Where did you come from? How did you escape?
Everyone comes from somewhere. The problem is, some people come from so many places it becomes cumbersome to list them. So I generally gloss over the details. Am I Canadian? Japanese? British? American? Buddhist or Christian or Jewish? I try to identify with things that matter rather than things that are just descriptors of my ancestry and genetic makeup but sometimes that just doesn’t get the job done.
I grew up in a city on the east coast of Canada called St John’s. Actually, we lived in a city that was truly oddly named, especially for a predominantly-Christian suburb — they called it Paradise. No, that’s not a joke. Just look up Paradise, Canada and you’ll find it. It’s not all that large but it has some beautiful sections, a variety of ponds and walking trails, many homes and absolutely nothing of note beyond that. Much of it was, when I was little, housing for people who couldn’t figure out how to build a house, much less afford to own one, and who had them anyway. But the part I lived in was a bedroom community for commuters. It was home. Of course, that’s a very simplified version of my backstory. There are other places involved, too. There’s the fact that I wasn’t actually born there in the slightest. There’s the fact that I moved around to various places and probably felt far more at home in Vancouver than I did in the home of my early childhood — except for the actual house itself, where I probably felt more comfortable than anywhere I’ve ever found myself since.
But that’s not where I come from. That’s just where I lived. Where I come from is more a question of culture. Being adopted, there are all sorts of confusions about cultural identity that other people don’t have to deal with but in my mind and in my choices and in my actions, none of those make any difference. Adoption is just a historical truth for me and not part of who I am — just part of what happened to me. My parents aren’t my “adopted parents”. There aren’t any more “real parents” than the ones who raised me and I find it nothing short of viciously disrespectful when people use such words to describe them. Or not to describe them, as the case sometimes is. My parents are my parents and they have helped and supported me more than any expectation could ever have imagined possible. Blood isn’t thicker than water. Commitment is. Blood is just something we talk about when we have to pretend to like our families but don’t. I love mine. And I like mine, too. I suspect few of you can say that honestly about yours. If I had adult consciousness at two months’ when I was being adopted and I could see the future and know my parents, I’d have chosen them and I keep choosing them every day. Any adult (and many children) could walk away from their parents and never look back if they wanted to. I don’t. And I never will.
Enough about adoption, though. It’s a beautiful concept but it’s not all that relevant to the issue. Where I come from is a merger of two cultures. Canada isn’t so much a melting pot as a crossroads. That’s both a disaster and an education. Speaking French and English as a child, I found myself conflicted about identity. Add to that the Asian questions — what does it mean to be part of Japanese culture, what about secular Judaism, can you respect Jesus but hate the church that stole his name — and life became rather quickly something not just to write home about but to wonder about leaving home to escape. But home was great. It was the rest of the world that was the problem.
I was raised on literature and mathematics and music and art. My parents are both academics and both musicians. There was singing and playing every moment of every day of my early life and I grew up pressing keys and blowing through things and pounding on pots and pans and singing my heart out at every opportunity. My mother is a beautiful writer, both prose and verse, and my father is a brilliant educator. I learned more in the few years between birth and school starting than I think I ever did after. School was nothing more than a tedious and often traumatic waste of time. At home, I got an appreciation for literature, both western (which I generally abhor, especially anything that can be termed classic) and eastern (which has more than just a special place in my heart — it is pretty much my entire bookshelf from Genji to Keiko and beyond). I learned to add, subtract, factor, derive, integrate and plot. I learned to write stories and tickle ivories. And I learned to ask questions, answer them and walk away from a fight. At school, I learned to be judged, to be bored, to be isolated and to be held back because young people aren’t supposed to be smart — it wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that, especially in this populist, tribalist society, adults aren’t supposed to either be smart or want to be, either.
So where do I come from? I feel at home in so many cultures. I can sit in the temple and meditate and chant (you can choose, Pali, Sanskrit or Japanese, I’m good with any of them but the first is my preference when I’m alone). I can sing in a church as long as you don’t expect me to buy into the contemporary notion of supernatural divinity. I feel particularly comfortable in shul but I’m happy to clap my hands to summon the kami and close my eyes to honor my ancestors and yours. Where don’t I feel comfortable? Well, that’s where the escape part comes in.
I don’t feel at home in the slightest in western culture. I don’t drink and I don’t believe in democracy. I have no interest in representation or self-government and I have absolutely no time for pandering to the lowest-common-denominator in society. Japanese culture is all about fitting in but respecting excellence, education and knowledge. Western culture is all about being average and seeking pleasure. It’s beyond disgusting. It’s self-destructive. It’s also highly gendered.
Gender is a concept that was created to enslave people for personal pleasure. There’s no physical reality to it at all. There’s nothing inherently different about “man” and “woman” any more than there’s a difference between “blonde” and “brunette” — just because something is a physically-divergent descriptive idea doesn’t make it relevant. What genitals I have doesn’t make me who I am, nor does it make anyone who they are. If you are identifying yourself by what’s in your pants, perhaps you are paying far too much attention to what’s in your pants — or to what you want to put in someone else’s, for that matter.
So it’s not a place I was trying to escape so much as a culture. Western culture in Canada is oppressive. I didn’t discover until I ended up in the UK later just how much more oppressive and painful it could become, though. Here’s the problem. I don’t have an answer, really.
I read eastern literature and practice my Japanese pronunciation, although I must admit it’s pretty shit. I binge on jpop and kpop when I’m trying to exercise (rarer than I’d like to admit) and fall asleep to the sound of kotos and their musical partners most nights (or the rain but that’s rather non-culturally-specific). I translate ancient scriptures into contemporary English and poems from more languages than I’d like to admit. And I long for a teaching job at a university back home in North America teaching creative writing — not because N/A is where I particularly desire to be but because there ain’t nobody going to get me to teach it in Japan given that it is, after all, English and that’s not so much a thing there. So how do you escape the culture that penetrates your every waking moment with its aggressive presence? Good question. I’ll let you know when I succeed.
For now, I do my best with headphones and a heavy dose of literature.