Roadrunners: Every other X-mas we would fly to Wickenburg, Arizona, to visit my American grandparents. They lived in a charming trailer park/retirement community, and sometimes I could see roadrunners come running by early in the morning. I was always surprised that they didn’t look like the roadrunner in the cartoon, nor did they yell “Beep! Beep!” I remember the smell of the gas stove in the morning when my grandpa got up and made me oatmeal, and sitting in my grandmother’s lap while she brushed my hair. I was startled one day by my grandmother’s false teeth in a glass in the bathroom. My parents told me not to mention it, though, so I wrote in my notebook, in the too-waxy red crayon given out by the airlines, My grandma wears false teeth! I loved going to the Wickenburg library to pick out books, and to the laundromat to do laundry, which seemed like a fabulously urbane place that people on T.V. went to. There were palm trees, and yucca plants, and saguaro cactus — brilliant desert colors and the Camelback Mountains in the horizon. My father went hunting with my grandfather in the desert during the day, and I remember the tiny bodies of quail, the smell of their blood, their iridiscent top knots and half-opened eyes. I remember the dinnertime clatter of BB pellets spit on my plate, and how delicate their ribcages were. Every day at 5:00 p.m. it was Happy Hour, and I got to eat Cheetos and drink Pepsi. I watched Sesame Street twice a day, at 10:00 and at 3:00 . . . our T.V. at home didn’t have strong enough reception to get PBS, so Sesame Street was an unheard of treat. During the X-mas season everyone put out luminaria . . . the simple lights in the small brown bags, lining the walkways . . . and it was beautiful. The X-mas after my American grandmother died, my grandfather, who didn’t know how to live alone, began courting an old family friend. My Dearest Darling H. all the letters began. I know because I peeked. Every day that X-mas I walked hand-in-hand with him down to the post-office to mail his love letters.

Solitaire: My American grandmother taught me how to play solitaire, and double solitaire. The cards were soft and worn. They came in a leather holder with a snap and had the pictures and names of famous race horses.

Checkers: I got a checkers set for X-mas one year, and my dad played checkers with me after dinner every night for most of that X-mas break. I usually seemed to have a chronic case of bronchitis, or tonsillitis, or sinusitis, and so when it was “cold drink time” and my parents would have a cold soda while watching T.V., my father would heat up my Diet Dr. Pepper for me in a pan on the stove, because cold liquids would always make my cough worse. Sometimes if I couldn’t sleep because I was coughing too much I would get to sit up on the living room couch with a heating pad on my chest and watch old movies with my dad. My favorites were the musicals. Particularly the ones with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.

Denver Stapleton Airport: I loved going to Denver Stapleton Airport when we flew to Arizona to visit my American grandparents for X-mas. I would spend hours going up and down the escalators, and I adored those cheesy little airport shops. These were the days when people still actually dressed up to travel, and it always seemed like a really big deal. My father looked quite dashing in his trench coat and fedora-style hat, and my mother would be wearing a dress or a nice pantsuit. I would have to wear a dress, tights, and patent-leather shoes. Dinner on the plane arrived with real linen and silverware, and wine was always served. One time there was a lengthy layover at the airport, and we actually took a cab to the Denver Zoo! The main thing I remember about the zoo was the hippopotamous, which was fascinating and revolting at the same time. It swam about in a small pool filled with big green turds. It smelled. I stared and stared. I coudn’t stop looking.

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LOST IN TRANSLATION

A visit to Stacey’s blog earlier today — where he was taunting visitors with a cryptic bit in Japanese script — which I, even though I’m half Japanese, couldn’t read, got me to thinking about bilingualism and, more specifically, my lack thereof. My mother must have spoken Japanese to me as an infant and a toddler, because when I first started talking I spoke in a form of Japanglish that was apparently somewhat indecipherable to everyone but myself. My mother immediately panicked and stopped speaking to me in Japanese. One of her greatest fears was that I wouldn’t speak proper English, and as my father was an English professor, she felt that my English-speaking skills would be under close scrutiny by the populace at large, and that she would be blamed if I was English “handicapped.” This seems like a strange way of thinking now, perhaps, but my parents were married in the 1950’s during the post-WWII occupation in Japan, and at that point in time, theirs was still considered a highly radical interracial marriage.

