Kalyna Review

Mariko Nagai

About the author


Mariko Nagai's writing has appeared in New Letters, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, to name a few. She has received the Pushcart Prize both in poetry and fiction, and later the awarded poem was included in The Best of Pushcart Poetry. She has received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries for the Arts, the Fondation Ledig-Rowalt, Yaddo, amongst others. A collection of poems, HISTORIES OF BODIES was the winner of the 2005 Benjamin Saltman Prize (Red Hen, 2007) and a collection of short stories, GEORGIC: STORIES (BkMk Press, 2010) received the G.S. Chandra Award. My first verse-novel for children, Dust of Eden, was published in 2014 by Albert Whitman. She is currently an Associate Professor at Temple University Japan Campus.



On the radio, listeners call in to agree with the radio jockey on the issue of “English-only” America. America must be linguistically pure, and anyone who speaks in another tongue, anyone who betrays their origins with accents, must get out, go back to where they came from. A listener, young and self-appointed crusader of lingual purity, goes on and on about how these immigrants have no place in America if they can’t speak properly. I am in Whidbey Island, an island off of Seattle, in late August, in a cottage in the woods. The only voice, only sound I hear in this tiny cottage this early in the morning is this argument of American purity. A part of me wants to run to the closest telephone, through the woodtrail, be careful not to step on slugs the size of my cat’s tail, down into the shed, and stand there, calling the number announced every other caller to cuss the jockey, to raise a metaphysical fist of defiance by telling him and the rest of the right-wing world that this fear of otherness, this fear of impurity, the perceived deviant factor that unravels the very fabric of nation caused the Salem Witch Trial, the MacArthur Red Hunt, the unconstitutional restriction of freedom to be in both the right and left politics, but I am an alien, not even a legal alien, and my only claim to America lies in the fact that I grew up here. But I am still in the cottage, still listening to the radio, still spellbound to these voices that call out for linguistic purity, as if language, even American English itself, is pure. There is another part of me, the detached part of me that questions myself as a writer, as an English writer, stuffs their every words like a squirrel stuffing its mouth so I can savor it later. I tell myself as I put another set of woods into the stove, These arguments are nothing new; these debates are held in different language, in a different country, in Japan. It is nothing new, and I must learn to accept it. I give up the fight; I let the voices fill this early morning air.


Bilingualism, bilingual. A bilingual is “an ability to speak two languages with equal skill”. Bilingualism is “an habitual use of two languages, especially in speaking”. Speaking is the key word here, not writing. Why does bilingualism never deals with the issue of writing? Why must it always be speaking, forever speaking. What is the seduction of the verbal?


With the rise of TESOL education (that, in itself, is a suspect) and American educators flocking to Japan with their newly acquired TESOL degree along with Paulo Freire and bell hooks as a slogan for humanistic teaching, the definitions of bilingualism and bilingual have been questioned, tested, and open to debate. The dictionary I took the definitions from is dated 1985 (The American Heritage Dictionary). That was before the concept of bilinguals was elevated into something holy, something to be encouraged in America and abroad.  


