Foreign Wife Elegy
My language has its own world
where he doesn’t know how to live,
but he should learn my language;
then he can call my mother to say
that I am dead. I drive too fast
and someone else drives too fast
and we crash on the icy road.
He can tell my mother
if he learns my language.
Her large yellow voice travels
and hits his body, but at least she knows
that I am dead, and if I die,
I want him to tell my mother
with his deep voice shaking.
I wrote this poem in one sitting during a ten-minute writing exercise at my graduate poetry workshop in 2001. My poetry professor read a poem to inspire us and told us to write nonstop. I don’t recall which poem he read. I recall visually seeing a cold night. The black, icy highway rolled out between vast cornfields in snow. I’m driving alone on Highway 52 from Minneapolis to Cannon Falls, the small town where I live. The outside air is frozen, below ten degrees. Then my car loses control and begins spinning. It spins like a propeller and crosses the median, smashing into another car, head on. My head snaps. I hear it. My body bounces and presses against the wheel. The glass shatters. I die immediately in the middle of the highway.
At the time, I was only twenty-two years old, trying to become a poet. After ten minutes, we read what we wrote. When I read my writing, my classmates remained silent. What I shared was strange and heavy. Or maybe it sounded dramatic.
“That was clear, painfully clear,” My professor said.
Clarity. Is being clear painful? Is this good or bad writing? I sat in the room, feeling responsible for causing an uncomfortable silence. Back then, I didn’t understand what poetry was. I feared that my poems were too simple, direct, heavy, and strange. I wished that I wrote more sophisticated material that stimulated intellectual and philosophical discussion. But my poems were as clear as an ice cube. There was no question about what it was. Holding it, my readers felt the intense coldness on their palms. Naturally, they wanted to open their palms and let my ice cube slide. I understood that asking others to hold such an uncomfortable sensation was impolite.
At the time of the workshop, I recently married a man from Minnesota. We met in college. For my husband, the decision to get married was quite straightforward. We loved each other. This relationship was the very first one for both of us, grew like a tree, and had lasted for three years. Three years. To our young minds, we had already devoted our lifetimes into raising this tree. We don’t cut down a tree unless we have a solid reason. My husband was a devoted Catholic, and he wouldn’t date a woman unless he considered marrying her. What happens to two people in love was as clear as a math equation: 1+1= 1 union.
My decision to get married was more complex.
I had come to the United States alone from Japan as an international student when I was fifteen. I attended a boarding school in the Baltimore area. In school, I witnessed wealth beyond what my middle-class Japanese mindset could absorb, and while using public transportation, I witnessed poverty, violence, and racial differences. As an Asian girl with broken English, I was often mistaken as a maid or a cleaner. This was back in 1992. I watched the news of the LA riot, which was broadcast live. I watched widespread protests, intense violence, the burning of Koreatown, as well as the origin of this riot: the LAPD officers brutally beating Rodney King, captured on video. My neighbors in Japan wrote me letters, asking if I was OK. They warned me, You are in a dangerous country. Be careful. After three years of living in this confusing environment, I moved to Minnesota to attend a college, a Catholic institution, the only place that offered scholarships to international students. Race disappeared. I walked into a 96% white community. This new environment was simple yet scary. Most of all, it was confusing. People in Minnesota were friendly, yet they didn’t want to become my friends. For a long time, I didn’t understand the cues, so I kept approaching and inviting them to become my friends. “I wish I could. Maybe next time,” was a common response. Foolishly, I often followed up with a response that was shorter: “Maybe later in a few months.” Later in a few months, I reached out again only to meet the chilly silence of no response.
