My mother has been sending me old photos and documentation from my childhood—drawings, report cards, booklets from my piano and band recitals. In my forties now, these things hit different than when I looked at old albums in my 20s, 30s. I still remember most of the things that happened in my life, and have controlled, somewhat, what I light up to entertain myself, but avoid too much nostalgia. Instead I transport my mind into the body of my 5 year old, 8 year old, 9 year old, 12 year old, 16 year old, 22 year old self. It is an intoxicating trance experience. When I sit inside those younger bodies, I see total yearning because I was alone for much of my childhood. Alone, as in alone with my sister in an otherwise empty house. Days would go by before we saw our parents at times, and we lived in a socially isolated environment forbidden from making friends with anybody but our immediate neighbors and other Japanese or Korean families. Inside the house, we weren’t even allowed to speak English. Life outside of the home always felt like an alien planet. On that alien planet (school), I never felt a part of any particular social group until I joined band.
The artifacts of my childhood that my mom sends me tell a very different story. In my drawings, our house is warm, my parents are happy, present. Heart shaped smoke stacks pipe out like a fountain of joy spraying from a brick chimney. I depict Disneyland and cars and even the cars are happy. I’m smiling in all of my pictures. I describe my favorite things. I have such things. I name my parents as collaborators in my adventures.
In fact there is nothing remarkable in any of these artifacts either high or low. I’m not special for being satisfied and I’m not talented for how obsessed I was with my escape activities. In my recital brochures, I am not playing anything unique. In my recital evaluations, juries never find me interesting. “Understands the music fine” reads one comment. I’m passably accomplished. I detect none of the melancholy, feel none of the sadness that bubbles up when I otherwise reflect on early adolescence. There are picture of me with other children—I wasn’t ever really alone. I could have sworn I lived in a cage but actually I had a lot of fun. We were a pageant of Japanese-American immigrant kids in the neighborhood. There were improbably many of us; even one family that like ours, was Japanese-Korean. I wonder how they’re doing today.
I look at all of the evidence of my childhood telling a story of happiness and health, a normal childhood with no aberrations in the high or low quality of expression. My mom sending me this as if to say “See? It wasn’t that bad.” I was happy, wasn’t I? I was no wolf like Truffaut says children are. I was no lamb like God tells us to be. I was making my way through yearning, sure, but as far as personalities go, yearning is a clever way to please everyone around you. I pleased everybody around me.
When my sister died, social workers interviewed me to make sure we weren’t being abused. My parents trained me never to say a negative thing about the home or them. They kept saying, “you have to say everything’s great and that you love us.” It sounded like they were begging me to lie.
I would do anything to prove we were OK. I would do anything still, to prove we are still OK. I would do anything for us all to be OK. Perhaps that is what makes remembering the feelings of my child bodies so peculiar in contradiction to the many plain outcomes of my psyche. I was trying so very hard to be saved without appearing to need any help.