The Atzumis never noticed the feeding frenzy they touched off. Thirty seconds after the cab drove off to take them to the airport for their L.A. flight back to Toyko, the other tenants, who’d been circling like buzzards, swooped in for Dumpster diving. For the remaining tenants — students, foreigners, low-income-housing types that characterize a Miramar apartment complex in turnaround — the Japanese couple’s move was Christmas/pay-day/jackpot.
One wrapped plastic bag held four new telephones (one cordless, one with a radio/snooze alarm, one with a built-in answering machine). Three electronic clocks and a Nintendo deck with dozens of Japanese-labeled game cartridges. Two futons, a stack of silk zabutons, oak book shelves. More than 100 audio cassettes and VHS tapes, leather flight jackets (his and hers), sheets and blankets, stainless steel cookware, and a set of Chicago Cutlery knives. A jillion weird comic books and wood coat hangers, a rice cooker, an oak and linen hamper, canvas throw pillows.
Singh, the manager, had already coralled the Sony CD player, 27-inch Trinitron, three torchiere lamps, and S100 worth of exotic car waxes and paint-care products (at the bottom of the box: a certificate from a high-performance driving school that includes a final practicum in a race at Laguna Seca). A friend of the Atzumis would be by later to pick up the race-rigged Toyota stock car sitting in the garage next to the spare Recaro seat and fuel cell.
Nice scavenging. And nice kids, the Atzumis; a couple of cute, monied young lovebirds living a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in another country. The thousands of dollars’ worth of discarded materialism created no resentment in the cargo cult; that’s just how rich Japanese kids do things. Or that’s how they used to do things. The Atzumis may be among the last of a special society that few Americans know about, though it involves us as much as Japan or Korea or China.
The Atzumis and those who study at American schools present an image much as American students have displayed in less-developed countries: privileged, materialistic, naive, spoiled rich kids on junkets where their money buys more. They tend to stick to themselves, not only for reasons of language, race, and culture, but because of envious Americans, especially in the community colleges, where many of their classmates are poor minority students on grants and government loans. The foreign students are a class apart from fellow UCSD and SDSU contemporaries — a separation that prepares them for their future lives.
Americans think foreigner college students come to this country for higher-quality education, but most Japanese are here because it’s cheaper to study English — even with trans-Pacific flights and rent thrown in—and easier to get into academic programs.
But Japanese student life here is a paradox: on the one hand, they live like young colonials in a glamorous Third World outpost, just as Britishers and Romans once did in Sumatra or Gaul. On the other hand, they are still like the sons sent from Judea to Rome, or Calcutta to London: improving their status by rubbing off some ruling-class sheen.
What they study here is irrelevant; the big lesson is facility with English, which can land a young Japanese guy a gig in Tokyo with an international corporation or a Korean girl a spot at a hotel travel desk. And not just for speaking with Americans: while we think of English as “our” language, the world regards it as the language of the world. Courses of study tend to be heavy on ESL, but they also include interesting electives. For a young Asian student, a course in racquetball or kayaking or skiing is as exotic and “typical” as ikebana or kendo would be for a San Diego student in Kyoto.
But it’s what’s heard on American radio that’s really of interest — hopped-up motors, music, and mamas. Car-driving courses are big, as are flight lessons, horseback riding (Western style only), scuba diving, surfing, country-western dancing, and electric guitar lessons. These Japanese students can live in an MTV video for a few years, but they remain a class apart at UC and Mira Mesa — a separateness that continues when they return home.
Thousands of Japanese ryuga ju (overseas students) usually undergo culture shock when they arrive in San Diego. But even more shock greets them when they return home to find they’ve changed. Returning students are called kikokushijo (prodigals) and form a new class in Japanese society — perhaps the class that will control that country in 20 years.
Kikokushijo have more in common with each other than those who did not go abroad to study. They speak better English, with better intonations and slang. They listen to American music and Japanese groups like Lunatic Lion or Ayumi Nakamura or Lindberg IV, whose album covers and song titles burst with English, who slip into English for choruses and hooks between singing Japanese verses. They know American food and liquor and how to dress in U.S. style. English is dropped with the assumption that it’s understood; after all, English is the hip thing to speak in modern Japan. They are not so much allegiant to American culture as to their own hybridized version — much like how American hippies in Mexico pull local music, phrases, and clothing into something as alien to locals as it would be to their parents back home.