“Oh Yuko, you don’t know the passive-aggressive messaging in Minnesota,” a sympathetic colleague once kindly translated the meaning behind each response. The first time, they communicated that they didn’t want to become my friend. The second time, they made their intention very clear. The third time, they were probably frustrated by my inability to absorb the unspoken message. The chilly silence forced the situation to become clear as they became absent. The friendliness of people in Minnesota didn’t equate to them wanting to become my friends. I become aware of the unwritten code of Minnesota, the commitment to appear nice and polite by avoiding confrontation and controlling self-expression. This passive-aggressive behavior often confused me, as I missed the cues for what people in Minnesota were truly expressing. I eventually learned that such behavior was a path for unexpressed thoughts to come out and surface.
Naturally, I was lonely. I became scared of reaching out while I also learned techniques for being accepted. Many Minnesotans proudly talked about their Norwegian, German, Swedish, and Danish heritage, as well as Minnesota culture (hotdishes, wild rice, deer hunting, walleye fishing, ten thousand lakes, state parks, the boundary waters, etc.). Rarely did anyone ask about me, but not bringing attention to a self was also a rule for Minnesota Nice. Between witnessing the intense racial and social economical divides in Baltimore and navigating a white community with unwritten rules of politeness in Minnesota, I felt that my romantic relationship with my husband was my own space. It was a break from my life.
But I was afraid of walking into something as permanent as marriage. Was I going to live in this country forever? Was I going to die here? Was I going to be buried in this foreign land? Answering yes to all these questions made me feel disoriented. My chest tightened with the thought of my body being buried so far away from my country. My fear puzzled my husband at first and eventually came across as not loving him enough.
When my husband said he would become fluent in Japanese, my fear diminished. He worked with a Japanese tutor weekly and studied Japanese while we were engaged. He carried his Japanese notebook everywhere and constantly scribbled Japanese words. He didn’t want to practice speaking Japanese with me. He said he felt embarrassed doing this work in front of me. I understood how frustrating it was to not be able to say what appeared so clearly in our minds; it made us feel unintelligent, incapable, ugly, slow, and stupid. Learning a second language required a special kind of heart made of steel and the commitment to navigate humiliation. When he said he wanted to learn my language, he was offering something beyond learning words. His body was going to go through the process of learning to become a man with a special kind of heart. He would communicate with my family directly as I did with his family. This relationship was going to be equal. I speak your language. You speak mine.
Shortly after our wedding, he stopped studying Japanese, and I began having nightmares about my own death. I drove 45 miles back and forth from Cannon Falls to Minneapolis to attend my graduate program during the winter. The road conditions were a matter of life and death. I wondered what my husband would do if I were to die suddenly in a car accident. Specifically, how would he communicate with my family, who don’t speak English? I didn’t have the answer. So, I asked my husband to memorize the phrase “Yuko is dead” in Japanese: Yuko wa nakunarimashita.
“I’m not going to learn how to say that,” my husband said.
“How else would my family know that I’m dead?”
“You won’t die. For a long time. We’ll think about it later.”
A few years later, Foreign Wife Elegy became the title of my first book of poetry. The book contained poems about other topics, but the publisher and I determined that this book was about these three words: a foreigner becomes a wife and thinks about death. After writing this poem, I began holding back what I wanted to say. Don’t say anything if you don’t have something nice to say. Put your thoughts away in a laundry basket. Keep the basket inside you. As my husband suggested, we’d think about it later. We’d wash them when we got more time.
After nine and half years, I ran away from this marriage. I literally ran as he followed me with tears rolling down on his face, asking me not to leave. Before that, he punched the wall out of desperation, creating a small hole on the wall. Before that, for weeks, I had been explaining that I was lonely in this marriage to which he said it wasn’t possible. I never looked lonely. In fact, I looked happy. Before that, we lived two separate lives. Being lonely and isolated became normal, a way of life in Minnesota.
But now, I was running. I told myself to move my feet and legs, and they carried me out of my marriage. I was terrified of my husband’s enormous sorrow. I was conditioned to be a sweet wife who would comfort him. I had to ignore my instinct to go back and comfort him. I jumped in the car, locked the door, and drove away. I ignored the first stop sign. I was in shock and disbelief by my actions. Who was this woman, who packed up her things and ran out? It didn’t feel as though it was really me. I was grateful to whoever or whatever possessed my body and enabled me to walk away.
