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Nature vs. Nurture - Everything is going to be okay

As a bewildered immigrant child imported to the hills of central Kentucky from metropolitan Japan, I often found solace in torturing small animals.

Although my peers seemed to migrate to me during those first few years of living in the south due to my inadvertent ‘foreign’ allure, I was often distant towards their offers of friendship. When asked about my after-school playtime activities, I hid underneath a façade of a benevolent tomboy who enjoyed solitude and basketball. In reality though, I had surrendered myself to life as an introspective strange person who manipulated and tormented those who were less powerful than even I felt at the time.

After all, a fourteen-hour plane ride had suddenly transformed the highlight of my week from taking the train to a high end Tokyo studio for a photo shoot to riding the Winkler family’s rust-colored 1985 VOLVO to buy sweat suits at the local Salvation Army. Sitting bitterly on the balding leather passenger seat, I quietly mourned my short career as a third rate Hapa child model and lamented my new life as a lower middle class U.S.A citizen. Oh how my inflated ego missed the Japanese stylists’ superficial love for me as they curled my hair and told me how kawaii my unique western features were. Now I pretty much just looked the same as everyone around me.

However, I was unable to numb my frustrations like a true American child could by watching Ren and Stimpy marathons on the couch. So I secretly coped with the changes that were taking place during my early life by committing mild acts of violence. My first outlet was my pet hamster, Mikey, with whom I frequently played a game with that I called Hurricane.

Hurricane only had one rule. I would shake Mikey’s cage like a maraca and watch him run around in his plastic world in a state of panic. However, the true satisfaction derived from the sense of calm and control I would feel when I ‘saved him’ from the mess I had created by snatching him out and carefully examining his rapid pulse on my knees where I held down his frail body with my bare hands.

“It’s okay Mikey. Everything is going to be okay,” I’d whisper.

When Mikey died of a myserious hamster disease that consisted of all of his fur turning grey and eventually falling out, I moved on to the ducks.

In the springtime, I chased them down the rocky slope of the driveway leading to the backyard, which, in contrast to our dodgy neighborhood, resembles a mystical forest. When the ducks would escape my wrath by waddling into the lively yet polluted creek at the bottom of the hill, I’d direct my attention to their temporarily abandoned nests hidden beneath the jungle green vines that covered the yellow exterior of my two-story home. Chuckling as I held a warm, unhatched egg in my dominant palm, I became dizzy with power. The duckling inside, now carrying my human scent, would be abandoned by the mother upon it’s arrival to planet earth.

“It’s okay ahiru chan,” I’d say, “I’ll be your mother.”

The duckling, however, never responded and our yard soon grew empty of nests. The problem of tormenting small animals and rodents was that they were small animals and rodents. They died easily and always had the option of running away and never coming back. I had to move on to something bigger and more permanent.

I briefly flirted with the idea of torturing the neighborhood children, but they chased me on their bikes after they rightfully suspected that the exotic Japanese “snack” I had gifted to them was actually a chewed up wad of sour-cream and onion flavored Lays that I had spit back out into a zip-lock bag.

So I shifted my focus to my baby sister, Lenore.

Lenore and I are nearly six years apart. While I struggled with ESL and wallowed in my own sorrows, she was perfectly content dancing along to reruns of Barney the Dinosaur and Blues Clues. I was weird and quiet, she was rosy cheeked and gullible. Unlike me, Lenore easily won the affection of those around her and seemed to adjust to her environments without much trouble. This would have made me miserable if she hadn’t been such an easy target.

Lenore’s unconditional love for me, whether I was predicting her death on the Ouji board or giving her nightmares about flesh eating bats, made her my biggest and only fan. She often became driven to hysterics from believing my carefully constructed lies and much to my satisfaction, sought comfort in my arms.

Lenore’s heart beating against my chest was exactly what I had been looking for, ever since my world crumbled before me. Her tears fed my ego and gave me a sense of home. With vulnerable Lenore by my side, I was in control. I was needed. I was strong.

When I would say, “I love you Leni-chan. Everything is going to be okay,” she always responded with a wet and snotty smile. I grew complacent in that smile and all seemed right in my demented world.

That is until, like all things do, she changed.

