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The Asian American Literary Review

Compartment Comportment - Part 1

It was the summer of 2004 that my friend Hiro taught me how much fun it can be to lead a double life. We were hiding out in the lobby of a classy New York hotel on 57th Street. Outside, humidity squeezed through Manhattan’s canyon and up against the hotel’s glass doorway, like some invisible, fat monster in a horror movie. But inside, quiet industrial air conditioning kept us safe. Hiro had an idea for a game. We approached the concierge and Hiro babbled briefly in bad English before turning the conversation over to me. “My friend’s parents are coming to New York next month for the first time,” I interpreted, adding a touch of apology in my voice. “He’s trying to find the best place for them to stay.”

And so it began.

We inspected hotel suites. We tested the water-pressure of penthouse showers. We bounced on the mattresses, expressions grave with concentration. We asked: “And if your 95% feather and 5% down pillows are too soft, will you find a harder one more appropriate to Japanese tastes?” We accepted shampoo and lotion samples, explaining that the Japanese didn’t really like strong smells. And when our tour concluded, we sipped high tea in the hotel lobby. For me this had all been infinitely more fun than tutoring Hiro in the TOEFL exam, which he would need to take to apply to schools overseas.

“You understand,” Hiro said after he managed to talk our waitress into an extra (free) scone, “I’ve been to most of the good hotels in Tokyo. To the first class lounges in Narita. I’m used to this.” Later that night, he clarified what he meant. He stuck a DVD recording from a Japanese news program into his computer. We sat in the blue light, watching the clip over and over again, as a pudgy but confident doctor discussed his particular talent for removing tumors without damaging the mind. The reporter fawned; the camera gave a nice close up of the surgeon’s nimble hands. “And no one knows,” said Hiro, “that he used to come to Tokyo to meet me.”

“Used to?”
“Something happened to one of his children. He couldn’t get away for a while.”
Oh. “You’re gay.”
It was too definitive a label. “I might be.”
“You are,” I said. We knew these kinds of things in New York.
“Bisexual.” He was going to have to get married one day and this would not be possible if he were completely gay.
“You can’t get married if you are gay.”
“My parents need me to.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh. That.”

Though our situations weren’t exactly parallel, we did identify with each other in a fundamental way. I am half Japanese and fortunate enough to speak the language fairly well. Like Hiro, my Japanese family—old, distinguished, aristocratic even—didn’t understand unconventional behavior. I’d been living with my boyfriend in New York City for four years, a fact that, my mother let me know, would be shameful if found out in Japan. If I would just get married, I’d make a lot of money. “People don’t give wedding presents in Japan. They give cash,” she said enticingly.

My situation wasn’t so taboo in New York where plenty of couples before us had moved through the stages of urban courtship: living together, adopting a couple of kittens and buying an apartment before finally getting hitched. It really wasn’t too much of a problem except when I went to Japan and had to hide most traces of my personal life.

I explained the concept of the closet to Hiro. “If you stay in America,” I said, “you can be out all the time.” I tried to take him to gay bars, feeling like a clumsy marine biologist teaching an abandoned baby otter to swim in frigid waters. He should have been naturally gifted in such a setting and I out of place. Instead, I grooved to the music and Hiro stared at his drink.

He did not like these extroverted environments. They were too declarative, like wearing red (my favorite color) all the time instead of the neutrals he preferred. There was a reason, I decided, why he was so devoted to Ralph Lauren and Burberry, the labels of Those Who Do No Wrong. He wasn’t ready to be “out,” or perhaps even interested. It clashed with some essential part of his nature. Better to live the double life and to feel the thrill of being in possession of a secret.

* * * * *

My mother’s keen antenna discerned something amiss with my friendship with Hiro. She had not been in New York for more than an hour during the summer of the hotel game before she roared: where was Hiro’s Japanese spirit of discipline and mental focus, that inner core of steel that had helped her adjust to America? Hiro was wallowing in culture shock, comforting himself by sleeping on my sofa and eating at fancy restaurants for lunch and window-shopping for luxury goods. She did not hear an improvement in his English. He was not actively planning for the next stage of his life when the TOEFL had been conquered. He was lazy.

My mother is petite and beautiful, a tiny Japanese sprite imbued with a fiery will. She is a natural performer and this means that she projects all her emotions so you experience them viscerally. If she is happy, you are intoxicated. If she is angry, you want to escape her presence. And if she is unhappy and you are me, you want to make her happy again.

I protested that Hiro was studying diligently for the TOEFL exam, and that I was benefiting from getting to practice my Japanese language skills every day. She didn’t believe me. At a party my boyfriend and I threw, she very publicly turned her back on Hiro and refused to acknowledge his presence. Eventually, she disappeared into the bedroom for the rest of the night, with the door shut.

I was angry, but my mother’s intuition had correctly picked up that something was out of kilter—something that went beyond the hotel game I was now enjoying with abandon.

Since Hiro’s initial confession to me, I’d learned much more about him. The whole reason he had come to New York to study for the TOEFL was because he’d failed the archaic apprenticeship required in Japan to become a classical chef. Three weeks in the kitchen of a kaiseki restaurant, the most elite of Japanese eateries, and he’d been badly bullied. Eggs on his head. A good kick in the rear. At a well-nourished six feet, Hiro should have seemed physically imposing, but his naturally gentle and slightly fastidious manner and the way his voice slid into falsetto all made him an easy target. When the head chef had spat a full glass of beer in his face, he’d fled for home where his parents had been bewildered as to what to do. Forget suing; that’s an American response. Perhaps, his mother had timidly suggested, he should go overseas for his education.

But Hiro’s arrival in New York wasn’t motivated solely by ambition. In his mind, it was an extension of a kind of glamorous and transient lifestyle he’d adopted in Japan where he’d explored his attraction to men by acting as a sort of modern day courtesan. The Internet made it possible to continue his dalliances in America. After my mother had returned to California, he told me that he had already enjoyed quite a few parties in New York apartments. Since having been abandoned by the brain surgeon in Tokyo, he was ready for a new companion.

We talked about my mother’s behavior, which I tried to explain away as eccentricity. “She’s always been over-dramatic,” I said. He disagreed. They were both Japanese; they both knew how to read each other’s body language and cues on a level that I simply couldn’t perceive. He’d been signaling to her that he was normal, someone she could trust. He was a master, he reminded me, of the double life. But her very public shunning had let him know that thirty years in America hadn’t damaged her social instincts.

She was on to him.

Part 2 >>

* * * * *

* “Compartment Comportment” will be published in The Asian American Literary Review, Issue 1 (April 2010). AALR is a not-for-profit literary arts journal, a showcase of the best of today’s Asian American literature. To learn more about the journal or purchase a subscription, visit at, or find it on Facebook.

© 2010 Marie Mutsuki Mockett

aalr hapa literature new york sexuality

About this series

The Asian American Literary Review is a space for writers who consider the designation “Asian American” a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community. In showcasing the work of established and emerging writers, the journal aims to incubate dialogues and, just as importantly, open those dialogues to regional, national, and international audiences of all constituencies. It selects work that is, as Marianne Moore once put it, “an expression of our needs…[and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.”

Published biannually, AALR features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comic art, interviews, and book reviews. Discover Nikkei will feature selected stories from their issues.

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