I hadn’t realize how close New Years is, until I suddenly stumble upon the boys in front of the front gates, them all a flurry of hands and feet as they move the Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree isn’t small, no idea who convinced the school to spend hard-earned savings on it, but the students themselves had trouble unloading it from the truck due to its sheer size. The driver for the transportation company had long been impatient, but after half a day’s work, the young men still haven’t gotten anywhere.
My eyes catch sight of someone in the crowd, and without thinking, I blurt out, “Kaga?”
His neck stretches, his head turns, he laughs when he sees me, drops the stuff in his hands, runs over.
“It’s almost the holidays!” I say.
“Yeah, are you going home?”
I shake my head. “What about you?”
“Will go to Hokkaido with my parents for New Year’s Eve.” He smiles.
That’s nice, I say. I envy him. The guys are calling out to him now, but he ignores them.
He sees the thing in my hands, an international airmail letter.
“That sent from home?”
“Yes!” I say, “A letter from Mom.”
“Must be hoping you’ll go back!”
At this moment, the guys again call for him.
“Go on!” I point behind him.
He nods, says, “Happy holidays.” Then he turns to run over.
I continue walking to the dorm, listening to the voices of the people behind me. How very lively.
“Out of the way! Women get outta the way!”
“Height has to be the same, otherwise it’ll slip!”
“Told you to lift the rope, not my belt!”
I laugh, shake my head. They are calling, “One, two, three, push!” Seems they’ll succeed soon.
Then, a scream – shocks me, I immediately turn back. Almost everyone are shouting someone’s name, rushing over, all at a loss, panicking.
“Kaga-kun!” They shout.
I don’t respond at all.
The next time I see Kaga, is unexpectedly at a Christmas party. He’s even sitting on the most conspicuous seat, a thick cast wraps from the left knee down. I see him the moment I walk in, his eyes curve into smiles at me. There’s a girl standing next to him, she sweeps me a glance.
I ask, “Why don’t you go home and let your mom take care of it?”
He replies that his parents have long been in Hokkaido, that he has only told them it’s a sprain.
I glance at the leg wrapped like a zhong zi* and again ask, is it convenient through daily life?
* 粽子 zhong zi; glutinous rice and choice of filling wrapped in leaves and boiled
He points at the girl and says, “Chiyoko took care of it since the beginning.”
The girl nods her noble head at me.
I tactfully say a few words of greeting and leave.
It is a night of merriment.
Ouyang and I had also spent a Christmas together. Our only Christmas. Xiao was on the stage, strumming his guitar in a frenzy. How unexpected that such a calm person could create such a wild, fanatical effect, almost as if he’d suddenly pulled out his inner self. Ouyang, on the other hand, was with a bunch of guys, beer spilling everywhere. I’d joined them at the beginning, but when they started randomly wiping cream from the cake all over the place, I got scared and immediately slipped away.
I remember the next morning, I woke up in Xiao’s bed. Just three sips of alcohol had got me drunk and, as my roommates were not in town, they took me back to the apartment they rented.
Xiao was still asleep. I carefully scrutinized his beautiful features; his eyelashes long, skin as tender as a child’s.
Before I could catch Xiao’s attention, Ouyang had washed his face, came back. When he saw me, he exclaimed: “My little ancestor*, you are finally awake.” Xiao woke up from the noise.
* 小祖宗 little ancestor; used by parents or other adults when grumbling, or blaming a child for being naughty
I shouted with laughter, “You guys are responsible for my innocence!”
“Go!” Ouyang pushed me out the door, “Hurry back to wash up, stinks so bad! Remember, alcohol is strictly forbidden in the future!”
I gave them a sinister smile through the crack of the door, “Ouyang, don’t you lay a hand on Xiao when I’m not here. He’s mine!”
Ouyang’s stinky socks came crashing over, I dodged away.
What a beautiful memory! It is precisely because I still have these things that I’ve been able to persevere to this day.
Xiao does not think so. He shakes his head: You can’t keep living in the past.
Ain’t I here trying hard to live a new life? I retort.
Formalism!* He speaks in the tone of the professor that taught us philosophy. Entirely a formality.
* Formalism –> an emphasis on form over content or meaning in the arts, literature, or philosophy.
I bitterly laugh, the first person to bury funerary dolls* has no right to say that!
* 始作俑者 idiom; the instigator; the person who first buried tomb figures with the dead; because someone started to bury those dolls, so everyone else followed
“What’re you thinking about? Laughing like that.” My roommate asks, with her Osaka accent.
“Friend.” My answer is very brief.
“Must be really happy being your friend.” She laughs, “You worry about them so much.”
“Friendship is a strange little thing,” I say, “sometimes it teaches you more about heartache than love does.”
My love is a blank slate, my friendship too painful to recall.
I’ve decided to finally visit that person.
We haven’t seen each other for over twenty years, my impression of him limited to those few black-and-white photos. But he is, after all, asides from my mother, the closest person by blood to me; half of me is given by him.
And besides, Xiao always hoped for us to reconcile.