It’s a strange thing, not being able to speak your mother’s tongue. Although, in point of fact, I do know a handful of phrases and words . . . mostly words to do with food or (as Stacey also mentioned to me) a good chunk of potty talk, too. And it’s also true that when my mother’s Japanese friends would come to visit, they would often forget to switch to English and ask me questions in Japanese, which I would then answer in English. My mother would always be surprised and ask me later on how I knew what they were saying. It wasn’t that I could translate verbatim, by any means . . . and I’d only recognize a sprinkling of words here and there . . . but somehow I always instinctively knew what the conversations were about. The small amount of Japanese that I do know falls much more easily, almost naturally, from my tongue than the German or French that I studied in college, perhaps from always having had the intonations and rhythms of the Japanese language in my ear. Is it possible that people come into the world “hard-wired” for a particular language? And if so, what does it mean to have given up a tongue that one otherwise might have been destined to have spoken? And if language is truly the filter through which we perceive and interact with the world, might we all be completely different people altogether if we spoke a different language?

Several years ago there was a marvelous discussion in an on-line Asian American writer’s group that I belonged to about how many of us seemed to have had some type of early “thorniness” with a missing or lost second language early on during our childhoods. It was suggested that perhaps this was even one of the things that informed, at least in part, our need to write. I love this notion of there being a second “lost” self, a Japanese-speaking self, a “ghostly double” self that could possibly be recovered through the act of writing. Recovered, ironically, through an obsession over mastery of the English language, at that. A second self that isn’t always divided into halves — American and Japanese. A second self that could speak to her own mother in her mother’s native tongue.

The gaps in translation, the things that don’t get said, are funny and awful at the same time. When my first book of poetry came out in 1999, my mother took the volume to her ESL class at the University to show her ESL buddies. One of her Chinese friends read the first poem in the book, “Pearls.” When I was a child, I used to love the sound of my mother speaking Japanese on the telephone. I thought it sounded so beautiful, like the sound of birds, maybe sparrows, and I used to think that she knew how to speak the language of birds. Inside my head, I had a special name for it. I called it “bird talk.” The poem “Pearls” was written in the voice of a child, and early on in the poem the speaker says that her mother “does bird talk” when the Mormons come to the door . . . which was true, my mother used to speak Japanese and pretend she didn’t understand English to make them go away. Well, my mother’s Chinese ESL friend read that line and said to my mother, “Bird talk? Is she mean like pigeon?” Which my mother then took to mean, “Is she mean like pidgin?” As in Pidgin (Pigeon) English. And no amount of explanation on my part ever since has convinced my mother that this is not a poem in which I’m accusing her of speaking Pidgin English.

I would like to learn to speak Japanese. I would like to go to Japan someday. At my age, the acquiring of a second language, hard-wired or not, is difficult and slow-going, though. I have a computer program that is quite good that I work with, on and off, and although I have made some small progress, I can really only say the most trivial and absurd things. O-hayo gozai-masu. Good morning. Sakana wa oyoide masu. The fish is swimming. My mother is 72, and time is running out. How will I ever be able to ask her the important questions? How will I be able to understand her answers? Will she always be asking me in Japanese, then, and will I always answer in English — leaving to faith that the part which gets lost in translation will somehow be instinctively known?

There was a book that I loved when I was a child in which a girl’s favorite doll was magically given the ability to speak for one hour, and during that one hour the girl and her doll had to say all the things to each other that went unsaid before, and would go unsaid afterwards. I loved this book, in part, because I was an only child, and the thought of having my dolls and animals talk out loud to me in real life, instead of my imagination, was, of course, highly appealing. Now I think that maybe I loved that story so much because I was a girl whose Japanese mother stopped sharing things with her in Japanese because she wanted her daughter to speak only perfect American English. I sometimes wonder if I could speak Japanese fluently for one hour, what my mother and I would say to each other. Sometimes I call her on the phone and practice my Pigeon Japanese on her. O-hayo gozai-masu, I say. Sakana wa oyoide masu. She laughs, and answers me in English.

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HYBERNACULA

HYBERNACULA

Perhaps the strangest thing was that I didn’t really know for sure how long the bat had been in my house. In retrospect, throughout some of the recent clusterfuck and scramble that makes up the end-of-the-semester death spiral, I vaguely remember hearing a clicking sound late one afternoon shortly after returning home from the office. The landlord was downstairs in the basement at the time working on installing a washer and dryer and there was an additional service truck pulled up in the back alley. “Huh,” I remember thinking to myself, “they must be checking for radon. Huh.” The quirkiness of this particular logic did not, I think, occur to me at the time, and I remember feeling pretty solid about my conclusion, despite its oddity. Furthermore, I didn’t think too much of it, when, several days later, I heard the clicking once again, despite the fact that it was around 10:00 p.m. at night, and there were no servicemen in the basement to account for the presence of the metal-detector-like clicking sound. “Huh,” I thought to myself in befuddlement, “there’s that radon detector thingy again. Huh.”