But the biggest distinction between kikokushijo and other Japanese young people isn’t expressed through English-sloganed T-shirts and Pepsi-commercial jingles; it’s through the “prodigals" sense about Japanese society and its lack of personal individuality.
Shoko, a pretty ryuga ju who worked two years in the admissions office at an L.A. County community college before transferring to SDSU, has seen a lot of Oriental students come and go. She has a good grasp on the difference between the freewheeling American consciousness and what Americans might think of as hive mind but Asians regard as a sense of belonging.
“In Japan, I never cooked or did anything for myself,” she says. “My mother took care of everything. Here i have to do it all myself. When you have freedom, there’s more you have to do for yourself. But when I go back to visit Japan, students my age seem to me like children. They’re babied and can’t take care of themselves — very dependent. And so they have the same kind of attitude. And they think we are selfish and egotistical. We throw an English word into a conversation, and they think we are pretentious and spoiled."
There are also academic and political reasons for the kikokushijo feelings of greater independence or worth. “We are more self-reliant in other ways, too,” Shoko explains. “We have to study harder. In Japan they have a big test, the Nugakushikett, and if you don’t pass it, your education is over — you go get the kind of job you can get with no college. Every year you hear about all the people who failed the test and committed suicide. But if you pass, you are guaranteed to get into a university. It’s easy to graduate without working very hard; then you get a job because you have a degree from such-and-such school. But if you fail the test, maybe you can still prove yourself by coming here to study. You have to do very well, though; you can’t just sit there and pass your courses. Then we have to be aggressive and sell companies on the advantage of hiring us. So many of us have redeemed ourselves by hard work and the pride of making our own future instead of just accepting what society wants us to have.”
Discussions of "getting in to the right school” have a deeper resonance in Japan, where there is essentially only one “right school.” Once college is a possibility, there are only two kinds of college careers possible: one either goes to Todai (the University of Tokyo) and steps out into a well-paved easy street that leads to almost automatic success in business or government, or one graduates from another university and accepts that life will always be a little second rate.
Admission to Todai is also handled by a massive test that spins off battalions of tutors, cram schools, and suicides, and those who don’t make the grade are shunted onto backstreets immediately — unless they go overseas and get a degree from Berkeley or Washington or a San Diego college. In which case they are not really quantifiable as non-Todaisei; they have become oranges to the apple sorters.
For a business that is more interested in the hard coin of ability than social veneer, kikokushi-jos have the added appeal of enhanced competence. “It’s pretty well known that Todai is just a party school where you drink and make contacts until they spit you out into a sari-man’s suit,” says Daru Nyara, a wealthy scion who didn’t make it into Todai but did well enough at UCSD.
“Here you have to study to pass, very simple. Nobody here cares who your daddy is or what neighborhood you live in — you either pull the grades or you flunk. So you actually learn something. Those guys who passed the entrance exam might know more standard test trivia when they enter the first form (their freshman], but that’s when they quit learning anything. In a few years here you learn way more than they’ll ever know about the way things actually work. And people know that. They might not like it, but they know it when you apply."
One analogy might be Victorian England, where young men who lacked social standing to enter an old company or buy the colors of a fine regiment could ship out on an India-man and make their bones in the Raj or a South Seas appointment or with the Hudson Bay Company. They might not have a title or the right wife, but they could rise through the military ranks on exploits instead of lineage.
That analogy might seem strained here, but it’s not far from the image of Japanese companies and governments. Witness the recent turmoil in their executive branch or the perception of a power elite as inbred, hive-minded, as reactive as the French courts or the most brassbound Victorian parliament. It’s an item of faith among kikokushijo, American educators, and aggressive international companies that studies abroad send back to Japan the same sort of fresh blood, free spirit, and rejuvenated attitudes that the Empire’s outposts during Victorian period returned to London.
