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Except from Two Nails, One Love

I’m not the type to wallow in a bad situation. I’m more apt to pack my things and move on. Much of this comes from my mother, who never looks backward and is as averse to self-pity as anyone I’ve ever known. Whenever she suffers a major setback or disappointment, she shakes her head, mutters “shikata ga nai”—a Japanese saying that roughly translates to, “it can’t be helped”—and then deals with the problem as best she can, or she pivots to plan B. Whining is not an option.

Her stoicism in the face of adversity is something that, as a kid growing up in Honolulu, often annoyed me to no end. I remember when her washing machine broke down one week after the warranty had expired. Instead of complaining, she swallowed her frustration, said “shikata ga nai,” and called Sears. After the repairman—a stout Hawaiian-Chinese man with a sour disposition and no shortage of complaints about his life—finished the job and presented her with the bill, she thanked him as she rifled through the kitchen drawers, searching for her checkbook. But when she apologized for making him wait (her checkbook was in her purse, not a kitchen drawer), I was angry at her, and more so when she thanked him again, this time with added effusiveness, as she tipped him with a ten-dollar bill. I didn’t understand why she didn’t share my sense of resentment.

What I failed to realize then is that my mother carefully chooses her battles with pragmatic efficiency. It’s a skill that’s taken me years to develop. But even as I’ve learned to appreciate her deep wisdom, I’ve had trouble understanding something equally important—the inadvertent ways in which our greatest strengths can, at times, become our biggest weaknesses. Stoic determination in one situation becomes foolish stubbornness in another. And that stubbornness has resulted in years of estrangement between a son, me, now living in New York City, and his mother, who has remained residing five thousand miles away in Honolulu.

* * * * * 

Waiting for Mom’s flight to arrive from Hawaii, I’m filled with remorse and apprehension. I haven’t seen her since Dad’s funeral, a little more than ten years ago. It was a time of unbearable pain for both of us, not just because of the overwhelming grief we felt but also because of the ugly fight we had. For the first time in my life, I shouted at her—a blitzkrieg of harsh, irretrievable words spoken in too much haste with too little regard for the consequences.

Today, as I wait at the airport in Newark, it saddens me that I can’t be wholeheartedly eager to see her, to hear her voice again, to be with her. I’m still mad, even after all these years, angry at not just the things she said but also at her reluctance to recognize the sacrifices I’ve made in my own life in an attempt to fulfill her vision of what a dutiful Japanese American son should be.

I check the display board near the Continental counter and see that Mom’s flight will be more than an hour late because of bad weather in the Midwest. That’s just great. The extra time will only ratchet up my anxiety.

To calm my nerves, I walk through the terminal concourse in search of a place where I can have a cup of coffee. As I sit at a McDonald’s my mind wanders into the past. In actuality, the blowout Mom and I had the day before Dad’s funeral wasn’t the worst of it. No less painful was the ensuing silence between us, a silence filled with recrimination and anger. Eventually, after almost a year, Mom sent me a birthday card with the shortest of notes: “I can’t believe you’re now 31. Happy birthday! Love, Mom.”

That gesture opened a welcome period of détente, when obligatory greeting cards for birthdays, Mother’s Days, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Year’s Days went back and forth between two islands, Oahu and Manhattan, as she and I tried to maintain at least some level of contact, however minimal. I suppose we’ve both been fearful that any silence stretching too long might potentially lead to a permanent severing of our ties.

The truth, though, is that Dad’s funeral wasn’t the cause of our estrangement, merely the breaking point in our relationship. Even before he died, things between Mom and me were strained. Now, I realize it was essentially a battle of East versus West playing out on our intimate family stage—family harmony clashing with personal fulfillment.

From my earliest years, I was taught the importance of family. “Friends may come and go,” my father often lectured me, “but your family will always be there.” A seemingly comforting sentiment. But, if family is everything, it also means that the individuals within it are always secondary to the greater whole. And this, in turn, means that any individual’s transgressions—my transgressions—would not only reflect badly on that person but bring down the family as well. “What would the neighbors think?” was a frequent admonishment in our home, where bringing shame through our doors was often considered a crime worse even than the original offense. This extended to any acts of individualism, however well-intentioned. It’s a sentiment aptly captured by the old Japanese saying, “deru kugi wa utareru”—literally, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Along with lectures on the inherent dangers of Western individualism, I was also taught the beauty of Eastern group unity. In high school, when my parents and I traveled to Japan one spring, my father continually marveled at the spectacular beauty of the blossoming cherry trees. “Just look,” Dad told me. “Each of those individual blossoms might not be anything special, but taken together, they’re truly exquisite.”

