A couple days ago, I found myself on a train to New York City without my phone. It was Saturday morning, and having spent the preceding night bowling, past my usual bedtime, with Austin’s friends, I’d awoke to a 6:15am alarm with a groan. After hitting the snooze button three times, I turned the alarm off and decided to watch the latest installments of Mike Mustard’s “Hanging at Henry’s” vlogs, promising myself that once the two videos ended, I’d force my body out of the bed.
I fulfilled this promise to myself, but alas, in my frenzy to get ready for my day at Poets House–filling my water bottle, eating cereal, preparing a lunch–I forgot all about my phone, which remained on the bed, right where I’d put it down after watching the vlogs (which I loved, by the way, Mustard, if you’re reading this!).
So there I was on the train, about to sit down and conk out for the hour and a half ride from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Station, frantically sifting through my purse and bag, looking and looking for a phone that was always there, until I realized, with a piercing, stomach-dropping sensation, what had happened. I ran out of the train car and asked the conductor how much time I had before the train took off. The conductor, looking as if he was too tired to make any sort of facial expression, looked down at his watch. “Two and a half minutes,” he said.
I quite literally ran in a circle right there on the platform, trying to decide if I had enough time to run up the stairs to try to find Austin, who’d dropped me off at the station, or if I should just get on the train without my phone. I ran up the stairs. Austin, who’d just a minute ago stood looking out at the train, a few steps from the top of the stairs, was gone. I ran back down the stairs. But what would I do without my phone? I ran back up, and this time I ran all the way into and across the ticket station, flung the doors open, and sprinted to the parking spot where Austin had parked to see me off. No car, no Austin. I sprinted back in and out of the station, raced down the stairs, and flung myself into the train car.
As the train lurched into motion, I sat in my seat, spurts of breath escaping my lips. I didn’t know if I had made the right decision. I was now on my way to the largest city in America, with its terrifyingly confusing train lines and mazes of streets and dizzying throngs of people, without access to Google maps or the internet or my list of contacts. I didn’t know Austin’s phone number by heart–I’d tried to memorize the numbers once, but they’d all but vanished from my mind since then–so even if I asked someone to let me borrow their phone, I couldn’t reach him.
But why was reaching Austin a solution? I asked myself this after a while, the train rumbling forward and still forward, away from the safety of the town I came to call home. If I had reached Austin before he had gone home, what would I have done? And if I could call Austin now, what would I tell him? There was nothing that could be done.
I tried to sleep, but panic kept rushing over me in waves. Oh, I realized, after closing my eyes for a few minutes, Austin could’ve given me his phone. And then he’d have mine, when he got home. Yes, that would have worked. But that hadn’t happened, and there was still nothing I could do to change the reality of my phonelessness. I tried to sleep again.
By the time I reached the city, my stomach had stopped churning, for the most part. A little sleep had cleared my mind, and I kept remembering something my father had written in an essay about the day of my birth, about how in those days, before the invention of the cell phone, people didn’t feel obliged to keep others constantly up-to-date about their coordinates in time and space. I thought of how people have long managed to survive without a smartphone glued to their fingers and eyes, and how strange it was that I felt so unmoored without one on my person.
I thought also of the characters in the book I’d just finished reading, Exit West, who find themselves without landlines or cellphone signals in a city besieged by militants. The electric grid shut off, Saeed and Nadia, who are falling in love with one another as the world around them breaks apart, suddenly cannot reach each other and are confined to their homes. Saeed risks his life to travel to Nadia’s apartment, and luckily, catches her coming back from her bank. Nadia herself risked her life to attempt to cash out as much money as she could before it was too late, and was violently sexually assaulted in the process. In a dark, dangerous city on the brink of collapse, Saeed and Nadia find one another, and together, flee as refugees.
Thinking about Saeed and Nadia gave me relief in my time of (relatively minuscule) crisis. I thought of how much I am shielded from the violence and hunger that wraps around much of the rest of the world, how my luck and privilege of being born in this country, to my parents, in peace and with no lack of food or water or shelter, has protected me from the fury of militants, the drying up of once-rich farmland, the need to run from my home to live.
But I thought too, of how the world of Exit West, which seems somehow to be set in the past, present, and future, all at once, reminded me of what was now happening in our own country. In the book, which is steeped in magical realism, Saeed and Nadia hear of magical doors that can take them to other places in the world. The first door they manage to go through brings them to the Greek island of Mykonos, where they live in a refugee settlement camp. The second takes them to London, and opens to a large room in a beautiful London home, which is quickly overtaken by other migrants from all over the world, who keep entering through that door. The owners of the home are away when Saeed and Nadia arrive, but a couple days into their stay, the housekeeper comes and screams at the sight of all of the migrants. A stand-off with the police follows, but Saeed and Nadia and many of the other new inhabitants of the house refuse to leave, fearing for their safety.
