(What follows is an unfinished series of essays which were too painful to conclude past Part One, as they discuss a legacy of horrible parenting and child abuse in my past.  I've since added to this in 2007, when even my parents abducted my daughter and denied me visitation rights.  More on that here.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo)

Hello Friends' List.  Time to make sense of my March:


April 3, 2006

OKOTOWARI:  This series of essays will not be in the format of my typical reports.  As longtime readers on my "Friends' List" know, after I go on a trip, I generally offer my Friends' List a summary of what happened on the journey, both logistically and intellectually.  If not for my sake (to organize my thoughts and put moments and lessons in their proper place), then to offer thanks to my hosts and ruminations to those who know me. 

If this sort of thing is not to your taste, please skip this series.  There'll be reports from me as usual in the near future as things come up.  Still, perhaps give it a try?  Taking a break from reportage actually gives the writer in me a good workout.  Debito in Osaka, en route to Sapporo

Let me open with a rumination:

I have a feeling that a good part of one's middle age is spent dealing with issues dealt us in childhood.  Finally putting demons to rest if possible.  Not only to enable us to grow a bit, but also hopefully to allow us some form of peace in our twilight years.  Because no matter under how many layers and experiences one buries their unpleasant memories, sooner or later they somehow manage to claw their way out.

This might sound a bit precocious, but I think I already see the path to the twilight.  I consider my thirties and particularly my twenties to be time spent lost, dealing with uphill climbs, wondering what I'm supposed to do with my life and pondering what is the measure of a man.  Now in my forties, I feel as though I've reached a summit, able to look behind and see where I came from, and admire the panorama ahead, seeing more clearly than ever the path of a lifetime as it winds into the sunset. 

This trip, it would turn out, would exorcise a number of childhood demons...



March 2006 was busy.  I had been hired to talk at several educational institutions in The States.  The first invitation, from Mark West at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, had come in over a year ago.  A few more rolled in after I had an article published in January on JAPAN FOCUS, evaluating Japan's ability to assimilate immigrants and its overwhelming need to do so (read it at http://www.japanfocus.org/article.asp?id=496 ; the site coordinator, Mark Selden, said it was the most accessed article on their site for a good two weeks).  So I asked around to see if there would be any interest in my making a few detours.  There was, and all told my itinerary became Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Kennedy High School (yes, a high school) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U Mich Ann Arbor, Columbia Law School, New York University Law School, and Amherst College, Massachusetts.  Three weeks, six venues.  And, since I love public speaking, I asked my hosts for as many additional on-site speaking gigs as I could get (since I was stopping over for at least three nights in each place).  Hey, they were bringing me all the way over there, they might as well make me earn my keep.  They were amenable.  I then sent my destinations to my travel agent and arranged a multi-stop plane ticket. 

It would become a trek which taught me a lot more than I taught others.  A fair exchange.  Problem was, the spirit was willing but the flesh would weaken.  From day one on the road.

The trip began on March 10, flying down from Sapporo to see friends (Chad and Karen, as well as an expanding circle of drinking partners, such as DJ, Aki, and Fernando) in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture.  Both C and K had arranged accommodations, and Karen in particular arranged a speech for me in Okayama City (delivered as transparencies and an overhead projector to about thirty people; this would be my only low-tech speech of the entire trek; everything else was a delicious Powerpoint presentation I had created specially, which you can download in full at http://www.debito.org/arudounewpresentation.ppt ).  As usual, we spent every night partying, every day working (I was of course on vacation, but I kept polishing my Powerpoint).  And dealing with a development that would mar more than half my trip.