After that night, I moved from house to house. I reached out to female acquaintances and friends since I didn’t have any family of my own. I was grateful. These women weren’t Asian women, but they foresaw what I might face and warned me about two things. First and foremost, I would need to stand up for myself in ways I hadn’t done before; I must challenge my attitude of being nice and obedient, common traits of first-generation immigrants, especially among Asian women. Second, expect that the very end of a break-up would be ugly. Later, I would think of these women as prophets. My husband claimed I didn’t look lonely again and again, and his confusion eventually turned into a storm.
“The sweet and nice person that I married was now gone,” my husband said in the end.
“If you don’t want to be with me anymore, you’ll go back to Japan,” he said.
“And you won’t write about me or my family,” he said.
After my divorce, I was filled with an urge to write about my marriage and divorce, but I couldn’t write. I was putting words into a Word document, in journal notebooks, on napkins at coffee shops. But when it came to turning my words into a poem or an essay, it seemed impossible. For five years, I worked on the same essay. Day after day, I came to my desk and described how I packed my belongings and left my husband. I would add some details, and a few minutes later, I would delete most of them. I repeated this process over and over again. Explaining what I experienced seemed impossible.
My writing progressed like the movement of dust and slowly accumulated into a barely twenty-page essay. The repetition of writing the same scene for five years eventually became boring, as if I was eating a bowl of plain rice, every day, for five years. Every time I wrote, my stomach felt packed with starch. I wanted to eat something with flavor. Yet, no matter where I searched, this plain rice, the simple fact of my bad marriage, was the only food available to me. I was caught by the urge to write, yet not liking anything I wrote.
I was dead as a writer. This thought arrived to me as a clear thought. I accepted my death and lived as if writing was behind me. I dedicated my time and energy into teaching college students. I also worked with a local hospital to develop the Art at the Bedside program, which offered creative opportunities such as music, drawing, and writing, to patients and their families. I led workshops and assisted patients with writing their own stories. I talked about the power of words, shared relevant stories and poems, and gave them prompts. The participants in my writing sessions got busy writing every time, and they uncovered stories and thoughts they hadn’t thought of before. Watching them, I thought I, too, could tap into the space that existed around the block in my head. Occasionally, I forgot that I had died as a writer and tried writing along with the participants during my class, but I became overwhelmed and instantly hated the sentences I constructed. They didn’t sound right.
Instead, I wrote on behalf of the patients during end-of-life care. These patients had a clear agenda of composing a letter to their families. I initially thought most people had something specific to say and that I needed to transcribe their words. But most people asked me to create something beautiful with the content they provided. It may become a letter, a poem, a picture book, or something in between. This required me to imagine someone else’s memories and love. The more I imagined on behalf of them, the more it led to the best type of work, the kind that brought tears to the eyes of the patients who said, “That’s exactly what I would have said though I couldn’t write it like that. How did you know?” I didn’t. Until they told me that what I wrote was their truth, I wasn’t aware of the weight of the description I created.
Mr. Johnson, for instance, wanted me to construct a letter for his estranged son, Bobby. After his divorce, Mr. Johnson’s ex-wife raised Bobby in North Dakota while Mr. Johnson moved to Minnesota for a new life. He eventually created a new family, and he didn’t keep up with seeing Bobby. Mr. Johnson had never told Bobby he loved him, yet he told me that there wasn’t a day he didn’t think about Bobby. Now Mr. Johnson was dying. He didn’t know what to say in the letter. I asked Mr. Johnson to describe a specific moment that he vividly remembered from Bobby’s childhood. Mr. Johnson looked up the ceiling and began wondering. I could see that he was seeing something. He began describing how he took Bobby fishing for the first time, and he showed Bobby how to hook a worm while the boat rocked. Bobby’s small fingers clumsily touched the worm, but he quickly learned how to cast the line out. Bobby loved this repetitive motion. They fished all morning on that sunny day. They ate salami sandwiches on the fishing boat. When Mr. Johnson told Bobby that they were going to leave after lunch, Bobby looked down and began crying. Bobby said he wanted to stay and fish.