London boils with nativist backlash. I read this passage a couple days after the white supremacist and neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville:
“One day Saeed and Nadia were returning home with no food but modestly full bellies, after a reasonably good evening of foraging, and she was experiencing the peculiar sweet aftertaste and acidity of mustard and ketchup, and Saeed was looking at his phone, when they heard shouting up ahead and saw people running, and they realized that their street was under attack by a nativist mob, Palace Gardens Terrace being roiled in a way that belied its name. The mob looked to Nadia like a strange and violent tribe, intent on their destruction, some armed with iron bars or knives, and she and Saeed turned and ran, but could not escape.” (Exit West, p. 134)
When I watched, horror-stricken, the cult-like procession of white men holding tiki torches and shouting “You will not replace us,” and the beating of a black counterprotester by a group of white men in the aftermath, I felt the fictional world of Exit West and our own reality converging.
Now, as in the book, vast change is in the air. Doors will keep opening, no matter how much those who fear new faces and cultures try to keep them shut. What I found beautiful and true and uplifting about Exit West was that there came a point in the story where there were just too many migrants and refugees flooding every nation that the initial resistance and violence on the part of the nativists subsided. There was no going back, so people just had to get used to the change and live with each other. It wasn’t a happily-ever-after kind of ending, but what I realized through reading this book was that someday, we will reach a breaking point. We are already transforming, and we will continue to transform. And there is something gorgeous and generous about that future.
What struck me, too, about the book was the role the phones Nadia and Saeed owned played in their relationship. In the beginning of their courtship, they use their phones to connect to one another when they are apart, and as a means to set up dates, but once the phone lines go dark they are forced to come together under one roof, to ensure each other’s survival. The tragedy of their situation brings them closer together. As the tale progresses, and as they arrive in Greece, and then to London, Nadia and Saeed have better access to the internet and seem to talk to each other less, and stare at their phones more. There is a kind of barren loneliness that arises out of their connection to the borderless world of the internet, and also out of the overreaching now-borderless world that they live in.
I feel this loneliness too. These days I rarely go on social media, especially Facebook, because I feel like crying and spending days laying in bed after I spend hour after hour checking my notifications and scrolling through posts. There is a kind of powerlessness that comes with the world suddenly at your fingertips. I despise the way I latch onto my phone and cannot resist the urge to check every app for little gifts of notifications, only to want more attention and love. I feel controlled, addicted. I am wasting so much life in cyberspace.
And so, the day I spent without a phone in New York City, I felt free. My mind was bursting with thoughts. I made it all the way to Poets House without getting lost, looking so sure and confident that a young woman, mistaking me for a New Yorker, asked me if she was on the right train. I didn’t hesitate when I told her she was. If I had my phone I am sure that I would have doubted myself and looked it up for her, but being without my phone, my crutch, I noticed more about the train announcements and naturally deduced what was true and not true. Without my phone, I had to peer closely at buildings as I passed them, trying to remember them from my walks in the past. This forced me to look at all of the people around me, really look, and notice the spectrum of skin colors, of languages.
This is the world I live in, I thought. This is the world I want to live in–where every one of us, regardless of where we come from or where we are going, smile and chatter and skip and march in these streets. Where we are all migrants. Because, as Mohsin Hamid writes in Exit West, “We are all migrants through time.”
Last night, I was dancing again. It was the Fourth of July, right before the fireworks show in Peekskill, NY, and the sun scorched the clouds blood red as it dipped down into the Hudson River. A high-energy band called Barnstorm shook the stage and the air with pop, rock and country hits. All around me, little girls twirled and did cartwheels, stood on their hands, and jumped to the music. Some stared at me, mouths slightly open, as my bare feet kneaded the ground. I felt my way into the music, relaxing my shoulders and breathing deep, and soon I was twirling, too, bouncing and shaking and flipping myself upside down.
After a couple of songs, I was winded and very thirsty, so I ambled over to Austin and his family to rest and drink some water. As soon as I left the dance floor, though, the band told the crowd that they were going to start the next song slow for that “dancer out there,” and two little blonde-haired girls ran to where I was standing and said breathlessly, “They’re calling you!” I smiled at Austin and put my water bottle in his hands. There was no time to rest.
I love dancing–the freedom of it, the way I don’t care about anything except the music billowing through my body, the way I can get out into the world all that I feel and let it fade into the air. And I love watching other people dance: the scrawny man with silver hair bending his knees and twisting, eyes closed, smile wide; the beautiful Asian couple swinging each other round and round, a human hurricane; the pig-tailed girl flinging herself this way and that, mouth wide open in bliss. I love to watch people be fully themselves, moving just the way their bodies want to move, how the crowd watches on, wishing themselves there with us.
It’s been a month since I moved to New York, and I admit there have been tear-filled nights, when I just wanted to give kisses and hugs to Koko and Jodi and Happy, or sit around the dinner table with Okaasan, Otoosan and Kazami, giggling and stuffing ourselves full of homemade curry bread. I missed the feeling of completeness, of satisfaction, after a long, muscle-aching week of farm work. Most of all, I missed the comfort of being surrounded by a deep, unbreakable, familial love.
But that night, love surged all around me. I was laughing, giving high-fives to the girls, winking at them and dancing and singing with them. A father came up to me when I was drinking some more water and said, “My daughter’s in love with you. She’s copying all your dance moves.” Austin told me he thought I changed some lives that night. I hoped and hoped that those girls would keep dancing, that they wouldn’t lose that fearlessness, that spunk.