Then, two days after Thanksgiving, when I was feeling somewhat less frantic and sleep-deprived, I happened to look up to see a reddish-brown scrap of something, the size of a rather small egg, ensconced in the corner up by the ceiling in front of the entranceway to the bathroom. I came closer, and realized that it was a bat. A very sleepy drowsy bat just napping there, upside down on the wall, with its wings compactly furled into the sides of its body and the merest smidge of tiny cupped bat ears peeking out from the glossy red-brown fur. It had somehow managed to cleverly place itself in the one corner of the house where it was just out of reach of being (perhaps viciously) tampered with by Yuki.

After phone consultation with E.’s husband, J., who is frequently called upon for bat dispatching advice, we concluded that the bat must have inadvertently been routed out of its hybernation location and was now proceeding to take up hybernation on my kitchen wall. (Subsequent searching on the internet revealed that during the winter bats do, in fact, rouse themselves every two-three weeks to fly around a bit, before returning to hybernation and may, due to winter-time stupefaction, inadvertently find themselves at loose ends.) Given that the bat was undoubtedly in hibernation mode at this time of year, the issue of what to do with the bat upon successful bat gathering became a bit of a Bat Conundrum. If I simply took it outside it might be too sluggish to locate an indoor hibernaculum and could subsequently freeze to death, or become a helpless bite-sized bat snack for predators. We concluded that an attic-type space might ultimately be a warm and private enough place for the bat to sleep out the remainder of the winter.

J.’s bat-gathering technique was really first-rate. It basically involves placing a Tupperware-type container over the sleeping bat that’s large enough to spaciously contain the bat. Then you slide a thin flat piece of cardboard (I found that a manila folder was quite ideal for this purpose) under the edge of the Tupperware-type container and, as J. put it, “tickle its toes” a bit until you’re able to gently loosen the bat from the wall and into the container without having to handle it directly and without inadvertently damaging it through any unnecessary roughness.

At this point in the narrative, should it be unintentionally freaking any of you the fuck out, it might perhaps be helpful to share some little-known Bat Facts. For example, bats are not aggressive creatures, and little bats, such as this one, feed primarily on insects, many of which are considered pests. Nor do bats become aggressive when they are infected with rabies, unlike cats or dogs. A rabid bat will apparently become utterly paralyzed and fall to the ground, unable to move. Over the last 40 years, only 15 people have died from being bitten by a rabid bat. This number is significantly lower than the number of people who have died over the last 40 years from rabid dog bites.

So . . . to return to the tickling of bat toes with a manila folder while perched precariously atop a stepladder. Upon being roused from a highly satisfying hibernation-caliber slumber, the bat was, as one might imagine, hugely disgruntled. There was a furious rain of staccato clicking and urgent blipping as it employed its echolocation. Imagine the sound of dolphins, who also use echolocation. Now imagine a dolphin small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. That was the sound. There is even a special pre-collision beep that bats employ, like cars whizzing along on a freeway, to avoid accidentally flying into one another. I imagine that this was undoubtedly the particular blipping and beeping that I was privy to at that moment. There was a webby unfolding of cranky, paper-thin wings, a stamping about of dainty sticky Jell-O bat toes which resolutely insisted on clinging to the wall, a scrunching up of the small, wrinkled bat face — incensed, silent hissing and much baring of impossibly tiny pin-point bat teeth. And even though this bat weighed 3-4 ounces at most, and even though I held all of the power over this fragile, vulnerable creature at this moment, it was nonetheless spectacularly unnerving. One truly begins to understand the power of the Bat Mythos.

Once the bat was detatched from the wall however, and safely ensconced in the Tupperware container with the manila folder on top as a lid, the bat settled down and hunched warily on the bottom of the container. Since the attic entrance was locked, I ended up deciding that the basement might be the safest makeshift hibernaculum. Once in the basement, the initial battle of wills had settled down to the point that I was able to take a long good look at this strange little animal. The fur was soft and velvety . . . the color of a dark, burnt orange, and the minuscule crumpled-paper ears and homely snout were amazing to see up close in real-life detail. It was a Little Brown Bat (Myotis Lucifugus), also affectionately known as LeConte. The Little Brown Bat is an insectivore, and they are known to live for as long as 32 years.

I took the Tupperware container into the dark, unused half of the basement and carefully set it on the crawlspace shelf. There was some quiet, tentative clicking. Then some more soft, inquisitive clicking. And I left it to sleep through the remainder of the winter in peace. Rest well, Little Count, in your hibernaculum, and may you take wing in the night air again come spring.

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