The creeping illness was pretty subtle in its attack.  The first two nights, I just felt ungodly tired, as though I was coming down with mononucleosis or had been bitten by a tsetse fly; one night I just asked for a catnap break from my beer and slept like a brick, waking up a full two hours later; I hadn't been so diphenhydramine sleepy since I came down with pneumonia at age two.  But by the third night, when I was delivering my Okayama speech and feeling the storm of sinusitis gathering strength, I realized that it wasn't a matter of tired blood or body.  I was coming down with a horrible cold, one of the worst I've ever had (and I don't get colds very often).  The TPO couldn't have been worse--this version seized my throat and filled my sinuses for days.  Worse yet, it took away my voice--something I needed in order to do what I had been hired for.  What good would it do my hosts if they got me all the way there and I couldn't perform?  Talk about the measure of a man! <g>

On top of that, I was in Kurashiki, for below-average temperatures (below freezing at night), where like in most of Honshu buildings are not insulated, and people are used to donning more layers instead of heating their homes.  And my cold was throwing in chills at no extra charge.  One lingering image I have of this trip is where my hosts ran outside to see snow falling mid-day (snow is apparently unusual in Inland-Sea-abutting Kurashiki; I had just gone through five months of flakes in Sapporo and London and was bloody sick of it).  They opened windows to watch it trickle down.  They ran outside and caught it on fingers and tongues.  And meanwhile left the front door and windows open in the excitement.  Something absolutely unthinkable in Hokkaido since you'd lose all your house heat. 

Precisely.  Which meant there was no escape from the cold (the houses, if anything, were colder than outside, since they shielded you from the sun).  Not even a hot bath helped, since the shower area was  in an unheated room with freezing tiles you'd have to brave in bare feet just to reach the faucets, and a window was always left open anyway to remove condensation and the possibility of mildew in any other season...   Sorry, but I was miserable.  Even stuffing adhesive kairo chemical heating packets in my socks and on my lower back did not fix things, as I was riddled with chills anyway.  Extra layers?  I donned them, but I had brought no winter coat because I was travelling light for three weeks and through a number of climate zones.

The worst memory of my trip was the morning of March 14, the day I was leaving the country.  I awoke early in the morning (the room thermostat, despite the air conditioner roaring all night set to 30 degrees C, indicated a balmy 11).  I was in a world of congestion and hurt.  Not only was it impossible to breathe through my nose (bunged up and bloody beyond blowing), when I breathed through my mouth, the air scraped against my inflamed throat so badly that the pain had even woken me up.  As I said, my flight out was on that very day, which was disastrous since I clearly needed some medical attention, but didn't want to have to deal with exorbitant US medical costs.  And since I had sparked awake about 3AM, it would be at least four hours until the rest of the world woke up and I could ask somebody to take me to a doctor.  So I hooded myself with a bedcover (blankets in Honshu are also thin--I was dying for a Hokkaido tanzen sleeping kimono or at least a duvet), made myself a breathing cave (a Boy Scout trick learned during winter camping--the blanket cavern warms up the ambient air before intake), and doubled up on my socks, scarves, and caps.  Anything to make things a little more conducive to sleeping away the interim.

Come 7AM, I croaked into my keitai (a whisper was all that I could manage--I made sure to give my full details onto the answering machine so that Karen didn't think I was a crank caller) that I needed to be taken to a hospital.  Any hospital would do, as I fortunately had my national health insurance form with me.  My current host was unable to help out in that regard, as he and I had drunk overmuch the night before and he would be stuporific until at least 9AM.  Moreover, his wife (accustomed to our semiannual partying) was out staying with family to give us the run of the house; problem was that meant she had taken the family's only car.  I didn't even know a taxi number for Kurashiki.  An hour or so later, Karen got my message and drove me to a throat specialist ("He's a quack, but he can write prescriptions," she said semi-encouragingly), who took one look at me and started painting the back of my throat with something evil-smelling and hopefully not too toxic.

"This isn't just a little case of the sniffles now, is it, doc?" I squeaked out.

"No, this little jobbie will last you at least a week.  Going overseas, are ya?  Don't answer, just nod.  Okay, I'll give you two weeks of antibiotics.  Odaiji ni," he said, in the conveyer-belt-then-bombarding-with-pills style of Japanese medicine.  I bid farewell to Kurashiki and headed for the airport.  I didn't care where I was going, as long as the air I would breathe would be warm.