To Annette Bermer, at the ESL (English as a Second Language) school at United States International University (USIU), academic excellence goes beyond a resume item and becomes a distinguishing characteristic of kikokushijo. “It doesn’t take long for students here to become international. That’s what we’re all about. And they also become American. There’s a subtle thing they take home from studying here, a sort of identification, a pride that they’ve studied at the source, with the best, the tops in the world. I think it sets them apart for life."
But meanwhile: the heady, threatening independence of living in California. Independence goes deeper than cooking, cleaning, and job-hunting skills, Shoko notes; the infectious thing is American thought forms.' “In Japan, everyone has an impulse to be together and even think together and be alike. Here we learn a different way to be. It’s exciting, but it’s frightening to think you are in charge of whatever happens to you.”
Sometimes just the simple freedom to choose what to do at any given moment is too much to handle — some students get trapped by the lack of control and begin to neglect their studies and party too much. The same neighbors that pillaged the Atzumi leavings also watched their friend, Doy Hideyoshi, get hauled out of his flat and dragged to the airport by his grim-faced zaibatsu (corporate fat-cat) father. He screwed up once too often, a playboy lost in a world of big, bikinied blondes. His father’s underlings paid off the lease, packed his son’s belongings, and bagged the rest for the Dumpster. Nice trash pickings, but nothing to match the Atzumi haul. Hidyoshi represents the beginning of the deep end. What California offers Japan is similar to drugs or technology: a tool that can take control and turn the user into the used.
A telling symptom of Japanese ambivalence to American influence is the ryu ga ju fashion trend called chapatsu or “tea hair.” Bleaching black Asian hair produces the brownish color so often seen where Asian students hang out. It’s a generational divider as silly and fundamental as long hair was here in the ’60s, and just as powerful: if you still have black hair, you’re a dweeb and probably can’t even get a date. “I’d much rather go out with a girl with tea hair,” says a Japanese boy in the USD student lounge. “They’re a lot cooler and have more modern attitudes." But when his friend adds, “You wouldn’t marry her, would you?” there is no reply.
Even parents who followed continental fashions during the “moderne" craze after World War II and dropped French words despair at watching their youth addicted to chapatsu; perhaps the image of hair-bleaching is associated with social dropouts and delinquents, similar to tattoos in the U.S. The societal reaction to tea hair has been strong and strict.
Asahi Shimbum, a major national newspaper, feels “the fashion indicates a deep-rooted inferiority complex towards Westerners, which makes youngsters think black hair is uncool. They need to value their identity as Asians and as Japanese." Brown-haired athletes have been stripped of medals, and pro-baseball managers have banned tea hair on their teams. The police chief of Hokkaido state got in trouble for dumping a glass of beer over a brown-dyed head. Job applicants know better than to show up at an Interview with brown hair or to sport it after being hired. But official disapproval isn’t doing much to keep kids off bleach.
The craze may be an assertion of Western-style individuality, a rebellion against conformity to the “Japan Incorporated" machine. It may smack of American influence, but it’s the kind of rebellion that only lasts until it’s time to get a career, and it’s nonconformity Japanese style — everyone nonconforming in the same way. As one prodigal girl puts it, “Back in the States, everyone tries different fashion looks in order to be different and unique; in Japan they are following fashion to look the same."
Tea hair in a country where everybody has black hair, worn by young people who’ve visited a place where people have all colors of hair — even green and purple—shows the power America has over young foreigners. As we scrambled to imitate the success of the Japanese management complex in the ’80s, Japanese were emulating our culture. How different is a Japanese girl who dreams of becoming the next Courtney Love from her parents, who mail-ordered log-cabin kits to turn their home into a Western movie set.
Imitation cuts both ways. “Sure Japanese imitate America,” says Tommy Abe, who has studied at several California schools. “We always have, since Admiral Byrd. It’s how we got to be a modern world power. But it’s not slavish imitation. Just look around your house and see if you see any American cameras or stereos. Then check out the Harleys that look like Hondas and the Chevys that look like Toyotas and those kids down at Zanzibar wearing ichiiban T-shirts, fake yakuza tattoos, driving Kawasakis and renting anime videos. Sometimes these two countries are like two chameleons making love. On a mirror.”