It is the day right before the New Year’s holiday ends, the festive joy from the holidays have just receded, banners and streamers from the merriment still remain on the streets, the discounted prices being yet adjusted, the housewives are there in the supermarkets to snap up the goods.
I leave the subway station, holding the address my mother has given me, and ask for directions as I walk. The clear sky from earlier, has turned to light snow, and as I – in a momentary lapse of laziness – didn’t bring an umbrella, I can only suffer the freezing cold.
Don’t know how long has passed, until I stand, shivering, in front of a small, middle-class bungalow. I don’t need to imagine to know what I look like: my hair a mess, lips purple, face white, just like a ghost.
I hesitate on whether or not to ring the doorbell, fearing that the person who opens the door might think me a beggar and drive me away.
Even if I did go in, how shall I then explain my visit to that person? Most likely, he will be scared, uncertain how a debt he’s already rid of can come back to haunt him after so many years.
I take measure of the house, it is clear that the female owner is attentive and kind. This is something my mother can’t do, because people who do great things won’t waste energy to put their house in such order.
There’s also a doghouse in the courtyard, the dog most likely in the house by now. Yeah, the weather cold, the ground frozen*, only I with no home to go.
* 天寒地凍 idiom; weather cold, ground froze; bitterly cold
The person who answers the door is a youth, with eyes especially similar to mine, seventeen or eighteen years of age. He sees me, startles, then carefully sizes me up.
“Does Mr. Yuuji Kuwata* live here?” I ask.
* 桑田佑司; taken from kanji dictionary
A proper Chinese person, comes to Japan to pass his days, yet has changed even his own last name, has already forgotten his roots through and through. And so I fume with rage and grit my teeth as I pronounce the name.
He nods his head, says, “That is my father. Are you looking for him?” Standard honorifics, a good boy who understands courtesy.
Yes, I say, is he home right now?
After a moment of silence, he opens the door for me and says, “Please come in, he’s in the study right now.”
As soon as I enter the house, his dog comes up to greet me and, without a trace of politeness, barks furiously at me.
Then a woman’s voice drifts down from upstairs, “Yasutomo*, who’s here?”
* 靖智 Jing Zhi; kanji dictionary
“A young lady wants to see Daddy.” He says, before turning to me to explain, “That’s my mother.”
He thoughtfully brings me a towel, hot tea, asks me my name, and then walks up the stairs, leaving me with the unwelcoming dog.
I feel inside my bag, there is some chocolate from breakfast, I take it out to feed it. The dog sniffs, ignores me.
Suddenly, I feel very sad, even the dog knows I don’t belong here, but I just had to ask for embarrassment* by sending myself right to the door .
* 自討沒趣 to invite a snub, to court a rebuff; to ask for embarrassment
All because of one word from Xiao.
He’d advised me, “A tree longs for peace, but the wind will never cease*, a child desires to raise, but the parents do not wait*. You consider it carefully on your own.”
* 樹欲靜而風不止 idiom; the trees long for peace but the wind will never cease, the world changes whether you want it or not
* 子欲養而親不待 idiom; children want to provide attention/support for their parents, but their parents could not wait for such a day (aka, death comes first)
And so I travel over, from across the ocean, but the other didn’t even lack my attention at all.
In the end, I am the only one ending as neither friend nor foe*.
* 裡外不是人 neither someone on the inside nor someone on the outside; stuck in the middle of a situation, you’re not with either side and neither side is supportive of you (tbh “neither friend nor foe” doesn’t completely match the meaning, but it seems close enough)
Regretting it, I stand up, intending to leave and escape from everything here.
The sound of footsteps come from the stairs, and that man hurriedly walks down.
I stare at him. He too stares at me, emotional, unsettled.
What an absurd beginning!
After a long while, he says, “Sit! Come sit!”
And so I sit down again, facing that cup of black tea with its bit of residual steam.
His wife pulls the son upstairs, to give us some space. But I don’t feel the need, what can we even talk about?
Another long silence.
I patiently wait, he needs time to carefully organize his words into a brief summary of what he hasn’t said over the past twenty years or so. I’m in no hurry, and barely even care if I hear him out.
He suddenly says, “Why do you only come now?”
I find it strange.
“When you first came to Japan,” he explains, “your mother called to tell me. I……have been waiting for you.”
Oh. I say.
It seems to take him a lot of effort before he again, speaks, ” You’ve grown, you’re a young woman now. When I left, you were just 8 months….”
Oh. I say, Is that so.
How funny, we’re actually still using Japanese to talk. Facing the daughter he has abandoned for twenty or so years, is this all he can say? After the short-lived marriage with my mother, he leaves his daughter in the country and that leaving was for twenty years, without even a letter. During the miserable days my mother and I had gone through, when I suffered Grandma’s nitpicking, when I was scorned by my teachers, my classmates for not having a father, he was over on this island country with his wife, with his son, and living quiet, peaceful days.
I am not worthy of my mother, and I am not worthy of my own lack of understanding.
He is doing just fine without me, and I ain’t necessarily better off with him.
I stand up, and say, “I came to see you, my mother asked me to say hello to you for her.”