It wasn’t until my late teens and early adulthood that I began to feel suffocated by these sentiments—and by my parents’ expectations. For one thing, I’d fallen in love with playing the oboe, and my dreams of becoming a professional musician ran directly counter to my parents’ assumption that I’d one day become a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or engineer. And, perhaps more importantly, I had become increasingly certain my attraction to other boys wasn’t a passing phase but a permanent sexual orientation. I didn’t actually know my parents’ view of homosexuality, but I was certain of one thing: They would eventually want me to marry a woman, start a traditional family, and bestow them with grandchildren to sustain our family line. Both parts of the person I saw myself as—a musician and a gay man—clashed with the son my parents thought I should be, and I chafed under their preconceived constraints. To be fair, Dad at least appeared open to me forging my own path; Mom remained adamantly opposed.

I head over to her gate, weaving through a gauntlet of people, a mix of humanity. Some trudge along, exhausted from a long flight, while others rush to make a tight connection. I’m amazed at how well we all manage to make it to our different destinations, each person going at a different speed and yet maintaining just enough distance from one other to avoid a collision, the occasional close call notwithstanding. It’s individualism within a larger group context.

When I arrive at the gate, I’m annoyed to learn Mom’s flight will be another half hour late. Oddly, even the smallest part of me isn’t relieved by this delay. I guess I’ve anticipated her arrival with enough anxiety already that I just want it to happen. To pass the time, I wander around the terminal concourse and eventually step into a bookstore to browse the different magazines. Nothing in particular piques my interest, so I try the book section and am amazed that “Who Moved My Cheese?” is still a major bestseller, commanding an entire cardboard display by itself. I seem to have the opposite problem. I’m fine with having my cheese moved; what I fear is my cheese staying stationary for years, leaving me to stagnate.

And yet, perhaps I gave up too quickly once my relationship with Mom broke down. I’ve avoided the hard work of trying to fix it, because it was so much easier to tell myself “shikata ga nai” and move on. But it’s more than that. I’m so angry at her, not just for what she said before Dad’s funeral but for how she’s always tried to box in my life. I’m also bitterly disappointed in her, a woman who claims to love me and yet wants me to sacrifice my own life so I would fit into her mold. To be brutally honest, a part of me wants to punish her for that, so it’s been only too easy to let our relationship wither like an overripe tangerine left unpicked, or a piece of cheese left to dry out.

It was my mother, to her credit, who refused to give up on our relationship. It was she who finally sent a note longer than a couple sentences, sharing with me her keen desire to visit Washington, D.C., to see the recently unveiled Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II. “Maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, you could join me,” she wrote. I hadn’t heard about the memorial and was surprised Mom wanted to see it. I assumed that that was just an excuse, her way of paving the way to a rapprochement.

I took a few days to think through my response, and I wrote back to suggest she also come to Manhattan for a few days. “If you’re traveling all the way to the East Coast from Hawaii,” I wrote, “you really should see New York City. You can stay with me, and I’ll show you around.” I figured I’d encourage her to visit me so she could at least get a glimpse of the life I live, which must be somewhat of a mystery to her. And besides, it was my stubborn and uncharitable refusal to fly from New York to Hawaii to visit her that had finally led her, a woman in her mid sixties, to decide to make such a long journey by herself to see her only child.

Without a doubt, living away from my parents (and from Hawaii itself) has changed me in so many ways, some obvious and others much subtler. In the past, when I visited Mom and Dad, I quickly reverted to being the son I was while growing up in Honolulu. Staying in my old bedroom in their house left me powerless to resist the strong forces tugging me back into the past, and I regressed into the child I used to be.

Now, though, the situation is completely reversed. Mom will be on my turf, so to speak, and it will be the first time that’s ever happened. How will she handle things? Will she expect me to revert to the child I was growing up under her roof? Or will she finally want to get to know the man her son has become?

Amid all this uncertainty, I’m apprehensive. I’ve no idea how our week together will play out. I check the display board, which now indicates Mom’s flight has just landed. I rush over to the gate and, soon enough, passengers begin disembarking, some dressed casually in aloha shirts, a few even wearing fragrant but fading leis. Eventually, I spot Mom. She’s so tiny, almost lost among the throng of other passengers. And I’m taken aback by how much older she looks. Her hair betrays more salt than pepper, and there’s a certain fragility to her walk. I remember her being so sprightly, with quick, almost birdlike movements. Now she seems to have entered a new stage in life, no longer middle-aged but not quite elderly. As I stand watching her, my heart begins to race, and I have to suppress the fight-or-flight mechanism urging me to bolt for the exit. To calm myself, I inhale a gulp of air, slowly forcing it deep into my lungs, quelling the instinct to flee.

Finally, just as I’m about to call out to her, she sees me and waves, her face exhausted yet warily joyful. I rush to meet her and, before I can say anything, she clasps my hands. “Ken-chan,”she says, using my private family name, “honto-ni, hisashi buri desu ne.”

“I know, Mom, it’s been much too long.”

 

*This is an abridged version of an excerpt from Two Nails, One Love (Black Rose Writing, 2021). 

© 2021 Alden Hayashi

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