It’s so hard to connect to others, especially when you are plopped in a place you know very few people. I struggled–and still struggle–to be loving and accepting of new ways to live my life, and still hold on to what makes me myself–what makes me burst with joy. Many nights while Austin was at work and I was all alone, I felt barren with loneliness. But last night I finally danced, and I loved, and I bonded. I am still glowing.
Last Friday afternoon, we–my parents, farm hands/apprentices and I–spent the afternoon jabbing white, red and yellow onion sets into the just-tilled soil. I say “jabbing” because that is the word my dad used to describe holding the onion set between your fingers and pounding it down into the fluffed dirt as far down as it will go. Some onions we planted close together (as close together as possible, my dad told us) so that they’d come up as green onions, and others we planted three or four inches apart, so they’d have the space to fill out into big bulbs.
We’d spent the morning bent over the garlic beds, pulling away excess mulch from the baby garlic sprouts that couldn’t push through the straw on their own. There were sections of some beds where the mulch was piled on so thick that I had to dig down through layers and layers before I spotted the weak, yellow-green seedling struggling to reach for sunlight. I thought back to the beginning of December, when Otosan (Daddy), Caitlyn and I rolled out big bales of hay and used pitchforks to lay down the mulch on top of the garlic beds, and began to get worried that I had been the one who’d laid down way too much mulch. It was entirely possible, since I tended to overcompensate when I was anxious about something–in this case, the garlic dying off from frost–and as I pulled away whole handfuls of mulch I cursed myself for suffocating the poor seedlings. Next time, I assured myself, I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I bent down lower to the ground so I could see the seedlings better and uncovered the garlic as quickly as I could, hoping all the while that once sunlight hit the weak seedlings, they’d grow as tall and strong as the others.
All that bending and crawling on hands and knees made my lower back ache and made the beginnings of bruises form on my knees. After a short lunch break, the planting began, and I was forced back into my curved position. But I hardly noticed the pain when I concentrated on the rhythm of planting–jab, jab, jab, jab and scoop, jab, jab, jab, jab. I’d helped plant onion sets since I was young, so my body knew just what to do and how to move, and before I knew it 4 beds of 3 rows of onions were planted.
There is a bittersweetness that surrounds me this spring, as I watch the field alight in green and the winter cold dissipates into warmth (again–there were some strange climate-changed induced 80 degree days in February!) . It is the first spring that I’ve ever been available to work on the farm, because I’ve always been busy with school, or away at college, during these months. Being able to see how Otosan coaxes the fields and greenhouses into holding so much young life fills me with a renewed sense of joy and hope. I’ve always burst onto the scene at the end of June, when school ended, and by that time the farm was nearing a frenzy of weeding and harvesting and I could barely catch my breath before throwing myself into the fire. But in the spring, things are slower, and we aren’t fighting against time quite yet. There are ample moments to breathe, to smile, to throw sticks to Koko and Jodi and laugh when Koko parades around with the stick, bushy tail high in the air, as if she’s a circus dog. There is time to stop and peer into the blazing red sunset at the end of the workday and revel in beauty. There is time to steep myself in love.
It is bittersweet because as full as I feel, I know I will have to part with the farm this June, when I move to New York to live with Austin. I won’t get to see the garlic seedlings grow into bulbs the size of my palm, or see the stiff-neck scapes wave in the breeze. I won’t get to taste the sticky sweet watermelon or pop cherry tomatoes into my mouth. I won’t see the leaves turn yellow in autumn or dig up the sweet potatoes in the late fall. As mentally and physically straining working on the farm is, I will miss the drama of it, the feeling that every single part of me is working within the cycles of our beating earth and I am wholly consumed by the whims of nature.
But the spring has given me the strength and power I need to go off and away from the place and people I love, to be with the person my heart has been yearning for all these long months apart. I feel, for the first time in a long time, an openness to whatever will come next. In New York I will dance, visit and work on organic farms, spend whole days at a poetry library, write, see old and dear friends, and fall asleep, always, in the arms of my love. And for that I am endlessly thankful.
I’d also like to take this moment to share some sweet things:
I did an interview with poet and writer Chloe Clark! When I read her poem, “Sidelong Catastrophe,” it was as if I was reading my own mind and I loved it. So it was a huge honor for me to interview her about poetry and the environment. Check out the interview here: Aozora Brockman interviews Chloe N. Clark
And! Our farm hand Mike Mustard has been making incredible videos about life and work on our farm (with aerial shots!) and this is the second video in the series, where we attempt to cover our greenhouse with a huge sheet of plastic. It’s an impressive video, so see for yourself: Hanging at Henry’s S1:E2
Thanks for reading everyone, and I wish you all a wonderful week!!
I was interviewed for Speaking of Marvels, a beautiful site featuring poetry chapbook authors!
“What is the boundary between human and animal?”
Memory of a Girl (Backbone Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Why did you choose this poem?
I chose “Butchering” because it throws the reader into the central question and tension of the chapbook: do we lose our “selves” when we lose our memories? This question swirls around me throughout the autobiographical, narrative book, while I struggle to come to terms with the reality of my Japanese grandmother’s memory loss, and the terrifying possibility of losing my own mind. In describing the killing of a hen, and linking it to our own eventual powerlessness over our bodies and minds, “Butchering” hints at a deeper question, too, that resurfaces in the poems…
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When I first heard of Dmitri Teplov’s death, I looked him up on Facebook. I wanted to see a face, to make sense of who he was and to quiet the chaos that filled my mind. I could not find a single picture of him, but found a video instead. It was a music video that he had posted on Sunday morning at 4:47am by Proem, an electronic music artist, called “When Frailty Fails.” Without hesitating, I quickly inserted my earphones into my ears, effectively drowning out the shocked silence of the library, and clicked “play.”