He asks, “Going to leave? Won’t you stay for a meal?”
I shake my head, lift my bag.
He and his family look at me from behind, like sending off a guest whom they have a superficial friendship with.
I didn’t cry until I reach the alleyway. I resent it, not because I didn’t get a father’s love, but because of the urge to cry.
I regret to death. Why on Earth did I still come find him? That year it was obviously he who heartlessly didn’t want me no more.
He can throw away his own child whenever he wishes, just as if he’s throwing away the clothing, the shoes he no longer wants.
I can immediately sue him, demand him to pay up the twenty years of alimony, but that will only be revenge, won’t let him love me.
Leaning on the wall, crouching on the ground, I cry until I begin to dry heave, uncaring if I am making an spectacle of myself.
The emotions, once out, cannot seem to be suppressed.
At that moment, someone hands me a handkerchief. I raise my eyes, it is Yasutomo.
“You’ve been following me?” I ask, not taking his handkerchief.
The youth is somewhat uneasy: “Your complexion was not that good when you were at my house, Dad was a little worried.”
So now he worries. Yeah, I am in his territory now, if something happens, my mother will find trouble with him.
I stand up and smooth straight my hair, the me right now doesn’t need sympathy.
“So what. Are you planning to send me back?”
He looks at me, innocently, pitifully.
I give in, he is my brother after all. I look at my watch and say, “It’s almost seven o’clock, just take me to the station.”
He hurriedly says, “We’re going the same way. My cram school is across the street from your school.” His voice becomes small, “I’ve met you before ……”
To think that has happened! Is the word “coincidence” enough?*
* 怎一個巧字了得; is the word “coincidence” enough; a reference to a poem (声声慢) from the Song dynasty; not that important in context here, but since it took me a while to puzzle out, here you go
We take the subway back, because we are heading to an area dense with office buildings and their workers, the train is very empty as many have left work by now.
We sit side by side, the car rocking slowly, rhythmically. Hunger and exhaustion begin to cloud my mind.
On Yasutomo’s lap is a large backpack, the inside stuffed full by books.
I suddenly remember my dark senior year of high school, and the exams that sap all your energy.
I ask him, “You’re still on vacation, yet you’re already going to cram school?” In Japan, it’s rather hard for kids to receive supplementary lessons, but in China, schools try to think up a way to make the kids get those lessons, that way, the kids are at least still inside the school. The Ministry of Education in Japan doesn’t permit extra classes outside of the schedule, so the students can only rush to the East, run to the West*.
* 東奔西跑 rush to the east, run to the west; bustle about; over here means that as the students cannot have supplementary lessons, they can only run around to cram school themselves. But to be honest, I dunno if the classes insinuated (補課) are supplementary or remedial, so I just picked one >.<
“My family wants me to get into a good school,” he replies.
I roll my eyes. Parents all over the world want their children to succeed.
And then, I couldn’t stop thinking about Xiao.
He was the victim of the elitist education that raised hopes that a son could become a dragon*.
* 望子成龍 idiom; child could become a dragon; hope one’s children will have a bright future
Obviously a major he hadn’t liked, obviously something he hadn’t wanted to do, but the pressure of his parents’ expectations, and their desire to affirm themselves, forced him to walk down the path others had drawn for him.
So he escaped into the world of guitar. Music never turned away anyone.
Meeting Ouyang was his greatest fortune. Ouyang’s support made him decide to start playing guitar again. Ouyang was the one he relied on for a long time, that child so burdened by expectations and excessive hope used Ouyang as a castle to escape from reality.
Xiao told me that, if not for Ouyang, he would have died long ago. Ouyang was his spiritual pillar, the one who lit bright a lamp of hope for him. Sometimes, I felt that his dependence on Ouyang bordered on perversion; at times, it made Ouyang feel heavy pressure.
That’s why Ouyang had also thought of escaping, and that’s why we became separate. Ouyang thought that I could give him a hand, but neither of us had realized that my strength was not enough, and so we both fell off the cliff.
Xiao was outstanding. He entered the school with the highest grade, and maintained a good level of achievement year after year. He worked very hard, studied as hard as he could. And he – also that obsessed with the guitar, he played it so well, how could he give it up?
Realities and ideals, abilities and expectations. I think he spent most of his time living for someone else.
For his parents, for his teachers, for me and for Ouyang.
As a result, as too many problems pile up, they would explode out towards some extreme direction.
I say to Yasutomo, “You have to plan your own life. Others have no right to use you as an experiment!”
Is it alright to say it this way, Xiao?
He nods his head with satisfaction, looks at Yasutomo.
You know what, you’re such a soft-hearted person! At least, you are, towards pretty youths!
I am too tired to argue with him, so I just say: Not exactly, you’re just very beautiful, I’m very jealous of you.
I’m good for nothing.
No, you’re free. We, on the other hand, are still struggling to survive on this mortal plane.
Xiao gets off the train at the next stop, and I fall asleep, until Yasutomo wakes me and tells me that we’ve arrived.
Is that so? I look around, I’ve only just closed my eyes, yet so many places have passed.
It’s really scary how time goes by…..