by Sakura Nakashima
Sent – Hotmail July 14, 2014 at 14:16 PM
Dear Dr. Lin,
I hope this message finds you well. I just want to thank you sincerely for your support and guidance over the past couple of weeks as I consider options. Through your referral, I ended up in contact with the staff at the Women’s Center. They have been helpful so far and I am waiting to hear back from them regarding availability to do the operation.
I suppose I am also writing to recommend them to future women who are in my situation.
In any case, thank you again. Please take care.
Sent – Hotmail July 17, 2014 at 10:35 AM
Some fun pictures I found yesterday. I hope you are doing well.
Thinking of you and sending love from Hawaii.
While I am sitting here on the other side of the ocean, telling myself that I know what is best for us, your life is carrying on uninterrupted. It’s difficult, but I still think of you every day and decided to send you the letters I have written to you in your native language. Please pardon my grammar. The photo I found of us together brought these thoughts to my pen. I hope it also makes you smile.
It’s funny, isn’t it? As I work towards this insane goal, all I can think about is how nice it would be to walk down a street with you. You’d like the weather here and the people and the beaches.
I’ll probably return earlier next year, in March. In time for the cherry blossoms. I have only one year left, so I have to do my best now. Take care of yourself, okay?
The letter on the desk screams at me. Left un-dated, I have sealed it and taken it out of a plain white envelope twice now before resigning it to a corner of the equally nondescript desk. This is the way it has become between you and I. Maybe this is the way we need it to be for now.
Not much I can do about it for the time being, as I need to get ready for school.
It’s 8:56 am on Monday and I need to finish writing a summary before I leave for my seminar on campus this morning. A half-empty cup sits on the counter across the room, wearing rings of coffee like brown timestamps. I barely touched it last night and, turning my thoughts to the situation of food in the house, I can’t even muster a frown. The cabinets hold an obligatory bag of white rice, plastic packages of large sheets of nori and kombu, some fish sauce and glass jars with words like “rosemary” and “thyme” printed on their labels.
The general state of scarcity in that old refrigerator is basically unchanged, too. There’s still leftover stir-fry in a paper box from yesterday, next to a few cucumbers, half a red cabbage, and a bottle of mustard. There might be creamer in there, too. And it might be expired, like the rest of the items I finally threw out yesterday. Forgot that one.
You could say I’ve been distracted lately.
Despite the weak nutritional prospects of my kitchen, copious sunlight is filtering in through the glass shutters above my mattress, and birdsong has been playing on a loop since early this morning.
Life on O’ahu is a lot like it was several years ago when I was a teenager. Just a few jarring changes: more traffic now; more tourists from China and Japan, arms and legs covered with long sleeves. These differences remind me of the distance between where we are and where we each think we want to be in life.
The other day, I actually met a couple from Kyushu while walking downtown. I stopped them because I recognized their dialect. Although they were taken aback by my unexpected self-introduction in the middle of their first bites of shave ice, I like to think the three of us were changed for the wiser.
The brief conversation that unfolded was actually quite telling of the emerging situation of tourism bloat across dozens of islands. First, they found off-season Hawaii to be much more crowded than in their imagination, and, second, they hadn’t anticipated their struggle to understand what locals are saying (they did not know about pidgin until now). Who – or what – could have prepared them for the realities of life here? I recall thinking. At least they have a home to return to.
Not just a precarious notion of sort of blending in, but true, legitimated ethnic-linguistic-nationalistic undeniability of a real space called home.
Naturally, the lives of kama’aina in Hawaii are a world of difference from the postcard scenes that the tourism industry sells to the world – and to locals themselves. When I moved to O’ahu at age 14, I figured out pretty quickly that my world was not the one I had been reading about in travel books to prepare for my family’s new life. Coming from Damascus as a Japanese American, I had so many frames of reference at my disposal; but it turned out almost none of them were true. Soon, I learned firsthand about various types of crime, poverty, and systemic ills specific to this island and its history.
Just like any place in the world, we have those things here, too, I explained to this couple.
Standing in front of the mirror in this tiny bathroom, I straighten my blouse and tuck my hair behind my ears. Something is still off. Smoothing the front of my pale cotton top with the back of my fingers, I still cringe when I brush the flesh around my midriff. Although barely perceptible on the outside, my body recently underwent a significant transformation that some would call controversial. Even political. Definitely personal. I have started to come to accept it as a matter of course. But I haven’t even told Shutaro yet.