The music was soft and slow, with an eerie feel of peace. The lulling melody was almost hypnotizing, and the animated video showed a little girl hugging goodbye to her father, who leaves on a small boat. The girl then gradually grows older, returning to that spot of departure time and time again. I was struck by the scenes of her as a young woman riding her bike against a relentless wind, pushing and pushing to get to the place where she lost her father, only to stare longingly out into the water, truly alone. She was always alone – the only other people in the darkened scenes are riding their bikes as well, but there was no interaction. By the end of the video, she is a sad, old woman, dragging her feet with every step. She collapses onto the ground and lays down in a hole. When she comes to, she sees something in the distance and begins to walk and then run, all the while transforming back into a young girl, until she is again in the arms of her father.
I could not finish my anthropology papers after that, and even as I walked past the sudden, strong scent of spring flowers on the way to the Little Arch, I could not get the melody out of my head. I shivered as my heartbeat reached a crescendo in my ears. I wanted to hug someone, or cry.
Later, after I learned that Dmitri’s death had most likely been a suicide, I watched the video again and tried to find information on it on the Internet. I was surprised to learn that the song had lyrics, and I had to listen closely in order to distinguish the distorted singing voice and hear:
When frailty pales in comparison
And your bones feel like breaking
When your empty head caves in
You can tear off my arms and take me
I will not complain or fight with you
To save you from your life
When frailty fails to save you
When frailty fails to save you
My heart was breaking as I read and heard these lyrics, and I imagined Dmitri feeling as if he was too frail to fight against himself and that he was too exhausted to go on.
Then I started to wonder what “frailty” is. When I left home during my senior year of high school to study abroad in Japan, I thought doing so would let me become more independent and strong. I had depended too much on my parents and brothers growing up, I decided, crying when I was hurt or sick and asking for help when I needed it. For me, being strong meant that I needed to solve my own problems.
But it also meant that I began to pretend that I was fine when I was struggling. During the Christmas season, I became so homesick that a stress-related rash appeared and spread on the backs on my hands. I did not cry once after arriving in Tokyo in August, and I refused to even consider telling my parents back home that I missed them. I wrote lies in my journal every day, claiming that I was happy, grateful. Strong.
But was I not exhibiting true “frailty” by running away from my problem? Anyone can pretend that they are doing fine, that they are in no need of help. It is easy to ignore strong feelings of sadness and face the world with a false smile that always seems to be faltering. It takes true courage to say in that instance, “I need help,” or “Please help me,” because in doing so, you admit that you are in a bad place. I was terrified of asking for help because deep down I believed that if I did so, I would instantly lose control of everything – my life, my happiness. I would be deemed a failure, someone too frail to succeed.
Yet what is really courageous, I realized, is to admit weakness. For me to let go of my facade and break down in tears. For Dmitri to have finally, in the last moments of his life, admitted, “I feel as if I cannot go on.” In a society that has defined courage as emotionless stability, true bravery lies in admitting that we are all human.
I am constantly amazed at the courage I see in others who have opened up to me about feeling indescribably intense emotions. And I hope for a future in which we do not have to define strength as the ability to battle on alone.
I asked Mommy how she knew Daddy was the one once –
and observed the steam from her black-rimmed mug
drift aimlessly from hands and up through greying strands
of hair until it disappeared. I watched her eyes cloud
with memory, then counted creases in her white skin
until she said, “His eyes are beautiful.” Daddy’s eyes
are blue – the color of sky in spring when glimpses of green
emerge, that pierce with passion too intense to name. Sometimes
it is the color of crashing waves past midnight, a deep blue
that trembles with wisdom. I wonder what blue my mother
saw. “His eyes were different, Sora. I saw truth.” Yes – there is
truth in every limb of Daddy’s body. His ears hear everything –
from the old creak of a dying tree, to the pop of a green bean bud
snaking blindly from ground to light. His mouth does not
form shouts, only laughs in a way that transmits tranquility, and
the creases of his sandpaper skin conceal bits of hardened
dirt. I see truth in the curve of his back, in muscles that tighten
and release as he pushes mulch up against baby green tomato
transplants, a human machine that only stops when purple spreads
like watercolor against greying clouds and fades into darkness.
And when they twinkle as Mommy erupts into laughter in front
of the television, massaging his work away – I know why
she followed those eyes across an ocean that separated her
from family and familiarity. Mommy captured blue eyes that
brimmed with truth and still holds tight – and so when I asked,
“How will I know?” she smiled and said, “You’ll find them, too.”
