Saturday, July 14, 2007

same as it ever was

It's raining a steady patter on the scalloped Japanese rooftiles that surround this upstairs window, the window of my uncle Masayasu's room and more lately sister C's room. When I was a teenager, I came and stayed here, in my grandparents' house, in this room. M's ski posters were still on the wall then and the house smelled of my grandparents and of Japan: of tatami and tea and the small dried fish in a tin that my grandma would fling out the window at the neighborhood cats. The smells - so different from those back in the states. Dark and green and pungent, like moist dirt in cracks and wet straw.

Then I loved, lived, to walk around in the streets just roaming, Mazzy Star and Suzanne Vega on my walkman, desultory and dreamy. I spent ages poring over minutiae in the local department store, Sotestu Rosen, and deliberated at great lengths over which beverage to choose from the legions at the Family Mart convenience store, now no longer there. Peach soda? Honey-lemon? Calpis? Aquarius? Or one of the mysterious bottled teas, so strange to me as an American teen used to stacks of Mountain Dew and Coca-Cola. The closest one got to tea, in my experience, even as a Japanese-American, was the big jars of sun tea that they brewed in Texas where I lived when I was five.

Now my grandparents are gone and I live in their house. It's changed a lot, as has the neighborhood. New things have cropped up, others have gone (the Uny department store, its top floor on which I spent so much time as a kiddy in the candy arcades pumping the gumball and cotton candy machines full of ten-yen pieces from grandpa's generous change purse, is sadly no longer); but a lot is the same. The "body parts shack", as my family likes to call it, the tiny corner izakaya and yakitori shop made of corrugated tin and sagging paper laterns, still remains the same as it ever was. The Jan-Jan pachinko parlor with its Statue of Liberty on top beckoning the poor, the weak, the tired, ragged, and huddled masses, or however it goes, sits staunchly at the intersection. My mom remembers when this neighborhood was all fields. The former landowners still live on this block, on a grand multi-building property. Most of the people in this neighborhood are older and probably remember that time as well. I wonder if they remember me and my brother and sister, the little half kids that have been visiting for the past 25 years, and if they associate those little kids with these grown up foreigners living here now. Surely we were a curiosity in those days, in this not-so-cosmopolitan town. Now it seems as if this sleepy station is crawling with gaikokujin, but when I was younger, I remember a lot more staring, a lot more people stopping and asking to take a picture with you because you weren't Japanese. Most people, in Tokyo anyway, are blasé about foreigners now - old hat, no big deal. Which is nice, in a way. Nice not to be bothered, not to be singled out so much, to be more or less (on the surface, anyway) accepted as a normal resident and a normal human. It wasn't always so, and still isn't in a lot of the country. Friends living in "the provinces", in places like Tochigi and Shikoku, report of still being viewed as constant curiosities.

And though our stuff has melded with theirs, piling on to the layers and years, my grandparents' house is still full of relics, turning up unexpected memories at every sifting. Same as it ever was, and different too.

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