Daru, who knows his rebellion stems from his grasp of the system, remembers when just being Japanese was a big ego hit of ichiban (number one). But he has seen that change.
“Five years ago, in my freshman year, there was something that Japanese guys could feel here," he says. “It was like [we were) Masters of the Universe. We came here to the big, rich country because we were richer, smarter, more successful. That was the image we had. It’s hard to explain, but, let’s say you get a hot Japanese sports car and blast around. Cool. But if I have that car, see, it’s a Japanese car. We made these things; you buy them because they’re superior. I didn’t know a single Japanese guy who was driving an American car. Or even a German car. It was our gear, our mystique, our world. This was like a conquered province, really. You’d walk in the bookstore, and here'd be all these books on Japanese management theory, and all the big American experts trying to learn how we did it. But it didn’t matter, see, because they wouldn’t be able to pull it off because they aren’t Japanese. Not as tough or smart or dedicated. We were the kings.
“You know, even those ’homestay programs’ like Hayashi or Takamatsu are supposed to be educational and culturally enlightening and everything, Japanese kids living with American families, but what they really are is rich Japanese kids being sent away to expensive babysitters in California. And we all knew it. California was like our Third World with clean rest rooms, just like Hawaii is our Niagara Falls.
“That’s changed now. I can’t say quite how. We’re not magic anymore. We still don’t get dates with tall blondes. Maybe a few guys had to go back because their dad’s not doing so well now. Maybe people didn’t really look at us as so awesome anyway. But it felt like it. And now, when I go back home, I know there’s going to be a little mystique around me back there. American college man. Speaks English slang. Knows what REM are saying. Has those American management theories. Probably dated big blondes in bikinis.
“I just missed the massacre, the finance epidemic. I finished my studies last year and have been taking time to travel around North America before going home. Maybe I was in the last class of the Masters of the Universe. Maybe not. I think that people of my class will continue to study here, regardless of developments at home. It’s still cheaper. And it’s become a tradition, in a way. But you can sense a change in the air. My father still makes the same money as two years ago. My future hasn’t changed at all, unless I really screw up. But the Rising Sun doesn’t gleam as bright anymore. First the ‘bubble economy’ burst, now the international exchange is deflating. I think Americans will be less impressed by us now and not copy us so much. Maybe it's turning out we weren’t such geniuses after all, just clever and corrupt like Indonesia. What the world is telling us now isn’t ‘How can we attain your success?’ but ‘Get your house in order before you mess us up, too.’"
The massacre Daru refers to is the overheating, then chilling collapse of the general economy of Asia during 1997. The impact on what some might lump together as “the Asian economy” has been different from country to country. The very wealthy, as in most economic disasters, are less affected. One admissions counselor says, “It even makes a difference if a family was involved in domestic business—in Japan, say— in which case they are probably hurting, or in import-export where they are helped a great deal by dollar economy." Chinese enrollments have been much more stable than Koreans, though Hong Kong students are very nervous.
Thai students have been hard hit, leaving at quarter’s end and not applying for future quarters. Indonesians, according to Kieu Vo, admissions counselor at USIU, “just went home. All of them. They didn’t finish programs, didn’t finish the month, didn’t delay five minutes. They just went home.” At the English First (EF) language school on the USIU campus, Marsha Harrington notes the same thing: Korean students gone with the diminishing value of the wan; Indonesian students disappeared 100 percent almost overnight; new recruitments from those countries plummeted to zero.
But aside from Indonesians, there is a difference between students enrolled in short-term English programs, who are finishing out their contract, and those in four-year programs, who are putting their careers on hold until things improve.
The effects of the “Asian Flu” on language academies or foreign-populated programs such as those at USIU is grim. A bursar at one academy says, “When people don’t believe that the Asia mess will have fallout for the American economy, I ask them what I should do about a shortfall of 40 percent in enrollments next year. How many admissions advisors and teachers are not going to have jobs next year? For us it’s the same lesson that the Indonesians and Japanese are learning: no economy is an island.” Efforts are in place to cushion the effect of the Asian recession on American schooling. USIU has instituted creative tuition-payment plans to make it easier for students to continue. Immigration service provided some relief last June, when it revised the terms of student visas to allow for employment up to 40 hours per week, instead of the previous 20 hours. These gestures reflect current labor shortages in the U.S. as much as the needs of students from countries whose currencies are faltering. Whatever the motivation, the new guidelines help overseas students continue their study here, something everyone involved sees as a good thing.