1983-84. Ms. V. is an awful woman; even more, she is an awful teacher. She is supposed to be very beautiful, with her 6’1 blond frame. A Barbie. Her beauty is questionable in my nine year old eyes because in her blond eyes, there’s a sense of cruelty, of superiority over someone who does not go by her mysterious standard (this archetype of blond beauty will always be my archenemy, the enemy I must watch out for). And she proudly decorates the wall behind her desk with a diploma from UC Berkely at age 20. Or so she says. Or perhaps my English skill isn’t good enough to understand. She is huge compared to the weeney looking children, and she likes that about herself, I think. She towers over us, and when she is feeling particulary vicious, she stands about half a foot away from you (her concept of personal space was nonexistent), makes you stare at her cone shaped tits, makes you ashamed that you’re staring at her cone shaped tits, makes you look down, and she smiles. And she hates kids who can’t speak English well; there are four of us, me, another Japanese boy, a Chinese-Vietnamese boy, and Alex, a bespetcled Chinese boy who is a bit slow, and always has bugger running down his upper lip (he once showed us proudly that he likes eating his bugger). We are all ugly: I have the nightmare Asian girl hair cut (straight bang, straight back) and my eyesight is poor, the other Japanese boy is fat and has freckles; the Chinese-Vietnamese boy is big, taller than any of us, already a man, though he is uncomfortable in his already matured body, and poor Alex, who is the easy target during dodge ball games, he is the last to be chosen for kickball, whose glasses are always lopsided, and who spent a night in the museum after he is left behind on a fieldtrip. She prefers pretty kids like Lisa Appleton, Lisa Lee, and some other kids who slip through me. Even as a nine-year old, I know that she likes pretty people whereas she hates ugly kids. She segregates us into a tiny library room during Language Arts class. She tells our parents that we are holding back other kids, and our parents, as bad in speaking English as we are, nod, lets her run her tyranny against people half her height and weight. One day, Lisa Appleton screams that I have lice (I did not understand personal hygiene then; I washed my hair maybe twice a week, and often recluctantly), she sees white things jumping around (of course lice don’t jump around, only fleas do). Immediately, Ms V comes running to me, grabs my arm, literally lifts me off from the ground and takes me to the hallway. She makes me stand there while she goes to the teacher’s lounge to look for a pair of rubber gloves. She tugs my hair, her eyes bulging out from her jeweled glasses, the kind that made her look both owlish and snotty, her red lips pursed in search of the mystical lice. Finally, after minutes and minutes of search, of biting down my lips from crying in shame, she lets me go, drags me back into the room, and tells everyone that No, there’s nothing to worry about, Mariko doesn’t have lice, she only has dandruffs. I can’t protest, I can’t say anything to defend myself; I understand everything she says, but I don’t have enough words to talk back at her in a way I can in Japanese. And this is all because I can’t speak English. It is the speaking, this inability to go back and forth between two languages with ease, equally, that imprints this memory in me.  


After that year, I became a furious reader. I read everything from Laura Ingall Wilder to Doctor Seuss, making up for the lost years, and later, in my teens, I read Sartre, Nietzche, Kundera, Camus, Wittgenstein, all the heavy duty philosophers that by the time I started to attend college at age fifteen, I was a procoscious and moody girl, made more different not just by my skin, my name, but by my awkwardness. My mother, who could decipher Marx’s words on the spine of Communist Manifesto, threatened to throw the book away, and I clutched it, nearly in tears, threatening to run away if she did that. If you ask me anything about them now, I am not sure if I can tell you the details. I read to satisfy the doubt, the continuous doubt that kept me going, the doubt that maybe I am not enough, I do not have enough words or years with English. I read to catch up for the lost eight years that others had just because they were born in English speaking environment. When I came back to Japan at age twenty-four, it was the same thing: Akutagawa, Abe, Natsume, Murasaki Shikibu, Higuchi Ichiyou, Murakami Haruki, from the classics to modern to contemporary, I read to catch up the lost twenty-four years away from the language. I read and read, but never satisfied, still not satisfied, books that slipped my list, always adding new books on my growing bookshelf. Somewhere along the way, books no longer stood for bound papers with words printed on them; books became Books, taking on mythical key to language, and because of that, I cannot throw away books I’ve read, books I still need to read, in fear that by throwing them away, I am throwing away my right to claim languages as my own.  


But this did not help speaking. Reading can be done in a safe confine of one’s space, curled up in a chair; I can read out loud words I am not familiar with, trying to pronounce words in private. But when it comes to using words in every day conversation, that’s where I fail. I would say it, and I am met with a blank stare. I then find phrases that best describe it, but it is not as strong as saying the word itself. It is never satisfactory.


I am a returnee, but the term does not really apply to me. The term returnees apply to kids who grew up abroad, but these kids usually spend at most 10 years in a country, or a decade outside in multiple countries. I spent nineteen years abroad before I came back to Japan when I was twenty-four. Which adds up to total of five years in Japan, a place where my passport claims as my home, but in which I always find myself floundering around in the dark when it comes to decoding the silent cultural code. I do not understand the cultural references people my age makes, though superheroes of my brother’s generation, I know simply because they were referential code spoken in my family, this tribe of nomadic linguistic family. Everything I do, I know, I betray my foreignness, my otherness.