I am one of the young women of the 21st-century who is fortunate to have both a menstrual cycle and a smartphone (not all of us do, for various anatomical and socio-economic reasons), and on the recommendation of another such woman, I began using an app that tracks women’s monthly changes. This practice has been done for thousands of years, using a range of predictive methods to pinpoint the vital windows of fertility.
Yet, despite the technological advances in measuring fluctuations in hormones, sleep, diet, and reproductive health, in some cases, human biology doesn’t agree with statistical probability.
The color-coded calendar on my phone announced predictions with exclamation marks that failed to materialize in the flesh-and-blood world. With diligent use, however, these traveling tools also held textual notes about past events that contained a silent gravity. Third-parties would be unable to decipher entries like, “4月9日・書店.” They were just words and numbers to the eyes of others. But to me, memories of days and weeks were encrypted here. Where I went running, who I visited, how I spent weekends.
I resorted to these clues to solve the mystery surrounding my condition that began changing in mid-June.
April in Japan was a blur. The morning temperature was finally warming up and children were playing and singing in the kindergarten courtyards. Everyone was talking about their plans for Golden Week. While the people and familiar places around me swayed to their own natural rhythm, I found myself racing through two weeks of social functions and conducting research for my graduate work. Some would call it ‘unofficial scholarship,’ since I did it on my own dime and had to do make-up work for missed seminars, but trips to the local museums and archives out in the quieter cities certainly felt scholarly and necessary. I had imagined this trip as a half-business/half-pleasure (mostly pleasure) vacation to another island I used to live on, and April just happened to have the best fares this year.
The last day of my visit – April 9th – actually began quite leisurely. After the last abstracts were scanned and documents for transcribing back in Hawaii were saved as photos on my laptop, I was weighing the options of hanging out at the nearest onsen in the city, or walking the lively streets downtown. Somehow, I got it in my head to go to browse my favorite local bookstore for the fourth time, and along the way, suddenly ran into Shutaro.
The day that was supposed to have taken place at the bookstore did not go exactly as planned. Being that it was my last day in Kumamoto for a while, and, not knowing when I would return, Shutaro insisted that we get our friends together that night. I had wanted to pass the day as peacefully and aimlessly as the breeze that blew along the river; instead, I reluctantly conceded to letting our crew set the pace of the evening.
Two hours at karaoke later (plus another four at the izakaya down the alley), I was leaning against Shutaro’s tall frame as we ambled along the river to my hotel. With the moon high up in the sky and barely any clouds to dilute its white glow, it was like reliving the night of my first goodbye two years before. This time, however, I fell asleep with a familiar friend beside me.
I got on a plane the next day, still hungover with a dull but insatiable thirst, and within several hours was unlocking the front door to my small rental near a famous bakery in Honolulu. Pleased with the trip, and the number of research gaps in my work that it had filled, life and school went on.
Nothing was different for weeks, aside from the nuanced changes in temperature and length of the daylight hours, until one day near semester’s end I started to feel light-headed.
All of a sudden, everything I put in my mouth wanted to come up again; the softest manapua, the juiciest slice of papaya. Even my childhood comfort food, o-chazuke, suddenly repulsed me. I could not eat rice. I was going to die. Laying horizontal was nearly impossible, too. Remedies for food poisoning being the only things that went in and stayed down easily, I was basically consuming seltzer water and saltines for three days when prospects didn’t improve. This new feeling, plus the unaccounted for absence of my period, were telltale signs.
The minute I put two and two together, I almost fainted. But I walked into the bathroom and vomited instead.
Until the point when my period was 40 days late, I had not considered the possibility of pregnancy at all. The pace at which I was growing oddly fuller – and more nauseous – each day was alarming. When I finished washing my face and shut off the faucet, I started racking my brain about what to do. I need to talk to someone occurred to me as sharply as my feelings of shame rose up in response.
When I failed to mentally identify a single friend to text or call about this, I picked up my phone and semi-hysterically began typing a message in Japanese to Shutaro.
I have something to tell you. Erased.
I’d like you to call me when you have time. Erased.
My thumb hovered above the call button until I realized I didn’t know exactly how to explain this to him in words he would understand. I gave up for a moment. How should I conjugate “to become pregnant” with words like “nervous” and “unsure” in a way that would not sound accusatory in Japanese? Or worse, that would put him in a state of panic across the ocean? I knew enough to understand there were subtleties of language required in this highly specific situation, but I was not thinking clearly enough to seek them out.
I went through countless scenarios in my mind. Then, I decided to call my mom.
