About when I was twenty-five or so, I began to seek answers from other places. Other places meaning things that weren’t anime and video games, that is. I had always read widely and my readings took me into many places.
I remember being very into the black struggle for emancipation at one point. I had read Maya Angelou’s ‘ “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” as a young child in the US and it affected ways that I didn’t fully realize until later. I recalled Mrs Raleigh and her quiet, stateusque beauty, her ready wit and fair-mindedness. The black waiter in Chicago, so gentle and kind and…strong. There was a poise and a resilience to them that I respected, even when I was so young I didn’t know that I did.
I’m sure you can see the relevance. Living as a slave, searching for freedom? Music-wise I do remember being very taken with Tracy Chapman’s singing at one point, and listening to a lot of her. Her voice strong, defiant, and free – a voice that took no prisoners and demanded none. Looking back on it, she was probably one of the first English singers that I really liked and loved as I was coming out of my “I only listen to Japanese music” phase. Oh yeah, I used to sing Stand By Me really loudly in the bath too.
I read a lot about WW2. It had always been a topic of some interest to me, what with all the troop movements and military maneuvers (fascinating stuff to the strategist that I was) but now it took on deeper significance on another level. I’ve always believed (and I still continue to believe) that even now our world has been shaped by that war of wars in ways that are still only showing themselves. On a personal level there was of course the fact that both my grandparents had suffered the effects of WW2 in the form of the Japanese Occupation and that experience may have been why I suffered the way that I did.
I can’t mention WW2 without mentioning Maus, the comic by Art Spiegelman. I won’t go into details here but it is essentially about his life growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor. I learned so much from it! How his father’s experiences during the war shaped his own, his relationship with his mother (who was very badly affected by the war) and how in many ways we are all survivors. I was deeply moved and I read it so many times that the spine of the book fell out. It probably helped me deal with my hatred and anger at my family and the world a lot more than I thought at that time.
I also read about Asian Americans and their experiences and difficulties but they never really resonated with me as much. I wasn’t so much as an Asian American as I was an American Asian. The environment around me was Asian and I was semi-American (and more than a bit Japanese), whereas for Asian Americans the environment was American and they were…well, a whole bunch of things. Two similar but different worlds.
I began to be more interested in LBGT (Lesbianm, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender) issues. I don’t think I ever really stopped – my early reading of fanfiction, love of anime and games or so and having an “older brother” (Anthony-kun) who wanted to be a gay rights activist will do that to you. I lurked for years on transgender message boards (maybe because I watched way too much Ranma 1/2 when I was younger? though real life sex changes are a lot harder than just splashing water around…) reading stories and learning about how other people lived their lives.
I remember being very impressed by a book that I picked up called People Like Us, about homosexuals in Singapore. I found one of the contributor comments “we have to stop just being gay but doing gay.” to be very inspirational indeed.
As someone who had always felt like an outsider in his supposed home country, I grew a lot from those three areas of study. They taught me, amongst other things, not to build walls around yourself and adopt a siege mentality – a lesson that I had already learnt earlier in my life but one that perhaps I needed a refresher course in very badly. A warrior must sometimes take refuge on the field of battle, but it doesn’t make sense to build castles where no foes are to be found.
My explorations took me back into the world of transculturalism. (which I’ll also explore more in the next chapter) I endlessly dissected the differences and similarities between cultures as a way to understand them better. There were a lot of similarities between Japan and Singapore, more than you would expect.
Both were to a large degree hidebound and insular. (Japan probably even more so!) They were both obsessed with face (actually ALL Asian countries are) Depression wasn’t really acknowledged there any more than it was here. And let’s not forget that both countries are full of workaholics. I would go on but this is an autobiography and not some kind of full-scale cultural analysis – I think I already have enough of that in other sections.
I asked myself why it was possible for me to like Japan and hate Singapore when they were so similar. There were lots of reasons, but it boiled down to safety (more on that below) and understanding. I didn’t understood my “homeland” because I couldn’t speak its languages and I had alienated from it due to my past experiences. I did however understand Japan better because of the copious amount of Japanese media I consumed as well as my constant research – and I understood the language. I talked about these things with my Dad and my sister until I’m sure they were heartily bored of the subject.
I think it is somewhere between all this cultural exploration that began to lose some of my hatred for Chinese. Firstly, as it is so often the case in psychology and life, you need to be safe. My Japanese had become good enough so that I was able to figure out a lot of the Chinese words by using their Japanese equivalents. There are a lot of false cognates between both languages and so it’s not a surefire means of comprehension, but it was a start. I had least had a base to begin with, instead of being thrown into the deep end like I was in school.
So, mission accomplished, safety! What next? Understanding. I felt like I was in Bionic Commando – unable to jump (yes I know you can jump in BC2) unless I used my Japanese Bionic Arm to lift myself over the chasm of Chinese. I could speak SOME Chinese at this point. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar and I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t the nightmare monster of my youth anymore.
Looking back on it now, I think even at that age, I wanted to forgive, but I needed good reasons to do so. Which I can’t say is a bad way to start! I had not the means to jump into the deep end and just start forgiving left right and center. I’m not sure anyone does that, or can do that.
I wanted to know, I wanted to understand, I wanted to comprehend. That was, after all, how I had always made sense of things, all the way back when I was a little nerdy Asian kid. I read books, I researched, I sought a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of whatever it was that so pained me. I used the same approach that had always held me in good stead even in the worst of times – finding more information.
I think that even though a lot of me was still stuck in old patterns and ways of thinking (and being) I had begun to change far more than I would ever have acknowledged to myself or anyone. Though it wasn’t at all evident on the surface, not at that point. I was learning that the world was far bigger than I had ever imagined. The me of twenty-five years was a different person than the callow youth of eighteen or nineteen. Older, wiser, and yes, sadder – but that sadness had also opened the door to compassion.
Though at home, not much (if at all) had changed. I was still compulsive and desperate in certain ways. I had to have six pillows on my bed all the time and change the sheets every week or else…there was no or else. My mother was still arbitrary in the extreme, buying cakes one home day and screaming bloody murder at us the next. Then it changed into something else. There was a time I bought home some roasted meat and how she glared daggers at us throughout dinner. I was wondering what the matter was when she said “I know how you put the meat so far away from me that I can’t get to it.” When you’re waging a war against the world, everyone is an enemy.
I continued to talk to Meimei all this time. This would have been about in my mid-twenties or so, when things were bad but not that bad. We bitched about our parents (and tried to psychonanalyze them when we weren’t bitching) I was still too afraid to reach out, for fear of others not understanding or worse yet, going all Asian on me. That old fear of being “disloyal and disrespectful” (remember, you owe EVERYTHING to your parents) and I mean EVERYTHING!) still could not be ironed out entirely.
But I was moving forwards. I was stuck at home (and Singapore), but my view of the world was widening and deepening. I began to understand Singapore through Japan, and the reasons for why people did what they did through mediums and ways other than the Holy Trinity – video games, Evangelion and psychology. Things were changing inside and out.