“What’s your first language?” people often ask me. I reply, “my first language was Flemish.” They look buffled, wondering where Flemish is spoken, and I have to tell them, “I lived in Belgium when I first started speaking.” Oh, their faces say. What about your second language? That’s the usual question they ask next. “French.” They once again frown, trying to understand me, what I am telling them. So I have to explain to them that in my first eight years, I learned (and forgotten) four languages: Flemish, French, Japanese and English, in that chronological order. The terms first and second languages do not apply to me; ask me what is my mother tongue, and I will have to say that it is both English and Japanese, though I am more comfortable when I am writing in English. And my mother does not speak English well and neither does my father. They never had to experience the survival tactic of having to speak perfectly in English; they, even when they were abroad, could speak Japanese in their environment.


With the bubble economy period during the 80’s and early 90’s, Japan spat out many of its workers and families into the world. These returnees, the students I have now, are more comfortable with their bilingualism because the grew up in a time when Japan had its eyes toward the west, toward the internationalization.


My family, on the other hand, was the earlier generation, the generation who had to hide their uniqueness when they came back to Japan. My sister, who is four years older than I am, is the typical closet returnee. When she is asked where she grew up, she becomes evasive; at her wedding, when they were reading her profile, they read that she spent “some time” abroad due to her father, our father’s, work. Some time, to me, refers to several years. In reality, she spent twelve years aboard, always struggling to fit in, always been told that she must go back to Japan eventually. She is more Japanese than I am; she went to Belgium at age 6, spent the later half of the elementary school in Japan, then off to America at age 12. She is more rooted in Japan, has more years in Japan, than I did. Her complain toward our parents are, “I didn’t choose to be bilingual. I didn’t choose to live abroad.” She married a man who does not speak a word of French or English; she married a man who will never be transferred out of Japan.


My sister tells me never to tell people that we grew up abroad. She tells me that Japanese people can’t accept uniqueness. She is right. When I am talking to a Japanese person, everything seems to be going well. Conversation flows. A joke or two, and I can make people laugh (joke is the hardest of cultural code). Then they’d ask me where I went to school, and I tense up. I tell them hesitantly that I grew up in America. Suddenly, they become malicious (or perhaps it is only in my neurotic mind), they’d abruptly say, “No wonder I don’t understand most of the things you say,” or “You have accents.” Do I really have accents? Or does the knowledge of uniqueness immediately plugs up their ears like earwaxes, make them deaf to me? I have learned to keep my mouth shut, tell them that I am from Tokyo, born in Tokyo, lived in Tokyo. It is not a lie. The details are secrets, that is all.


But even in America, I do not belong. My name, which was never Anglofied like my sister, marks me as an outsider, the other, a foreigner. They cannot pronounce my name in the first place. Marigold, Maaa-riko, Marie-ko, Marik, Yoko, the variations roll from their tongues like awkward wheels. How do you pronounce yourself, really, they ask, and I just tell them that I’m used to it, call me what you can. But there are people who seek out the purity of pronounciation, who practices it to make it right, who makes me become more Japanified by pronouncing it in Japanese way. Which is better? The bastarization of my name, or total failure to pronounce my name?


After we get over the name issue, now, it is the issue of place of origin. There are two ways: am I Japanese-American, since my pronounciation of English is perfect, or am I Japanese, therefore must have an accent? I am neither. But they want to catagorize me, to make sense in their minds who I am. It must be black or white, never black and white. Is your Japanese as good as your English (of course, why shouldn’t it?)? Is your English as good as your Japanese (of course). Which one do you feel more comfortable in (when I am in Japan, I can go both ways, depending on who I am with, but in America, in English, or a friend of mine once said as a mistake, American)? They cannot believe that someone can go back and forth between two languages, like salmons who can live both in ocean and river. In their minds, two languages cannot coexist, there must be fragmentation somewhere, a break so slight that the impossible of languages so diverse cannot be contained in one tongue.