Bicycles covered that art studio – old, rusty bicycles propped up against walls, bright bicycles hanging from the ceiling, watercolor paintings of bikes and pictures of them, too – shining in a setting sun underneath a grinning group of teenagers. Professor Sharma, Mimi, Maya and I were exploring the streets of a bustling Chinatown for First Friday, an event that showcased local art and music. We could hear rock music as we had walked into the studio and Mimi and I were instantly drawn to it, so I found myself following Mimi around to another room, where an older band was jamming out a dance-able rock tune. I found myself clapping and stepping to the beat and when I looked behind me, I saw Professor Sharma with Maya in her arms, moving to the music as well. She put Maya down and told her, “Go dance with Zoe!” I smiled and bent down to try and get her to dance with me, but she was looking up at the dancing crowd of mostly women with gigantic, soulful, brown eyes – clearly starstruck. One of the women noticed this adorable-to-the-core little girl and gave her a black egg-shaped shaker to shake to the beat. Perhaps because her father is an incredibly talented professional drummer, at two years of age, Maya already has the ability to move and clap to rhythms, so she soon got the hang of it, eyes still wide, taking it all in. I let myself fall to the drum beats as she shook, appreciating the bubble of joy that surrounded the stage of people dancing, some with eyes closed and big smiles. I would look down from time to time to whisper to Maya to show off her dance moves. We had been having dance sessions in my room the past couple days, where she and I face each other across a low table and she tries to copy how I move to the music. Afterwards she always would say, “More music! More music!” I remembered this and bent down to dance with her. She started to shake and a big grin overtook her face, brightening her eyes and evoking warmth in my heart. I grinned, too, when Mimi came down from watching in the seats behind us to shake and move to the beat, as well. Love expanded within me as I watched this dynamic duo – a sweet two-year-old in ribboned pigtails and an energetic, white-haired, beautiful woman – dance side by side, full of joy.
The band ended their set too soon for all of us and Mimi pointed out “Honolulu fashion” as we walked out. Women were all dressed up – in full-length gowns and what looked like prom dresses. Maya became infatuated with these bright, sparkly dresses and would go right up to someone to touch the fabric. She did so to three different women and they all found her to be especially cute. I am constantly amazed at how confident and outgoing Maya is – at her age, I would have hid from these women, instead of going up to them fearlessly.
But to be fearless and innocent is a beautiful combination, and in Hawai’i I have been working on the former. I have been exposing myself to new experiences and forcing myself to go up to strangers to ask them if they were interested in being interviewed. I have been filling my days here with work, play and spontaneous adventures. This last week, I have taken to carrying my laptop to the University of Hawai’i library, or to a local coffee shop to transcribe interviews, looking up titles of books and articles about Blacks in Hawai’i and writing up field notes of events. During my time here so far, Professor Sharma and I have conducted nine long interviews, and although because of confidentiality, I cannot write about the content of the long discussions we’ve had with local Black Hawaiians and Black musicians in Hawai’i, I can certainly say every single one was fascinating to both Professor Sharma and I. These stories need to be told, to be analyzed and thought about, and I come away from each interview feeling so thankful that these wonderful people opened up their lives and experiences to us, even though race and racism is a difficult topic of conversation, especially in the context of Hawai’i, where race is not seriously discussed.
Back at the art studio, we passed by a bicycle display that had a little figurine of a hula dancer on it, and a man told Mimi to press a black button on the bike. It emitted a loud beep, which caused us all to laugh. People in Hawai’i, I’ve found, are incredibly kind. When we were searching for a parking spot a bit earlier, for example, two local men offered their parking spot to us so that we could park for free, and later, when we made our way to a barbershop that a Black man that we were interested in interviewing owned, Professor Sharma talked to him about our project and he said he would love to help. The barbershop was having a cut-off event, where the barbers made shaved or cut designs into a man’s hair and would later be judged by the owner. We observed the scene for a bit before heading out again into the darkening streets.
Mimi, like me, is drawn to new experiences, so she spotted a Capoeira circle next to a street. When I saw it, I started running in excitement, and found myself to be part of the circle, clapping in rhythm and later joining into the tribal-sounding chants, watching the two men in the middle. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art dance that was created mainly by African slaves in Brazil and has Native Brazilian influences, according to Wikipedia. A row of percussion players were lined to one side of the circle. Three players were hitting berimbaus, which looked like combinations of stringed instruments and a drums. The other men were holding bigger drums. The men inside the circle were moving slowly and gracefully, bodies low to the ground, playing off of each other and sweeping their legs over each others’ heads. I loved that they were laughing and smiling to each other as they did so – this was not a martial art like karate that evoked sharp, hard movements, but rather a playful, beautiful, flowing dance that required two people to connect their movements and therefore their hearts. We could not stay long, but I vowed to one day learn that art, to be part of that world of gentle, graceful movements.
After seeing more art and walking around a bit, we headed back to the car to go home. Mimi fell asleep in the front seat while I showed Maya how to make bows out of the ribbon in her hair. As I watched Maya fiddle with the shiny strips, I remembered how we had all traveled, all in the same seats as we were then, to the North Shore on Labor Day. We passed by gigantic fields of pineapple and a Dole plantation. The soil was a sandy red unfamiliar to me and we passed by many small farms, towering, sharply cut mountains and street vendors. I fell in love with the tranquil ocean that glistened in the sun and for the first time in Hawai’i, I felt completely safe and free to swim in those salty waters. I watched little, tan local boys giggle over and over and the waves crashed over their heads, washing them to the sandy shore, and smiled to myself as I fell asleep underneath a perfect blue sky.
