I wasn’t part of a vast crowd of smiling automatons. I can safely say that without clouded perception. When I hear that the nation is at war, I feel the weight and resonance of sadness: when I see visible poverty while stepping 10 miles out of my own town, yet see that we only seem to care about spending $368.6 billion on an euphemistic defense that could be our medicine and education; when I read in the Yomiuri Online News that a Japanese photo journalist was battered by American servicemen for witnessing the destruction in Baghdad and see that this information never reached the States and never will reach here and an apology will never carry over the Pacific; when I discover that some care more about egotism than altruism; when I find that people can treat and part each other with malevolence; when I see the strange pompous patriotism that pollutes us with cultural and ethnocentric naïveté shutting us out from the rest of the world; when I remember my grandfather in Japan describing his experiences in the Siberian labor camps and uttering how he hopes this grim history will not repeat for his grandchildren – it is then that I see why I was not a smiling automaton. With too many conditions and events overwhelming my spirits and energy, I was deprived of my ability to function; I dropped out of school for a month during my junior year.
I feel my summer before re-entering the high school for my senior year was a turning point for me. I met Broc, a poetry student from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, while attending the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio for two weeks. He was my summer workshop teacher’s friend, and I had lunch with him for a brief moment, talking about identity and writing. It was a brief conversation, but I felt it was a deep-rooted conversation. He was a tall and lanky man with cigar-stained teeth, Buddy Holly glasses, and arms tattooed all over with the paintings and words of William Blake. He said he could have never survived life without Blake. He didn’t know how he had made it through 26 years, but he had made it.
The following week, I received a letter from Broc. “I’m writing you a little note because I thought when I met you the other day, I recognized something in you I went through once…once you’re out of the woods, the world becomes much friendlier, I promise.” I knew what he meant. It made me feel good. “Listen: every jock and housewife and fireman in this country has a poem buried in their sock drawer. They are ashamed of it and embarrassed by it and sort of proud of it too. But those people lack courage. They can’t share. Have courage. Share.”
I went through many psychological doubts a bit earlier than most people did. I’ve come to realize everyone goes through a process of finding out how perceived reality and truth are at opposite ends of the cave entrance. Even people we don’t consider the “great thinkers of the West” have pondered this very notion. I think it’s one of the hardest things to learn in life, to differentiate these two realities, and to find happiness in between. Hard times, depressing times, sad times – these are all things we have to learn to deal with. Adolescence, war and war remembrance, and the transition to adulthood are lonely and at times frightening parts of life. But I have made it through. I know I have.
From that letter, I understood that I am what I do. I am not only what I think and feel. If I want to know and understand who I am, I have to look at what I do. I have to have the courage to share who I am. Experiences, people, contemplative reflection – they have all helped me recognize beauty and answer questions that have hounded me. I will not fail to remember being in the darkness, just as Plato encourages us to remember this in the Allegory of the Cave. I will do, just as John Okada did when he wrote of his painful post-camp Nikkei experiences, despite dying in obscurity, never having been accepted even in his own community of Japanese Americans. I will share, just as Frank Chin shares when he confronts his frustrations over the stereotypes of Asians in America, frustrations over the loss of authenticity and culture and language, frustrations over the feeding of western misperceptions of Asian Americans. I will make it, just as Broc said I will.
I can say that I learned things the “hard way,” but the beautiful thing about life is that most of us have been there at one point of our lives. At the time, I did not know how to deal with negativity. Second-generation New York school poet Ted Berrigan might have called this our “stupid ineptitude.” We were all there. What we have to learn from these experiences, however, is that that is not the end of everything. Writing, reading, talking, thinking, and most importantly, doing – these can all be a positive outlet. We can always turn our negativity into a positive outlet.
Through writing for my school newspaper, expressing what I feel should be voiced on campus; through discussing or expressing myself in class a different cultural, social, and critical perception on the materials covered in a class; through, most importantly, showing and expressing benevolence to the community that surrounds me – I feel I can make change, even on a grassroots level. I will not be shut up in prose or feel bogged down in the baggage of my own body organs. I will share myself, my culture, my history – everything. Happiness lies in the eyes of the beholder, and I will perceive happiness, with the help of Broc’s friendship, Broc’s wisdom.