“I can see it today, that sad face covered with tears. He wiped his face with his sleeve. His light green t-shirt had a wet spot on his shoulder from his tears. He was so upset that we were done fishing. And he was right. We never fished together again after that. But I didn’t know it back then. So, I told him we’d fish again.” Mr. Johnson spoke as he breathed heavily.
After the brief conversation, I hurried out of his hospital room, went back to my office, and began typing up his story. I stopped here and there, recalling and listening to his voice in my head. The writing happened quickly. I edited twice, read it once out loud, printed it, placed it in a white envelope with Mr. Johnson’s name on it, and ran back to the hospital to give the letter to him.
“But how did you know about this lake? The way you describe water was exactly the way I remember it,” Mr. Johnson exclaimed. His story called for the scene to be vivid and specific. I took poetic license on behalf of Mr. Johnson to capture the world which I had never seen. It wasn’t that I magically captured Mr. Johnson’s actual memory. Our memories are unreliable anyway. But the point was that the vividness of the description made this moment real, and such realness communicated how he had remembered this moment and thought about Bobby repeatedly over the years.
But soon, Mr. Johnson’s demeanor changed.
“Maybe I should just burn this letter. I don’t know. Bobby wouldn’t want to hear from me.” Mr. Johnson folded the letter and put it away.
“I think you should send it to him.” I said as calmly as possible, but inside, I panicked. Of course, you should send it. You’ve been silent and absent all your son’s life. Why would you choose to be absent at this moment? I held back from speaking, but it was as if Mr. Johnson heard the words in my head. He looked away from me. I slowly got up, said goodbye, and left the room. He didn’t turn my way. Maybe he had hoped that I would support his decision not to send the letter, or at the very least, I would say he should do what he felt comfortable with. But I knew I could never say those words. In fact, I wanted to shake Mr. Johnson and shout, I get it. This letter is hardly enough to apologize for your life-long absence, but it’s something. Do something. Don’t put away your words in a dirty laundry basket. Don’t silence yourself.
Then I met Mr. Keller, a forty-five-year-old patient who was dying of pancreatic cancer. Walking into Mr. Keller’s room, I could see that he was in pain. The room was chaotic. Nurses came in to check on his medications, which were administered through tubes that were attached to different parts of his arms and face. He told me that he was fighting for his life, an extra day, a minute. Dying came so early to him, and it was unfair. In the midst of illness and pain, he thought to write a letter to thank his mother for giving him his life. Unlike Mr. Johnson, Mr. Keller had specific thoughts he wanted to express. To add a personal touch, I asked him to describe a specific memory of his mother. Mr. Keller described the Fiskeboller, Norwegian fish balls, his mother made for Christmas Eve, a holiday tradition in Mr. Keller’s family. She defrosted the walleye Mr. Keller caught during the summer, minced the fish and mixed it with flour, eggs, and milk. He felt proud that his fish became a part of the family tradition. Then, he began describing his three older sisters who baked Julekake, Norwegian Christmas bread. As the baby brother, his older sisters took care of him. His role was to add candied fruit into the bread dough and punch the center after it rose.
“Would you like me to write a short letter to each sister, too?” I offered.
“That’d be nice.” Mr. Keller’s voice was hoarse, but his eyes lightened up.
“You have three sisters. What are their names?” I asked.
“I have four sisters.” Mr. Kelly said, coughing. “But we’ll write for Janet, Jenny, and Jackie, those over there.” He pointed at three women sitting outside the glass door.