I cannot pinpoint the exact day Lenore began her transformation, though a particular mid-summer afternoon in the early ‘90s sticks out in my mind. The sweltering heat was boosting my anxiety level and when I found a medium-sized kitchen knife lying in the dirt next to the family trash bin, I felt inclined to pick it up. As I looked over at my sister innocently building a castle in our back porch sandbox, I couldn’t fight the animalistic urge to chase her around the yard with the sharp forbidden object.

I am not a killer.

What I longed for was not blood, but Lenore’s reaction to the horror that was about to ensue.

Although I had pulled some nasty tricks on her in the past, pretending that I was going to gut her with a knife was sure to provoke a fear that would be my greatest achievement to date. How relieved my little sister would be after I would drop the knife and comfort her in my arms. How glad she would be to have her big sister back. She would shower me with a love that I had never seen or experienced that would strengthen our bond and enslave her to me forever.

I raised the knife slowly towards my cheek and I rolled my eyes as close to my brain as it would go. For additional dramatic effect, I growled and then darted after Lenore.

Letting out a scream that resembled the sound of a dying cat, she waddled her plump thighs uphill towards the front yard. I followed my sister relentlessly chanting phrases I had picked up in horror movies.

“You are going to die tonight!” I threatened, as she begged for mercy, now sandwiched between the concrete road that she was forbidden to cross and the murderer who had taken over my body.

Half thrilled by the notion of my new identity as a dangerous criminal and half worried that perhaps I had taken things too far, I observed Lenore’s fear as she panted at my feet, struggling to collect gasps of air in between sobs. I shook my weapon close to her face and she begged for mercy. As the knife dangled inches from her eyes, I carelessly dropped it to the ground and let out a deep sigh of relief, melting the evil from my face. Lenore looked at me in disbelief as I reached for a hug.

Pushing me away, she ran in frenzy towards the house, leaving me alone crouched down on the sidewalk.

When my mother asked me if I had tried to murder my sister, I cried. Though I had not hurt her physically, what I had seemingly destroyed was the bond that brought happiness into my cold, bitter heart. No matter how hard I tried to redeem myself that day, Lenore looked at me like I was a monster.

As Lenore and I drifted apart, I watched her grow into her own. Unlike me, she held a desire to give joy to those around her. Much to my envy she was becoming confident, caring, vivacious and effortlessly surrounded by friends. The girl I once could so easily break apart somehow turned into everything I wanted to be. I on the other hand, entered my teens still obsessed with the notion of control, isolating myself from friends and lashing out at my parents, eventually resorting to self-destruction.

I had always thought that my tendencies to create turmoil rooted from the emotional shock of immigrating and dealing with my double identity as a hapa. But in retrospect, watching my sister who shares the same genetic make-up as me create her own bubbles of comfort through things like friends, church and dance inspires me to think otherwise. As she grew older, Lenore seemed to become more and more sure of herself. By age twelve, she had more friends and boyfriends than I could ever hope for and by thirteen, she purchased with her own money, a pet hamster that she lovingly named Katrina. She took care of that hamster with diligence and impressed my parents by how responsible she could be. Much to my fear, Lenore blossomed into a wonderful, accepting person as I wilted away in the corner.

In her teens, Lenore joined her school dance team and started to bring home trophies. In retaliation, I tried out for the school play. Although I didn’t land a part, I began to take drama classes and ended up finding a passion. What started due to a desire to outdo my little sister eventually ended up, in many ways, becoming the perfect outlet for all of my frustrations.

This day Lenore is an urban hip social worker-to-be who loves Jesus.

I am hopelessly spacey, still searching, trying to finagle a theater company with no budget.

We will always be different, finding homes within our polar opposite aspirations.

But it is her good nature that forced me to look inside and tell myself that I am always in control of my life, no matter how strangely I thought I was nurtured. If Lenore turned out fine, so could I. We are sisters after all, who have come from the same place. We can both blossom, sharing what we have with the world. Besides, if Lenore hadn’t run away from me that day, I may have never learned that hurting others, whether it be a person or a small animal, will always result in harm and loneliness.

We live so far from each other now that I couldn’t torture her if I even held the desire to. Sometimes I get the urge to pick up the phone and tell her exactly how much I love her and how much she inspires me. That I will be there in any way I can to help her as she enters her adult life.

But instead, I hang up and I look at her photograph tacked above my bedroom mirror, telling the both of us that everything is going to be okay.

© 2010 Leah Nanako Winkler

hapa identity nature nurture