The situation of Korean students has always been different from that of the Japanese. For Koreans it is possibly five times more expensive to study here than in Korea, so they come from families that are very wealthy or make extreme sacrifices to finance a higher place in the Korean economy. Whatever stinting was necessary two years ago is worse now after the collapse of the wan against the dollar.
Yana, a language institute student who looks a little like Margaret Cho in her baseball cap, makes it clear why the expense is worth it. “Money and speaking English establish a special level of people in Korea. You have to speak good English to get a job, so the good jobs get taken by people who do. That’s why I’m here — my parents want me to succeed.”
But part of what Yana is learning here is a new concept: what your parents want for you might be different from what you want for yourself— and what you want just might be more important. “The freedom here is very exciting. I felt it, then I learned to understand it, now I enjoy it, even if it means more responsibility. You see, in Korea, things are very strict. A woman can’t smoke in public, can’t even sit alone in the street. When I go home, my parents will want me in by 10:00 every night, they won’t let me wear short skirts. So maybe when I get back I’ll be rebellious. At least in my mind, I will. Everybody I know here feels the same.”
In fact, Yana would like to stay here if she could. “But even if I could get a visa...it’s easier to get a job in Korea speaking English than get a job here speaking Korean.” Her sadness when speaking of going home to her country, culture, and family isn’t unusual. Young Koreans exposed to culture clash in this country are not so much a lost generation as a generation homesick for a culture not their own.
“People who have studied here stick to ourselves when we go home,” says Yana. “We’re different. And most of us are too young to handle it. You know teenagers; everybody wants clothes and cars, being cool. They are too materialistic and too young to understand who they really are. So that’s why you have the Orange Generation.”
As social problems go, the “Orange Generation” is more critical than madcap youth wearing tea-colored hair. Over 25,000 Korean students go abroad each year and come back disaffected. The tag might refer to Orange County, where a high percentage of Koreans study. Or perhaps it refers to Korean symbolism, which links the fruit to sexual invitation; “OGens,” like most rebellious youth movements, abandons the notions of chastity and arranged marriages. Korean society doesn’t want our MTV.
Korean reaction against the Orange Generation was brought into focus five years ago when Park Han Sang, a student returned from a U.S. college, stabbed both his parents to death and torched their bodies to accelerate his inheritance schedule. The murders’ motive was suggestive of American decadence: he needed the money to pay debts from gambling, which is illegal in Korea. According to court testimony, he picked up his method from an American made-for-TV movie; he even copped a legal posture inspired by the “Twinkie defense,” blaming his actions on exposure to America. In Korea, a Confucian society in which violence is rare and family and elders are revered, Park had lost not just perspective and conscience but his humanity. Korean reaction against America has been strong and widespread, ranging from new taboos to official censorship.
National news media have investigated the “degenerate” lives of Korean students abroad and attacked the effects of Hollywood, hamburgers, and home-boyism. The TV series Beverly Hills 90210 and the film The Crying Game were pulled from Korean TV so “unwholesome" attitudes would not corrupt Korean youth. Concerts by American rap and R&B musicians have been banned; magazines like Penthouse have been confiscated and local publishers’ licenses revoked. Many public facilities have banned men with long hair or earrings; women with short skirts, T-shirts, or bared midriffs get arrested. Using English words in conversation can cause ejection from restaurants, clubs, or racetracks, as can wearing garments with English legends. The Korea Social Pathology Research Center has officially denounced the “confusion of morals” that has resulted from the “unchecked entry of foreign culture.” The very parents who sacrifice to send their children abroad to get ahead fear they will return as morally damaged goods. Despite the repression of “Orange tendencies” at home, the numbers of Korean students sent overseas did not change until the wan dropped. It was economic, not ethical concerns that diminished the flood of young Koreans coming to California.