As I remembered this in the car next to Maya in the car seat, I was filled with a feeling of homesickness. There was something about being so full of joy here and experiencing everything that made me want to have my family here, as well, looking out at the gorgeous ocean or eating chicken katsu with me. When I observed the simple love of my professor’s family, the haven of protection that surrounded Maya everywhere she went, I felt a pang of lonliness for the familial love of my Central Illinois home and the haven of our farm. I love this family, these kind souls who took time to show me every part of this island and accepted me into their home. Professor Sharma is an incredible role model for me and Mimi reminds me of my own grandmothers, with her hilarious quirks and strong spirit, and I will miss Maya with all my heart, this beautiful, angelic girl full of kisses, hugs and love. It pained me that I would be leaving in a few days, back to Chicago and then back to the farm, but I could already feel the strong bonds of the farm pulling me back home.
This has been an experience of a lifetime – I have learned so much about research, life and love. Mimi suggested that I should come back to Hawai’i for graduate school in Japan Studies, which is a possibility I am considering. Instead of cementing my future plans in journalism and writing, my experiences here have shaken everything up, like the contents of that egg shaker Maya shook to the music in the art studio. A whole new world of possibilities have arisen in my life. I have too many dreams, too much I want to do and too many places I feel compelled to visit. But I am incredibly thankful for the kindness and open love of Professor Sharma’s family and feel incredibly lucky to have met them, and to be given this opportunity for life-changing adventure.
I stared at the fifty-person and steadily increasing line for fried green tomatoes at the Farmers’ Market near Diamond Head Saturday morning in complete disbelief. I had never seen so many people – mostly Japanese tourists – in a farmers’ market, let alone waiting patiently before the stands officially opened for commerce before. And for fried green tomatoes?! At our farm, green tomatoes were sold when one accidentally fell off the vine or at the end of the season when it was necessary to harvest all of the remaining fruits before the frost came. So to me, green, unripe tomatoes were certainly not a delicacy, so I found it odd that these Japanese tourists thought they were.
I had woken up at 5:30 in the morning to take a quick shower and get in the car with Mimi, Professor Sharma’s mother, to drive down to the Farmer’s Market. Mimi wanted to buy some orchid plants before they were sold out, so though the market officially opened at 7:30, we got there an hour early. I took off on my own to walk around and found the market to be taking up abour the same size area as our Evanston one back home, but with two times as many vendors selling specialty goods like local honey, coffee and macadamia nuts, and prepared foods such as pizza, strawberry mochi and organic natto. To my dismay, I could only find one vendor that was selling organic, local vegetables and fruits, but they had only a limited variety. I also was saddened by the fact that most of these farms seemed to be owned by local Japanese, not Native Hawaiians or other local groups that are towards the bottom of the social and economic ladder. The vendors were obviously making a significant profit by hiking up their prices for these Japanese tourists who flooded the place. As the sun rose, I found it more and more difficult to navigate through the growing crowds and when I spotted little Japanese children unpacking boxes, I felt nostalgic of the days when Asa, Kazami and I used to help Daddy sell veggies at the Market. I realized that as much as the seafood was fresh and the cuisine tasty here in Hawai’i, I missed the rich taste of Daddy’s veggies immensely. I wished that someday, more of the produce grown in Hawaii would be local and organic…
Exhausted to the point of feeling dizzy, I took a short nap when we returned home. A few hours later, Professor Sharma and I headed down to a local coffee shop to meet and interview a beautiful mixed-Black woman who was studying the correlations between Trinidad and Hawai’i, as well as the connections between the popularity of reggae in Hawai’i and the acceptance of Black people. Our hour-long conversation fascinated me and I loved how open she was about her experiences here. Then we drove to another coffee shop further away from home to interview a mixed-Black young man. I found there to be correlations between these two individuals and when we said our goodbyes and thank yous, I felt a surge of happiness rise within me. These interviews – these life histories and thoughts and interesting takes on life – were so important to relay to the rest of the world. I loved that doing this research made me feel like my professor and I were uncovering secrets of life that no one else had thought before to do.
With this feeling of contentment, I got dropped off at Kapiolani Park to explore the Okinawan Festival being held there. It was gigantic, filled with people, games for children, food and culture stands, and a big stage where Okinawan singers were strumming the sanshin and singing folk songs. After filling my empty stomach with a plate of chumpuru, I gravitated toward the sound of music and found myself by the stage, moving, smiling and closing my eyes to the singer’s voice. It was a voice full of love, purity and protection, but there was a growing sadness and loneliness there, too. I enveloped myself in those emotions and swayed, in a conflicted state of feeling content in family love but missing something – something that I could not pinpoint exactly, a sort of amplified want to just be everything to someone.
