Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book #17: Wayson Choy's Phantom Homeland

"I close my eyes: older, long-ago faces, a few of them barely smiling, push into my consciousness. I hear voices, a variety of Chinatown dialects, their sing-song phrases warning me: 'You never forget you Chinese!'" -Wayson Choy, Paper Shadows

Wayson Choy's memoir Paper Shadows opens with the startling discovery that he was adopted. The woman whom he buried eighteen years earlier turns out not to be his mother - sparking a series of vivid flashbacks. Sometimes idyllic, other times frightening, his childhood growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown appears a mishmash of half-remembered fragments: a violent father, who was away for long stretches building the Canadian Pacific Railway; a vivacious mother, who liked to play mah jong until the wee hours, despite her husband's dark moods; and bachelor uncles and aunties who claimed to be family, for lack of any real blood ties in Canada. As the secrets of this community come to life in Choy's memory, the past appears ever more mysterious, estranged. Despite the warnings of the Chinatown elders, what it means to be "Chinese" seems to be slipping away, even as they speak.

Mother, motherland. Both are elusive. The woman he thought was his mother appears in his memory as a ghost - "a length of warm shadow stretched out along the far edge of the bed." She was his last tie to his ancestral homeland, but even that tie turned out to be based on a concealment, a lie.

Although I'm not adopted, Choy's feelings of loss and disorientation are familiar. There must have been a moment when I came to view my Asian heritage with this mix of fascination and fear. Growing up in Toronto as a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, my connection to Japan never seemed to go much further than dinners at sushi bars - where California roll was always my favourite - and the annual Japanese New Years celebration when we would all crowd around the Formica table in my grandmother's tiny kitchen, the oily stink of tempura and daikon radish filling the air.

And yet, my grandmother insisted that I was Japanese. We all were, in her mind.

The idea of our Japanese homeland was replete with meaning for her. I could sense it in her excitement, as she talked about growing up in Vancouver's Japantown, where she had run her father's restaurant and grocery store, before the place was razed during the Second World War. As she reminisced, her black curls quivered over her pointy ears, the skin smeared with indelible streaks of dye. She longed for the rugged beaches of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where she had been born, shortly after her father immigrated to Canada working as an "explorer" for the Japanese government. Supposedly, the government wanted information about the ways and lives of the Haida Indians.

Years later, I thought back to her stories and wondered whether they were entirely true, but at some level it didn't matter, for her words had caught hold in my imagination. Her memories were charged with the sadness and magic of a place that no longer existed.


Photo from: here

9 comments:

Bushpig.vrc said...

Info about the Haida, eh? Any chance you can find out what sort of information? The cultural similarities between the Haida and the Japanese always struck me and I am curious to see if the Japanese government did any writing on the topic. This would have likely been in the 20s and 30s, right?

Bushpig.vrc said...

Also, if you haven't been to the Haida Gwaii, I highly recommend it. I was there not too too long ago and it is magical country.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

According to my grandmother, her father was living with the Indians, learning how they fished, gathered vegetables and cooked. I'm not sure whether the government requested this information or he undertook this study on his own. At some point, it seems that he became disenchanted with Japan and decided he wanted to live in Canada permanently. I should talk more extensively with my grandmother about this while she is still alive.

Bushpig.vrc said...

Definitely. It could be a very interesting story. Did he prepare notes or other documents that survived?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

According to my aunt, his diary from the period when he immigrated to Canada is at a rare books library in British Columbia. I'm going to look into this further.

Bushpig.vrc said...

I would be interested in reading it if you can get microfiche/scans etc.

Mimi said...

When I was young I thought I might have been adopted since I didn't look like anyone in the family. I looked for stories about adopted children. My favourite was "Stepsister Sally" which kept me company as I investigated.....

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I have not read "Stepsister Sally," but I LOVED "Anne of Green Gables" while growing up. It's a novel about a couple that's sent an orphan girl, instead of a boy, but decide to keep her anyway.... Anne's search for identity and a place where she fits in may be similar to Sally's....

charco215 said...

You should fictionalize your great-grandfather's story. It would be fascinating. There seems to be a fair amount of interest in the Haida in Japan, with the Haida manga author Michael Yahgulanaas success there. When you go looking for it at UBC, remember that even if it isn't in the online catalog at UBC, it may still be there in their collection. A librarian at Rare Books may be able to find it, so you may want to email them. I agree with other comments here; it would be an interesting read. I hope UBC digitizes it one day!

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.