I sat back and looked at my notes, filled with delightful memories of a loving mother and three older sisters who cooked Norwegian food together. Now, I had discovered one more sister who wasn’t mentioned.
“Are you sure you don’t want to write something for your fourth sister?” I gathered my courage and asked.
“Yep,” Mr. Keller nodded sharply. “She’s a bitch. I have nothing to say to her.”
Mr. Keller’s anger lingered in the air. I awkwardly got up and hurried back to my office as always to type up my notes. I printed four separate notes for the mother and three sisters. I placed each letter in a separate envelope with their names. I went back to Mr. Keller that same day as I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again. But that evening, he looked slightly livelier than earlier. He told me how he had remembered more funny stories of making Julekake, how, this once, he punched the dough too hard. But all I could think about was the fourth sister, a shadow, not included in these delightful memories.
Mr. Keller had a smile. Because of that smile, I asked again if he was sure that he had nothing to say to his fourth sister. His smile disappeared.
“No way. She’s a bitch. She hurt our family.”
“How would your mother,” I sat straight, feeling my heart beating faster, “describe your sister?”
“Your mother. How would she describe your sister?” I said, feeling nervous. I may have crossed a line. This wasn’t a creative writing workshop. Challenging fellow writers to think deeper, to put their judgements aside, wasn’t what I was asked to do. Yet I was to capture the voice of patients. With this purpose, asking this question was almost automatic.
Mr. Keller looked up at the ceiling, as if he was thinking through it.
“Mom would say, she struggled,” Mr. Keller continued staring up at the ceiling.
I sat down and wrote down what he said, as neatly as possible: Mom would say, you struggled. I neatly tore out this page and put it inside an empty envelope. On the envelope, I wrote down, Sister #4.
“That might be a letter to your fourth sister. I’ll leave all these letters for you.” I gathered five envelopes and placed them on the nightstand next to Mr. Keller. He looked at the pile of letters. I got up and wished him good night.
“Thank you,” he said, as if he was still thinking.
“You’re welcome.” I left.
I thought long and hard about my action of creating the letter for sister #4 for Mr. Keller. Maybe I shouldn’t have upset him, especially at the end of his life. Had he been assigned to a Minnesota writer, his experience may have been different. But he got me, a writer who couldn’t let go of her own urge to write. It was as if my body detected the truth that sat at the edge of Mr. Keller’s awareness. I had to ask the question. It would have been OK if he ignored it, but I couldn’t not ask the question. I don’t know what really happened to the letters I prepared for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Keller. I continued to meet mid-western men who hadn’t expressed their thoughts but were now heading to the end of their lives and still contemplating if they should say something, or not.
Nine more years have passed since my divorce. I continued to write other’s stories while the urge, nagging to write about my marriage, still lived inside me. When the earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of Japan in 2011, I traveled there and documented the stories of Tohoku people. Back in Minnesota, I taught reflective writing for undergraduate students while collaborating with psychiatrists, psychologists, sleeper researchers, nurses, and visual artists to capture how telling stories could lead to insights. I taught creative writing to adolescents in psychiatric units and witnessed how writing became the teacher for our own psyche. Yet, when I tried to write the stories about my marriage, my voice became dry. Feeling defeated, I wondered about my urge. What is this? Why is it still in me? Why did I feel the need to return to such a difficult period of my life?
In March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I was traveling in Barcelona with my second husband, Jeremy. Within a day, the world shifted. Spain declared a state of emergency. President Trump announced the travel ban that non-U.S. residents and citizens would not be allowed in the country. We received notifications of the cancellations of our returning flights to Minneapolis. Jeremy and I packed up our bags, sat on the phone for hours, and found new flights, but we had to travel separately. Jeremy left Barcelona first. I was scheduled to leave a day later, but my flight got canceled again. I waited in a long line leading to the Delta counter for yet another flight. Looking around at the airport, everyone looked scared and exhausted. Then the rumors among the U.S. travelers began to circulate: Spain was closing the airport and the Spanish Armed Forces would arrive to take all the foreigners to an evacuation center.