Since I was young, I have always had a fascination for Okinawan music, culture, dance and food, and it made me so happy that I was listening to live Okinawan music with an audience full of captivated people, sitting in rows and rows of benches and filling the grass behind them. The woman sitting beside me was clapping her hands, her eyes closed, lips smiling. I looked past her to the stage and beyond that to see a few people dancing, doing the traditional Okinawan dance of waving your hands gracefully above your head. I smiled while moving my way towards them and joined into their group, copying their movements in the empty area in front of the stage. At first I felt self-conscious that the 500 or so people watching were thinking to themselves, this girl obviously does not know how to Okinawan dance, but when I sat down after a few dances, a Japanese local woman who had been filming came up to me, complimented my dancing and asked me if I was Okinawan. I shook my head no, but felt incredibly joyous and accepted into a group that I have always wanted to be part of. When the last song came on, a greater group of people came out from the benches and danced with us. A Japanese, local, middle-aged man in a yukata laughed and made eye contact with me as he threw his hands up into the air to the strums of the sanshin, and all of the dancing people around me were smiling with so much joy. I wanted to capture all of this love and feeling of acceptance inside of me, to feed on it at times of darkness.
As the sun started to set, I explored other parts of the festival. I went to the cultural tent and met a few very nice and helpful University of Hawaii professors that knew Mimi, who also taught there. As I discussed with them my interest in Okinawa and Hawaii, I started to realize that I really loved researching with Professor Sharma and the lifestyle that she leads. She can go after what interests her and interview very interesting people, while also balancing being a wonderful mother to her 2 year old daughter. During my stay in Hawaii, I have been contemplating a future in becoming a professor. I would still be able to write books, but I would also be able to travel and go searching for answers across the world. I always thought that I would need to travel the world alone, before I got married and had children, but observing Professor Sharma has made me realize that it is possible travel the world with my children while still being a great mother. My love and interest in Okinawa is steadily growing, so perhaps the future holds a research project or oral history project on the Okinawan islands.
After exiting the cultural tent, I danced around the yagura and followed the bon dancing to the beat of the taiko drums. By this point, I was exhausted from walking, talking and experiencing and my purse weighed me down as I tried to follow along. The dancing was similar to that of when I went Bon dancing in Tokyo a two years ago and I loved that this crowd of people was so diverse – there were mixed Japanese kids running around, White (haole) adults showing off their dancing skill and even a few Blacks there, who I observed closely for the research project.
I then went on a search for a bathroom and finally found an open public restroom near the beach. On my way back, I came across a gigantic, ancient-looking tree. It was nearing dusk and the sun was setting, a fiery red sky floating on rippling ocean water. I was captivated by this tree that reminded me of the trees I saw on Japanese television that were said to have ancient spirits living within them. As I neared it, I noticed that a grey bird was perched by the base of it. I crept up quietly as to not disturb him and he peered back at me, eyes black and bright. I got so close that if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch his disheveled wings. He looked tired and I could see that his little head was trembling. I wondered if he was hurt and whispered softly that I would not hurt him. Still, he continued to look back at me with eyes full of wisdom. I wondered if he was the spirit of the tree disguised as a bird, and as we looked at each other, I felt as if his eyes held the secrets of the world. I listened, but I could not hear. We sat for a while, in silence, pensive, but then I moved slightly and he squawked and flew away. I was thankful that he had trusted me for so long and thought perhaps that was the lesson – to have more trust in others, and in myself.
As I walked back, I passed a tent full of taiko dancers from Okinawa and Hawai’i. A middle-aged Japanese local man approached me as I looked at the poster and told me that they would be performing the next day with Suguru Ikeda, a well-known singer and songwriter from the islands off the coast of Japan. I had observed them earlier, practicing, and was blown away by the power of his voice and the beauty of the taiko dancing. I learned from the man that he had become involved in learning this art through his daughter. I thought it was very interesting and important that local Japanese who perhaps are not as exposed to Japanese culture were now learning these cultural practices and are performing them in the community. He was an incredibly kind man and told me that I should come out to learn as well. Unfortunately, the next practice would not be until after I left Hawaii, so I cannot, but I vowed to come back and learn someday. As we were talking, a middle-school aged boy came up to us and offered us andagi, an Okinawan donut, and as I thanked him profusely and enjoyed the fried, sugary goodness of this delicious dessert, I was filled with love for the open and accepting people of Hawai’i.
Exhausted, I waited for Professor Sharma, Mimi and Maya to pick me up in the car to go to a restaurant by a pond behind the large stage building where I had danced before a few hours ago. I lay down and watched the ducks pass through the reflected light coming from the back of the stage building – silent and peaceful forms.
Then I got picked up by the road and we went to watch one of the men that we interviewed perform blues. Mimi and I instantly loved the music. He had been a street musician for a long while and had once played with John Hooker, and his voice was deep and full of play, not a voice of perfection, but one that was beautiful because of its imperfections. I thought of Daddy as he turned “No Woman, No Cry” into a blues song, strumming his electric guitar with expertise, hitting the bass with his foot and a tambourine with the other. I turned around in my seat to watch and tapped my feet on the ground, wanting to get up and dance. The fact that I was in a crowded restaurant was the only deterrent to this wish of mine.
Maya was dancing happily too, until she slipped and hit her chin on the table. She started to cry so Professor Sharma took her out of the restaurant for a bit. When she came back, she was in Professor Sharma’s arms, asleep. I felt the exhaustion fill me then, from this busy but very fun day and I looked up at the blues-playing musician, with his guitar that was chipping paint and graying dreads, and I remembered that old, disheveled looking gray bird I saw in that ancient tree. Their eyes were both so full of wisdom and I knew then that I had found what I wanted to do with my life: I wished to collect the secrets of the world through old, worn down but still bright, wise eyes.