When you go to high school (but really, I’m talking about public high school in Hawaii here), you learn about pregnancy from seeing this biological miracle happen around you. People you know. Your best friend’s cousin. Your boyfriend’s step-sister. Your friends’ parents’ stories, too, teach you about a safety net called “family” that will be there for you, as a young woman, if it happens to you.
My family was pretty different, however, since we didn’t come from around here. We didn’t have much of a family even in the filial, obligatory sense. ‘Thin as blood’ is a play on words that could be used to describe the half of my family I grew up with. This configuration, plus the manifesto no drugs, no alcohol, no boys that was instructed to me from age 10 pretty much had me bewildered as a sheltered adolescent who grew up outside the US. I figured I didn’t stand much of a chance with boys or girls in high school anyway, with my awkward teeth, refined taste in gigantic Soviet novels about poverty, and a face that was “too Asian” for Europe and “not Asian enough” for Hawaii.
Girls like me, without the love of family, weren’t supposed to get pregnant out of wedlock.
So when, several years later as a graduate student, it happened in Japan, with a Japanese man, all I could do was blink in reflection. There is, right now, a human forming inside me. I couldn’t quite reckon with this. What was more mysterious about all of this was the realization that the potential for a whole other experience of the same world existed for this unborn human. It would be treated differently than I was. Because it would look different. It’s not half, like me. It’s something else. Maybe closer to a whole. That’s about all I could contemplate in my naive mind, filled with the criticisms and understanding of being a visibly multiracial person in a monoracial world.
Standing under running water in the shower, or while trying desperately to wrest sleep in awkward positions at night, I envisioned scenarios of joy and frustration and hope and heartbreak for an unknown human in this decaying world. The simultaneous promise and sheer horror of carrying a child who might walk through the world with more assurance in their perceived ethnic and racial identities than I did weighed on me like the scorn of all the ancestors on both my mother and father’s sides who had never dared to produce a hāfu before me.
This unborn child brought untouched grief and lifetimes of pain to the surface. These thoughts, these feelings shouldn’t belong on this Earth. And yet, they do.
In the most ironic way, I was facing this crisis of mixed identity in Hawaii of all places.
“Mom. I messed up,” I began. Sheepishness crowded my voice with hollow pauses. “I made a mistake. And got pregnant. When I was in Japan.”
There was an even longer pause after that.
“You, what? In Japan?” She stopped to think for a moment. And then, in the most frighteningly understanding tone I never expected, she asked, “Ah, what do you need? Talk to me. Tell me what happened.”
After we moved through my process of discovery and emotional cycle of fear, sadness, and lamentation over my Japanese abilities – I reserved my highly personal curiosity about this child for myself – she proposed that I think for a while. And then make a decision about what I would like to do.
“Go outside and walk around. Try to eat your favorite foods. Listen to music. You don’t have to tell your friends; it’s not their choice. Whatever decision you make, it will stay with you for the rest of your life. If you decide to have this child, you know what you should do pretty soon,” she advised in calm tones. “Tell Shutaro.”
I knew she was right. At the end of the phone call, I learned that I wasn’t afraid to tell her anything anymore. I spent another week wrestling with my hormone-fueled highs and lows, vertigo-like waves of hunger, and sleep-deprived nights while contacting medical professionals. I came to a decision about the human growing inside me.
I straighten my shirt once more, then exhale and walk back into the main room, bringing my coffee cup to rest on my desk. I methodically gather my notebooks and pens and texts into an orange tote bag with ‘SAN FRANCISCO RECYCLES’ printed on the side. Had to steal it back from my mother last time she was here a couple weeks ago.
I reach past the stalks of white orchids and touch the small jade Buddha meditating on the table next to my shoe rack. The letter to Shutaro summons my eyes once more before I open the front door.
I still have not told him about our child. But I suppose it does not matter now.
My body is still returning to its natural state. I’m eating with a renewed appreciation for the indispensable textures and flavors of umeboshi and well-fermented kimchi. Although I suppose I had been in my ‘natural state’ all along – still the same sun-freckled skin and short toes and brown eyelashes – I feel lighter in some ways. And much heavier in others. It’s been about three weeks since I had a surgical abortion.
At 9:35 am on Monday, I lock the front door, skip down the dusty wooden porch steps, and guide the handlebars of my secondhand bicycle across the red dirt sidewalk to the main street. The humidity is already thick and fragrant. As I cruise the route to campus along the leafy canal, I decide that I will visit the post office this afternoon.