“Do you think U.S. Customs will let us back in?” The young woman standing in front of me turned around and asked.
“Of course they’ll let you in. You’re a citizen.” I said in disbelief. Where else would she go?
“But they could close the border on us.” She rigorously began to scratch her red hair out of anxiousness.
“That’s highly unlikely.” I reassured this young woman, a college student, who was participating in a study abroad program. She had received a call from her home institution with the urgent order to pack all her belongings, run to the airport, and catch the flight they booked for her. When it was cancelled, she was on her own. Her wild imagination of being denied by her own country might have been an indication of her worldview. Perhaps she was someone who knew enough about the experiences of refugees and immigrants in the United States. It was as if she stood in the middle of chaos and realized that she, too, had become one of those people on the news, those who ran to the border, to an airplane, to a boat, truck, train, abandoning everything, just so that they could get out of a danger zone.
Indeed, watching the crowd of fearful people at the airport reminded me of the last flight of Da Nang in South Vietnam. As the airplane was landing, Vietnamese ran and followed the airplane and fought their way to get on the flight. It was in April 1975, and North Vietnamese troops were coming. They needed to get out of their country now, though only a handful people could be saved. The airplane took off leaving many Vietnamese who looked up, their eyes following the giant vehicle leaving them behind. The first time I watched this film, I desperately wanted to know what happened to those who were left behind. Did this young woman scratching her red hair imagine she, too, could be left behind?
Although I told the woman it was highly unlikely that she wouldn’t be allowed back in the U.S., there were plenty of examples of people who were left behind, especially when our countries were busy navigating their own chaos. I thought about Japanese women and children were left behind in Manchuria in 1945 when their status suddenly changed from the citizens of a colonizing country to the citizens of the defeated country. While their husbands and fathers were drafted to the battles in southern China, the wives, mothers, and children began walking by foot to get somewhere safe. The Chinese were understandably bitter toward the Japanese who colonized Manchuria, and Russians were coming from the North. Many fought to find their way out of the country. Many died during the evacuation. And many, especially women and children, were left behind in China. Getting out of a danger zone, we can stand, wait, walk, and run individually, but in the end, a larger vehicle, power, or system ultimately needs to pick us up and take us to a safety.
Waiting in line, I began recalling the day I ran out of my marriage. I wasn’t exposed to violence or fire, which made it difficult to know if I could leave. This space of silence and feeling suffocated seemed hardly worthy of me leaving. Yet when I got up, at that moment, I must have seen a path, a crack, a way, a moment, a door, something that opened. I couldn’t say what I saw, but I remember thinking that this was the last chance I had. After this, the door was going to be closed. If I wanted out, I was the only person who could take the next step. No one was going to carry me out. I had to move my feet and legs and walk out of my house, get to my small car, my boat, that could carry me out of my marriage. Suddenly, I was so grateful that I was someone who owned a car.
Finally, my turn to talk to an agent arrived. A young male agent got on the phone and began negotiating a flight with another airline’s agent, speaking fast, all in Spanish. A female agent reviewed several screens at once, searching for an available flight to the United States.
“Can you run?” The male agent asked.
The female agent began hitting the screen as if it were a competition to catch the flight before anyone else could.
“We secured a United Airline flight, but it’s leaving in thirty minutes. You must go now,” she handed me the boarding pass.
“Thank you so much, thank you.” I wanted to thank them more, but both agents pointed towards security.
“You must hurry.”
I turned around and started running. I ran through security, down a long hallway, and to the gate. I felt the tears building behind my eyes. I ran as I said thank you to the Delta agents, to my car who carried me out of my marriage, to my friends who hosted me once I left. I ran as I thought about the people who ran to the boats and airplanes to get out warzones.