Coming back to America shouldn't be so shocking but it always is.  It's a big country, with many lifestyles and climates (one of the reasons I shudder whenever somebody asks me in Japan, however innocently, "how doAmericans do this-and-that?", is because there is just too much diversity to draw any accurately representative pictures...).  DFW is a good introduction to the iceberg--a huge airport with zillions of runways and planes taking off every few minutes (and it's not even the nation's busiest airport).  Popping pills and stumbling in after 13 hours airborne, I had enough distraction from my cold:  Texas accents and attitudes (this is a red state, after all).  CNN blaring away in every waiting area talking about issues far from Japan's media radar screen.  Bars selling various permutations of sandwich and coincidentally gearing up for St. Patty's, with green beer and clover all over.  The US military was present, with troops on leave from outposts in the Middle East walking around probably in as much of a daze as I, except in full desert-color BDU (battle dress uniform), with the soil of Iraq probably still on their boots (DFW even had USO lounges, on par with the lounges for high-flying yuppies with gold cards).  We had arrived a little late (some other plane had parked in our spot, and we had to wait for it to clear our gate), so I hit the ground running:  I had less than an hour to clear Homeland Security (had to give fingerprints all over again--now totalling six times this past year), get my bags (my black "monolith", which airlines made a tidy profit out of with every connection, since it weighed more than fifty pounds; and a separate duct-taped box of fifty JAPANESE ONLY books, which I was hoping to sell out of), hand them to another gate, get my new boarding pass, and head to a separate terminal to board another plane for Baton Rouge, where I would be staying a few days with an old friend.  Believe it or not, I made it--the last one to board an American Eagle tube-on-wings local jet which is difficult for even medium-size Americans to stand upright in.  Anyway, kudos to DFW for processing me so quickly.

Arriving at Baton Rouge in time for supper was a definite upturn.  I met with one of my oldest friends, Steve, whom I had known from junior high school.  Steve and I were fellow "Class Brains" back then (probably still are), and I got to know him through jealousy.  He was the only kid in seventh grade who got A-pluses (yes, A+) in ALL of his subjects.  I only managed straight-A's and the occasional A-plus (I contented myself by saying that I was on a different course track, where two of my teachers, Mr Scharrer and Mr Emerson, never gave anything higher than an A).  But this was a time in our lives when being first in something, be it first in line for the bus or the cafeteria, and sitting at the "cool table" at lunchtime, mattered to us.  And for Steve (who was once a watery-eyed milquetoast skinny kid unused to the sudden celebrity of being heralded as "the smartest kid in school", while I languished in second place merely for reasons beyond my control), this was no doubt a watershed experience.  We should have been rivals.  But no.  We slowly became friends.  Because Steve was also smart enough not to compete.  He didn't need to.  Good grades came naturally to him, whereas I had to work for them.  I guess I even needed the goading to perform. 

But as Steve, now with a doctorate (I have a hell of a time calling him "Dr. Hall", but I managed it in front of his students; I don't have a doctorate, darn it, I suppose because we didn't attend the same universities so he could inadvertently goad me...) sat down for a catfish and gumbo dinner at a good Cajun restaurant, we realized just how many youthful changes we had experienced.  Together.  We did Boy Scouts together, even went to the same troop (Troop 1, Geneva, NY).  Went to Philmont Scout Ranch together both as scouts in our teens and later as staff Rangers in our twenties.  Worked as counselors at BSA Camp Babcock Hovey (me Nature, he Trading Post).  Went to the same church Fellowship group (I never attended the church--only the fellowship, since one of the girls there invited me and I hoped I'd get her behind the pews sometime; I stayed on even after I accomplished that, thanks to a very liberal minister).  Knew all the same people in high school (Steve still manages to keep up with them; I'm out of the country but love hearing the stories of how people are turning out).  Shared the same sledding and cross-country skiing trails.  Even shared one girlfriend (and almost shared another...). And after we went home that evening to meet his lovely wife and children, we even rekindled our Scout Camp songs (and a memorized Gettysburg Address which we kept filling in pieces of for each other); she eventually just let the two of us sing like old war veterans and gave up trying to understand the meta.  Point is, I can ask Steve about just about anything that happened to me between the ages of twelve and twenty, and he'll have a memory that complements one of mine.