Brown hair in Tokyo and Orange Generation in Seoul might represent nonconformism, but these attitudes indicate another American characteristic. Brown hair has a casual image, as opposed to the serious tone of black hair. As Asian students struggle with their sense of individuality, they are drawn to the easygoing California style.
Suguru, a shy, amiable student of English, says, “Time passes slower here, more relaxed and comfortable. Maybe it’s because there are different ages in the schools; it’s not like everyone is the same age and competing with each other like a brood of chickens.”
But while the U.S. may be less stressful than the Orient in some ways, it’s not always mellow. Shinsaki Ohyama, an SDSU business student and Blazers fan, likes America’s open social attitudes and relative lack of social pressure. He sees plenty of stress in our behavior. "American students study harder , because it’s harder to graduate' here. We are softer in our habits. Maybe that’s why (students) get so crazy at spring break and after school. You don’t see Orientals doing that." Yet, he says.
“There are guns in the dormitories. And everywhere. This is really an American weakness that we don’t understand. When I got off the plane in Los Angeles I saw a billboard that said, Usa Condones. I didn’t know it was Spanish for 'Use Condoms.’ I took it at face value, and it’s what I have seen here. Everything is condoned. You can get excited about that for a few minutes. Then it can scare hell out of you.”
Some of Ohyama’s friends understand the thrill of weapon ownership. Samuel Sang is a computer programming major from Seoul. His life’s ambition, he deadpans, is to become a “Microsoftware pirate.” He has a checkered career along the West Coast: After being taken out of UCLA by his parents for “too much party,” then doing poorly at Berkeley, he ended up at UCSD, living in a dorm room full of guns. He shows off his collection. “You could never get anything like this in Korea,” he says. “You are lucky here that not only the cops can have guns. You can also get them easy in Canada and bring them over. I will figure out some way to get at least one of these home with me to show to my friends." Look, guys, American martial arts.
Sang spends a lot of time and money at a local shooting range and says he would give his “left nut to own an Uzi” or a MAC-10. He has taken lessons in skydiving, Rollerblading, sailplaning, surfing, and alpine climbing while attending U.S. colleges but would like to do much more. “They should have cowboy lessons; you know, riding and roping and shooting six guns. Or better, gangsters. Pirates, man. It’s like you can do anything here. You know, I’d be crazy to go home.”
And not everybody does. Sang’s cousin is one of many Koreans who just stayed here, melting into the Orange County Asian community. “He flunked out. That’s a bigger deal than over here. Some kids just refuse to go home. My cousin started dealing drugs to earn money when my uncle cut him off.” Some Asian students go illegal when their visa expires, become mini-yukuzas (gangsters) dealing dope to friends still in school. “My cousin had an American girlfriend,” Sang chuckles. “When he told her they’d taken his visa, she thought it was just awful. Then she said, ’Can you still keep your MasterCard?’ The thing is, what will they do if you don’t go back? They just deport you. Even if you’re really doing bad crimes, you just do a few years. And these jails here are easy, not strict like in Korea. So why be in a hurry to go back?” But nearly all the prodigals will return sooner or later, whether or not they are happy about it. Fumie Kyrogi seems resigned when she talks about home. “It will be boring back on Kyushu, everything the same. After living here, walking around Hillcrest and seeing all the different kinds of people, all the different kinds of fashions and lifestyles.” Her friend Kazuni Takazawa nods, “I think I will be homesick for here.” Suguru becomes pensive when he thinks of returning to home and family. “Now when I go back to Japan I feel very restricted by the do’s and don’ts,” he says. “I think I will resist that. But maybe I won’t. Things make sense one place that don’t make sense somewhere else. But I will never be the same as before I came here. It’s so much lighter and more fun here, a happier place, like Disneyland. Maybe that’s what America is: Disneyland for the rest of the world."
The combination of intense “Amerification," followed by return to traditional Asian culture and pressure to conform could create an identity crisis. But even in an era when young writers see any cultural conflict as a trauma, most Asian returnees take their dual nature in stride and revel in the double opportunities.