Did everything in life have deadlines? I had thirty minutes to get to the flight. If I missed it, it would take me a long time to find another way home. If I had missed the calling to leave my first marriage, I would have been stuck in it for a long time. It didn’t mean that we could be saved, but we had to fight for a chance to live a different life. If we are lucky enough to get to this territory, we have already changed. As changed beings, we hold an inner voice, an urge, a bell inside us that rings until our insights are captured in a visible format. As I ran to the gate, I told myself that I would get back to writing my story. I would find a way. I would work through whatever was blocking me. The bell inside me warned me not to miss the deadline. After all, I had seen what happened to the people who ignored deadlines. Mr. Johnson, who had never told his son he loved him, and Mr. Keller, who was certain that he had nothing to say to his fourth sister, must have been hearing the bells inside them. They ignored their bells until their ultimate deadlines, their deaths. I was their Delta agent, who issued the boarding passes, telling them, say what you want to say; you must hurry now.
Where are you, now? Jeremy and I exchanged countless texts as we took different paths home. He was stuck in New York. I was headed to Amsterdam. We checked on each other as we navigated our way home. In the final airplane back to Minneapolis, it occurred to me how I misunderstood my situation. When I tried to write about my marriage, I became intensely angry at my old self, the young Japanese woman, who had stayed in an unhealthy marriage for so long. Why didn’t I leave sooner? This chaotic evacuation in the midst of a pandemic somehow showed me that leaving a system of which we are a part, even if the system is as small as a marriage, required more than individual courage. “If you don’t want to be with me anymore, you’ll go back to Japan,” my former husband said as if I had no identity or place in this country if I wasn’t tied to him. He wasn’t entirely wrong in his thinking. He was the only family member I had in this country, so why would I stay?
Jeremy and I both arrived home safely.
The next day, I began writing about my marriage as fiction. Fiction gave me the space for evocation, imagination, and contemplation. This space allowed room for new voices that would carry the work of truth-telling. I walked into the same space as Mr. Keller, looking up at the ceiling, imagining how his mother would describe his fourth sister. It was a fiction. Mr. Keller never had a conversation about it with his mother. But it was true. And he couldn’t have told that story on his own. He borrowed his mother’s psyche.
I wrote every day, badly. I wrote sixty pages only to save fifteen for each chapter. As I repeated this, all kinds of negative voices circled in my head. Are you going to write that? That’s not nice. What you just said, your former husband wouldn’t like it. Remember, he asked you not to write. That was impolite. That was dramatic. Are you really going to say that? These negative voices came forward when my writing was about to disturb the comfort of mainstream Minnesotan culture. Why we let ourselves be silenced is beyond personal commitment or courage; we are constantly responding to the expectations of our community. The culture of Minnesota promotes friendliness by avoiding open and direct communication, honest conversations, conflict, and expression of emotions. My deep awareness of this culture silenced me.
In addition, my background of being a Japanese woman, too, added an extra layer. Growing up with the traditions and daily rituals of Buddhism and Shintoism, I developed a strong sense of paying attention to the presence of collective needs. This awareness was also strengthened by my father, who grew up in Hiroshima after the war, who reminded me that we were all one, a part of the earth. Socially, as a girl, I was surrounded by women who devoted their lives to taking supportive roles to men at home and work. The women were expected to be considerate and gracious while managing a wide range of duties behind the scenes. It was important not to intimidate men. All this plus my loneliness, my desire to fit in, to belong, to be accepted, played the role in me becoming an individual who prioritized providing comfort to others.
Understanding the complexity of what silences me filled me with a clear awareness, like the sensation of being awake. In this state, even though negative voices filled my head, I could keep my eyes open and walk through the noise.
By Monday, May 25, 2020, my novel had accumulated to one hundred and three pages.