Steve had overcome his growing pains by finding a lifetime philosophy which gave him meaning--devout Christianity.  Then we started talking about how I had amazingly overcome mine.

"I'm proud of you, Debito," he said, "for what you've done.  You've gotten an education and a good job.  You've got the mettle to carry on human rights activism in Japan.  You write books.  Of all my high school friends, you've become one of the most accomplished, turned out as one of the most interesting.  Despite your background."

Steve began giving his opinions (because I really wanted him to) about my family situation.  I have no brothers or sisters, so nobody to bounce the past off of.  And bouncing is psychologically important:  One needs a second party to tell them their view of what happened in the past.  It's especially helpful because Steve is a witness, a primary source.  Because just recalling everything by yourself leaves room for too much personal embellishment, and defense mechanisms clouding what might have really happened.

Steve:  "You've got interesting parents.  One of the things I remember about your dad is how he seems to have become stunted in his emotional growth.  Just reached a certain point and stopped.  So he spends a lot of his time putting others down to make himself feel better."

Quite.  I remembered that Steve, since both he and my dad are involved in the life sciences (he in agricultural engineering, my dad in genetic engineering, both connected to Cornell University), share a tenuous but existing professional relationship.  One dinner party, when we were both in our early thirties and Steve was finally settling down to a clear career, dad over beers and barbecue glibly dismissed Steve's entire science of sustainable agriculture as "composting", and tried to find fault with the process due to lead poisoning through leaching. 

Dad did the same thing on my graduation day from UCSD (which Steve, yes, attended, since he was in California at the time going to UC Davis, my dad's alma mater).  Only to me this time.  Dad:  "I don't see what you keep going on about, about how diverse your graduate school is.  Doesn't seem all that diverse to me."  I proffered: "There's a lot of ethnicities and nationalities represented in our student body.  Look around--we're very diverse."  Dad's counter:  "Rubbish.  They all look the same.  Everybody seems to be wearing the same clothes."

Clothes?  Ethnicities?  Connection?  Hello?  I whispered to Steve later, "Shall we go home now and change our phenotypes and throw them in the laundry?"  Amusing stuff to hear from a scientist trained in genetics like dad.

Steve continued:  "And for him to keep putting you down so much when you were a little kid?  Well, good job, daddy, you've just intellectually bested your ten-year-old son.  Bully for you."

This unearthed a few memories.  How when I played dad in Chess when I was around seven or so, he'd first start winding me up about how soundly he was going to beat me.  Then mid-game, he'd start reading a newspaper while I was deliberating about my moves, as if I was wasting his time.  Then he'd win.  Well, I was goaded, so I started playing Chess during my free time in school.  Got a lot better.  Finally, one day when I was around 11 years old or so, when dad was doing the pre-game wind-up, I calmly said, "Your confidence is greater than your skill."   I actually beat him.  Then he refused to play me again.  Ever.

Or the time, in my early thirties again, in front of other guests at a party where he was getting drunk and punchy, dad decided to make a wisecrack about how I never went into the hard sciences like he had.  "We're talking genetics here.  But David, you see, being a soft scientist, wouldn't understand something as hard as genetics."

No, I said I understood just fine.  Mendel.  Big B, little b.  Dominant and recessive traits...

Then in jumped mom:  "Yes, but of what vegetable?  Huh?  Answer that!"

I stood there wondering why I was being tested like this.  In front of everybody.  I decided against being a barking seal.  I left the room.

"Whoops, there goes David again!" laughed my mother. 

I knew the answer, by the way.  Rough and smooth peas.  High school Honors Biology.  But why should it matter?

"Debito," continued Steve as we walked along LSU's University Lake enjoying a wonderful warm sunset, "I was at your house when we were both young teens, and I remember some situations where I felt very uncomfortable, like I shouldn't be there.  I was watching your dad sitting there making fun of you, putting you down.  Couldn't understand why.  He took the trouble to adopt you, after all, when he married your mom.  Perhaps that was a means to an end.  But he said to me once, when you weren't around, 'Why are you spending your time hanging around with somebody like David?', as if you weren't worthy of my friendship somehow.  Not sure what he had against you."