Chung Sen Leung was also given the name Johnson at birth: Chung Sen to be used among Taiwanese and Johnson among Americans. This practice has been common among upper-class Taiwanese for decades. Chung’s father was a wealthy and politically influential industrialist in both Taipei and Hong Kong. Now the family has joined the “yacht people” who moved to Canada because of Hong Kong’s shifting economy and because staying in Taiwan would mean Chung would be eligible for military draft. Chung picked UCSD for college because he likes surfing and sailing. He is an international competitor in sailing with dreams of eclipsing the memory of his brother Chung Yee, who represented Taiwan in Walker Cup competition.
Chung has no patience for those who struggle with straddling cultural identities. “What does ‘identity’ mean, really? It’s about you, yourself. You have a race, you have the culture or cultures you were raised in. But they don’t define you or cramp your whole life. You check it out; the whole world is becoming one culture. I don’t think of myself as ‘made in Taiwan.’ I’ve lived and gone to school in Japan, Canada, California, and Hong Kong. I’m ‘International Male.’ Do you really think if I’m out dealing securities in Nagoya or La Jolla that anybody cares where I was born? They care about price, value, expertise. Everybody has to be from somewhere. Put it this way, when you’re surfing, do you think the wave gives a shit what race or religion you are? Anybody lucky enough to speak two languages and know two countries or two cultures should just lap it up. You don’t have
less identity, you have more. Here people see me as Chinese. In Taipei people see me as being very American. Like, whoa, dewd. You know? When I’m in Japan, I fall in with Japanese who have American experience. What’s important to me is that they see me as successful, as a winner. That’s the language I’m learning, that's the culture I live in. Victory."
Emily Arikaki was also quick to embrace American ways, quick to get burned by them, and has stuck with them at personal cost. She admits that she is not the same dutiful Japanese girl that came from Osaka to San Diego seven years ago. She was taking business courses and intensive English here because her father insisted. She tried to tell him she was also taking comparative literature courses, following her interest in Japanese writers and their European influences. She was struggling with Mishima and Gide, which made her finance courses seem trivial. But papa-san was unlikely to understand. And that would be that.
Then Arikaki got involved with an American student who shared her enthusiasm for Celine, Akutagawa...and American sex. She learned more about her body—bodies in general — in a month than in her whole life. “Nobody actually told me how American women are different in their sexuality and self-importance,” she says, “I just learned it from the way he talked to me and treated me. I learned that I couldn’t really make any mistakes or do anything wrong. At least not in bed. That may seem simple, but it was a revelation to me and impacted my whole way of thought and perception."
But she made a mistake. When massaging a pulled muscle led to a sexual episode, she got wintergreen balm on her boyfriend’s penis, and thus inside her vagina. The result was blistering that welded her shut. When the examining nurse at the student health center told her, “1 can’t believe an intelligent girl like you would do such an irresponsible experiment,” she felt the hot lash of shame but, for the first time in her life, overcame not only humiliation but the automatic acceptance of authority. She told the nurse that it was back to the drawing board. The next week she changed her major to literature and applied to graduate school in comp lit.
“My father did not take it well. I think the only reason he didn’t stop paying my tuition and demand that I come home was that I presented my decision to him as a complete plan all the way through the doctoral level. He was quite incredulous that I could create such a scheme, defy him, and present an alternative plan that made sense. Also, of course, there would have been problems of prestige and shame if I came home without a degree. I dumped the boyfriend later that year. He came to seem sophomoric.”
Now that Ms. Arikaki is a U.S. resident and on a faculty of Japanese literature in Oregon, what amazes her most is that she would tell anybody that story, especially with the possibility it might appear in print. “I’m astounded. Does this mean that I have become an American woman with no shame at all? Or a modern woman of the world who is not embarrassed by facts? Whichever, I am no longer really Japanese. Which is a strange sensation. Sometimes I feel as if I am floating free of the world. But instead of exhilaration, I often feel a sort of tristesse. Kawabata Yasunari, who won the Nobel prize in literature before committing suicide, once said, 'I am a melancholy vagrant,’ which is what I suppose I have become. But before, I was like a ghost of somebody other than myself. Now 1 am what I am and know it. Freedom to be depressed if you wish, what could be more American than that?"