That afternoon, I watched George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis police officers. The duration, 8 minutes and 46 seconds, became a vivid and specific image. The killing was broadcast internationally. The riot began in Minneapolis. My family in Japan reached out and asked if I was safe. Back in 1992, I received a similar letter from my neighbors, who warned me, you are in a dangerous country. Be careful. I had thought I was awake. But I woke up into an altered state of reality.
Had Minnesota missed a deadline? Like Mr. Johnson and Mr. Keller, Minnesota has been hearing the bells, warnings, the calling, to face the ugly truths about race, inequality, and violence. But we had put it aside like dirty laundry. We would wash it later. We would talk about it later. Better yet, maybe these painfully clear truths would go away on their own.
By Tuesday, March 16, 2021, my novel was up to three hundred sixty pages.
That day, I sat down, wrote for a few, then I needed to go for a run. Running cleared and reset my mind. While I ran, Jeremy texted me every twenty minutes. The news about the increased frequency of hate crimes and violence against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) worried him. Every time I went out, he imagined a stranger throwing hateful words, pushing my body, and punching my face. By the time I got home, he welcomed me home as if I were a soldier returning from a warzone.
That evening, we watched the news of the shooting in Atlanta. A twenty-one-year-old man drove to three spa locations and killed eight people, six of them were Asian American women.
I stopped writing my novel for three days.
Three days become a week. Write through. Write badly. I told myself, but I felt numb. I walked around with tears inside my eyes. I thought about the Asian American women who work at massage parlors and nail salons. For years, they wash their customers’ feet, color their toenails, and provide comfort and luxury to others. They work and work to save money to buy a house, a car, or pay for their children’s college. Then one day, a twenty-one-year-old white man shoots them because he was having a bad day. Twelve hundred miles away from the shooting, I remembered my youth when I was hyperaware of my Asianness through the way others looked at me. I was either as insignificant or as annoying as a mosquito (at the sight of it, our hands automatically move to smash it) or as exotic as food (delicious Asian food made of soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil is available for dine-in or take out for all Americans!). Being an Asian in this country initially gave me this sensation, which I buried inside me.
Two days later, Jeremy and I hosted dinner for his family. A year had passed since we had gathered together in person. I cooked chicken, salad, green beans, roasted peppers, and rice. I looked around the dinner table. Everyone looked happy. I was happy for everyone. But I wondered if anyone noticed that I was an Asian. I wondered if anyone wondered how I was doing while the violence and hate crimes against people who looked like me occurred and continued to occur. No one said anything. I didn’t say anything. The family was looking forward to this dinner, so why ruin the mood? You’re the only one impacted by AAPI hate crimes. Put your pain aside in a laundry basket. Go along to get along. You know this rule of politeness. I listened to my voice. In this country where a young white man having a bad day equates to the death of Asian women, I understood the rule of not bringing attention to myself.
After dinner, Jeremy and I washed the dishes together. We weren’t surprised no one said anything, but their silence was exhausting. It was as if I was absent to them, and they were absent to me. I was there and awake, yet I had to put my mind to sleep. The work of reducing my presence and withholding my pain required excruciating amounts of work.
That night, Jeremy reached out to his family, specifically urging them they should reach out to me. The next morning, one brave person texted me. Against the advice of my own negative voice warning not to cause inconvenience, I spoke honestly about how the family’s silence felt cold, how their inaction felt like active avoidance of my Asianness. They listened intently and said, “Say some more.” It might have been only one person who showed up, but I was truly grateful. At the same time, I realized that my community was about to become much smaller if I were to continue speaking my truth.
Our truth has its own force. It begs to be captured, seen, and heard until the day we die. Silence has its own force, promoting the protection of other’s ease. But we aren’t infants who need protection from uncomfortable sensations. Every day, I sit and write while I listen to the bell ringing in the back of my head. I want my people in Minnesota to hear the bells, the calling.
I will do my part of telling the truth.
I will run until I run all the way through.
—Yuko Taniguchi (Touchstone Literary Magazine)