When I woke up this morning and attempted to stand up, my body felt like it had sustained a full-on collision with a semi-truck. My hips ached from shaking them over and over at my first real hula class, the muscles in my legs cried out in pain from all of the walking and dancing I have been doing lately, and my arm and shoulder muscles hurt from swimming at Cockroach Cove. I have been having too much fun…
On Tuesday we had driven through a twisting, terrifying highway to the other side of the island to a small, secluded beach called Cockroach Cove. This gorgeous beach is surrounded on three sides by towering walls of black rock and the deep blue water crashes with great force against the shore without so much as a break. Arun, Professor Sharma’s brother, showed me a lava formation that caused there to be a hole in the rock that went all the way down to the water, so when the waves crashed, the water would go up through the hole and blow out into the air. I watched as the white water rose about two feet above the hole, and Arun explained that during the winter, when the waves were stronger, the water would spurt high into the sky.
I loved watching the waves slam against the rocks and reach up, up, up into the sky. Then the white water droplets would fall slowly, as if suspended, back into the blue, tumultuous waters below. It reminded me of a picture on the front of a cereal box that showed milk suspended in air. Then I would close my eyes and listen to the churning, rushing sound of the ocean.
When I first got into the water, I was terrified because the waves were huge. I started to panic when I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore, but felt a little stupid for feeling this way, since Maya, Professor Sharma’s two-year-old, was laughing at the waves. She had no fear of them at all. Soon I learned to jump up when the waves came, so that my head would always be above the water.
Still later, after observing a couple of local boys dive into the water from the rocks, Arun somehow convinced me to jump into the water with him. We waited for a perfect wave to come for what seemed like forever, during which time I held my head in my hands and contemplated what would happen if I drowned. Finally, though, we counted to three and took the plunge. It was a thrilling moment in the air before hitting the water, but I forgot to hold my breath, so I swallowed a mouthful of sea water. I was coughing and sputtering, totally disoriented, and I honestly thought I was drowning because I was desperately treading water and not going anywhere. But Arun just pushed me towards the shore and told me I could touch the bottom. I stood up in the water and was fine for a few seconds, but then a big wave crashed over my head and I was sputtering again. I vowed never to do that again.
But Arun was insistent that we try again and I knew that I needed to conquer my fear of drowning, so I followed him out. This time, I held my nose, but I still swallowed water – swimming just does not come naturally to me. Arun tried to get me to go out to deeper waters, but I steadfastly refused. I wished I could just relax in the ocean and just let the water soothe me, but this gnawing nervousness in the pit of my stomach kept me on the lookout for dangerous waves and the constant worry of drowning exhausted me. When I looked at Maya and how she giggled as the waves crashed, I wished that someday I could harness that joy of swimming in the ocean. But I was glad that I had at least taken two risks, and I walked up the rocks out of the beach with a seed of confidence.
The next morning, I got up relatively early to take two buses to the Waikiki Community Center to take a beginners’ hula lesson. As I walked into the large gym-like auditorium, I observed that most of the woman there were speaking Japanese and wearing all different kinds of flowy hula skirts. I looked down at my blue, tighter dress and wished that I had chosen to wear a different outfit, instead. I was not sure who or how to pay for the class, so I went up to two older Japanese woman and started to ask in English. I soon realized that they could not understand me, so I switched to Japanese mid-conversation, and they both looked at me as if I had sprouted green alien ears. As I waited for the class to start, I could see them still peering confusedly at me from across the room.
Soon enough, a middle-aged, Native Hawaiian looking man with a big, round belly told the about sixty or so women in the gym to line up in four lines, two on each side, facing each other. Except for about one or two white women, all of the women were Japanese and could not speak English. Yet what was interesting to me was that when signing up at the front, we had to put if we were residents of Hawai’i or not, and most of the women had marked that they lived here. I wondered if there was an influx of Japanese people immigrating to Hawai’i recently.
Our teacher, a very happy man who laughed a lot, told us to put our hands on our hips and taught us the basic way to move them. “Hip up! Move! Heel up!” He would call out. Sometimes he would say, “Migi (right)!” and use Japanese words so that the Japanese women would understand better. I tried to follow along in the front, but moving my hips was more difficult and tiring than I had previously imagined. I felt embarrassed when the teacher would signal me out and tell me that my steps were too big, or that I was stomping the ground rather than being gentle. It seemed as if I was the most inexperienced of the group and I wondered if the other women had taken other classes already. When we would demonstrate how not to do moves, he looked so ridiculous that all of the women would giggle all at once, filling the room with laughter.
I felt my legs start to turn to jelly as he made us keep moving our hips and bending our knees low to the ground. We learned about five moves and he would come out with his ukelele and strum while singing. He would call out the different moves and we would follow suit. I loved dancing to the music – it made me forget the pain in my hips and I just concentrated on moving to the sound of the ukelele.
When the hour long class was over, I was completely drained, thirsty and hungry. I wanted to learn more and vowed to come back to Hawai’i someday to learn this gentle, rhythmic dance in its entirety.
I cannot believe that my time here is already almost half-done. I feel like I have done a lot of play and not much work…but I have learned so much about the local culture here, and Hawai’i is starting to feel so familiar to me. But I hope to fill the next week and a half with much research, interviewing and observing!