I had a boyfriend long ago who did not see me as a Japanese, but as an American, as an English speaker. We were in graduate program in creative writing, he in fiction, and I in poetry. We were writers, writers in English, and perhaps, we dreamt secretly of producing something so different that we would astonish others. But he never understood the Japanese side of me, the side of me that I never showed him because I was going through my American phase, avoiding Japanese people as much as possible. When my roommate, a trilingual Japanese-Iraqi woman, and I spoke in Japanese in front of him, he said that we were being rude, that Japanese should never be spoken around him. Now that I think about it, it was his insecurity speaking, his fragile heart fearful of being left alone, his boyhood roaring at the two women in front of him, speaking in a language he did not understand. At that time, I thought that I must have betrayed him, that he thought I was only an American, not Japanese. At the end, most of my relationships ended because I was the one categorizing myself, telling myself that I must be one or the other, never mixing the two.


A prominent poet, D.H., tells me that my poems are ok for someone whose English is not the first language, but I may be better off as a critic. Another, P.L, tells me that I might be better off as a critic, as an editor, because I am the most well-read of the group, I am the most intelligent, but my poems do not amount to anything. S.O. tells me that my poems are not emotional enough, that my poems need to be more personal and less intellectualizing about ideas; she tells me that I might be better off writing about Japaneseness. On and on, these prominent poets told me about my lack of talent, about my lack of origin, not enough of Japan, not enough of America, not enough of everything. That my poems were too philosophical, not enough mundane, not enough every day in it. It did not matter how much awards I got, how much residencies, fellowships, scholarship I got, I doubted myself because there was a part of me, the same one, who sat in the tiny library while others stayed in the regular class, who read books for first graders, mouthing each word carefully, trying to decode what each word means by their sounds. It is D.D. who finally told me, at the end of my graduate program, that I am disciplined, that I must find a space where I can writ, that though my poems do not tackle two cultures in obvious ways that make people feel comfortable in its exoticness, there are recurring motifs in my poems - sparrows, spirits, ghosts - that bridged two worlds, this and that worlds, America and Japan, English and Japanese, myself and others. Use them, she encouraged me, but by that time, I had told myself that I was tone-deaf, sonnets were not in my blood, I walked in haiku rhythm, everything measured in syllabic. I walk in the rhythm of both feet weighed the same, not the lightness, the iambic rhythm of the Western writers.


Because of my own discomfort, I have learned, as a survival skill, how to pigeonhole people. In almost a scientific formula, I catagorize people in situations. I never mix languages; I have heard returnees and others who are so called bilingual mix languages, creating a new language that is both Japanese and English, but they are not one language, they are not understood by speaker of one language. I stay purely on one language.


But there are three people I can mix languages and we understand each other: my sister, when we cannot find the exact word to describe a situation, but our conversation is mainly Japanese, with one or two English thrown in. K., a Korean-Japanese woman, is the only one I can mix phrases, languages, where our conversation is half in English, a sentence, an idea may start in English, but ends in Japanese, but we understand each other. We have similar backgrounds, personal histories. Another person I can speak in both languages, who amazed me by his fluency between two languages is A., but for work, he chose a medium that went beyond language, that did not require any language to support it: visual art. His vision is silent, there is no word. Perhaps it was his ways of going beyond the limitation of language.


But I am a writer. In this cottage, on the last night of my stay at 10:48, I am struggling with words, with narrative sequence of this piece; I think of logical sequence, but I have given up. Each word opens up a memory, an idea, and I just let it organically move itself, like snake coiling to its shape, but always faithful to the spirit of the piece, always loyal to the heart of the story. And what is this essay anyway? Is it about languages, and difficulty of having two languages coexisting in a brain? Is this about my experiences, failed versions of myself as a writer? Is this about my complex? My doubts? I am not sure anymore.    


A South Indian woman poet asked me, “But Mariko, you are a writer. Stories have no language boundary, there are truths in every story.”


Or perhaps not. I am not sure anymore.