That was the first time I'd heard that story, and it hurt.  But it was more proof positive of an undercurrent of antipathy, of a hostility.  I couldn't imagine why.  I mean, I wasn't a problem child.  No drug, alcohol, or pregnancy problems.  Honor or high honor student.  Award-winning graphic artist.  An Eagle Scout.  Graduate of an Ivy League.  Yet I could never please my parents, never got the feeling that they were all that proud of me, no matter how hard I tried or how much I accomplished. 

More the feeling that they just wanted me out of the house as soon as possible so they could get on with their lives.  I was, for one thing, an unplanned child (thanks to mom's formerly devout Catholicism precluding birth control).  After her divorce from my birth father, indeed a horrible man, I was no doubt a clear hindrance on finding another man; saddled with raising a toddler as a single mom for a few years in hippie-era California couldn't have been easy.  She still married someone else, a man who thankfully took me in as part of the bargain.  But as puberty took hold and I began to look more like my birth father--who used to beat my mother and became a drug addict--it was pretty clear that my mom (in retrospect, I realized a couple of years ago) just doesn't like me.  For many reasons, I believe, again, that are beyond my control.

Concluded Steve:  "I think that if laws had been properly enforced, you would have clearly been judged a victim of child abuse."

There it was.  The elephant in the room, finally clearly visible.  All I needed for all these years was for someone to say that, and things that I had been puzzling out for decades now fell into place.

I knew that my dad (i.e. my stepfather) was a frequent and mean drunk; he was also a person who could rage and rag on me and get away with it.  I was the recipient of many a beating (I'm not talking a mere botty spank; I mean fists, kicking, smacks with a hot greasy spatula, grabbing by the hair while slapping and punching faces, and once even the threat of a door being broken down when I barricaded myself in a bathroom out of fear when I was about seven.  I also have two memories of dad wanting to see my genitalia; fortunately it did not involve touching.  But out those long-buried memories came.  Steve could unzip them.

The physical side I remember quite vividly--so does my scoutmaster and various neighbors who would take me in when I would run away from home (I did that quite often, IIRC), offering shelter and refuge during the winter months.  However, in contrast, it is the emotional abuse that lies latent, dormant for decades, since it's something that even battered wives can learn to put up with.  Until somebody comes out and tells them they needn't anymore, and offers a shelter.

I found my shelter, all right.  Japan.  I got as far away from my parents as I could.  And to this day, especially after I naturalized (and apparently "broke my mother's heart"), I have no contact with them anymore whatsoever.  They are simply not very nice people.

Clearly they aren't going to like it if they ever read this (and I'm sure the trolls who love fiddling with people's Wikipedia profiles will enjoy adding that I was an abused child).  But there it is.  A demon.  Being dealt with by writing it out.  With a little help from my friends.



Somewhere during my Baton Rouge stay I did a speech.  To Steve's Ag Eng students (who seemed to enjoy not talking about nitrogen-fixing bacteria for a change).  It was my first dry run of my Powerpoint presentation.  It went well.  Very well, really.  A good premonition, even though my voice was as raspy as Harvey Fierstein's throughout. 

As Steve drove me to the airport for my early morning flight to Cedar Rapids, we watched the sunrise over Route 110.  I broke into song.  Steve knew it and joined in on the second bar.  One of our Boy Scout nonsense songs, which was always sung in the dining hall right after breakfast to jumpstart the blood and brighten the mood:

Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip
With your hair cut just as short as mine.
Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip
You are surely looking fine.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
If the camel doesn't get you then the driver must.
Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip
With your hair cut just as short as, your hair cut just as short as
Your hair cut just as short as mine.

We smiled in the sunlight.  Haircuts?  Steve's bald and thin.  I'm hirsute and fat.  "Which would you prefer," I asked.  "Your hair back and a paunch?  Or just the way you have it now, skinny but with more hair on your face than your pate?"

Without hesitation, and with Steve's classic smile:  "I'd rather be just the way I am now."

"Me too."  We parted with a hug and I boarded the plane.


Arudou Debito
April 3, 2006