had logo

December 30, 2020

2 Essays

Daisuke Shen


When I speak Japanese in my dreams, I speak it fluently. Here, no one can detect my accent, listen as I try to wrap my tongue around new words before I forget them. Hinousei. Hinousei. Hinousei. No one can hear me as I try to remember, always, which word means “to give” or “to receive”, despite the fact that I have spoken Japanese at home all my life: ageru? kureru? Even now, I can’t remember.

I am always in school in these dreams, perennially 12 or 13 years old, speaking to a friend. We are standing out in the sports field in front of my old elementary school. When I visited Hiroshima in the winter of 2017, the elementary school had been combined with our old middle school and renovated. Everything was new, black granite, memoryless. As if I had never been there at all. 

This is how I feel sometimes: that my being Japanese is something that I have made up. If you look at it from a biological standpoint, it is true that this is something I could easily unclaim. I am 50% Chinese, 25% Japanese, 25% white, but the only part of my makeup that I don’t claim unless asked is whiteness (and why would I? I have only ever been coded as yellow). And yet how do I tell people who seem inquisitive about my Japaneseness that this is all I know? That I know how to make onigiri the way my grandmother taught me, that I used to watch my grandmother fall asleep every night as we watched samurai dramas on NHK at home, that my grandmother made me write the same strokes for characters fifty times, a hundred times, a thousand, that my tie back to home is through my grandmother, is everything about my grandmother?

If I told you everything leads back to her, then would you understand?


The first time I remember wishing my grandmother was dead, I was maybe six years old. Every day was usually an unhappy one—I dreaded coming home, to be in the same room as her and her silent terror. She loved me fiercely, as she does now, and it is perhaps this fierceness that also fueled her inability for patience, understanding, to ever say the words “I’m sorry”.

We had just gotten back home from the library, where she had told me it was time to leave then berated me in the car for taking my hair out of my ponytail. What were you thinking? It looks like a rat’s nest. I slammed the car door, thinking about how she had just yelled at me, running ahead of her only to have to wait for her to unlock our door. While she prepared dinner, I sprawled myself across the living room floor and drew our figures on a small piece of paper, drawing a frown and a small trail of tears on my face, while my grandmother loomed over me with a sadistic smile on her face. Under her figure I wrote the words “WITCH” in all caps. Then I threw it away before she could find it.

Of course, I wished she was dead many times after this, and I didn’t want her dead, not really. We shared a bed until I was eight years old, much too old to still be doing so, and as we laid next to each other I would think about how she would one day be gone, unreachable.

“Are you really going to die one day?” I would ask her in the spurts of breath I could take while hyperventilating.

She would remain still, her eyes still closed. The thick coat of Vaseline she applied each night glistened as she spoke, turning her skin into a sticky cellophane. “Yes, but it’s a good thing. Then I’ll be with your grandfather, and your uncle Carl, and with Jesus. Don’t be sad.”

But I was sad. I would cry well into the night before drifting off to sleep, knowing even at that age that she was a grandmother, which meant she was already old, decaying, on the way out.

As I got a little older, this back-and-forth between pleading for her to stay alive and praying for an imminent death became an even more constant, complex [thing]. So was the fact that no one seemed to see her for as myself, my mother, and my aunt did: a manipulative, deeply unhappy, bitter human being. Sometimes I would ask them the question that I often asked myself: when she died, would they feel a sense of relief despite the obvious grief and mourning we would feel? The answer was that yes, yes they would.

What confused me the most about her inability to show love was that I knew she loved all of us. And all of us knew that she loved me the most. It was evident in everything that she did: the fact that she would tell me how she would talk to the food while making my lunch, asking it to be delicious for me; when she would brag to anyone that would listen about how the library had given me a sticker one summer for reading 400 books; all of the sacrifices she made, re-wearing my old clothes, refusing to replace anything, mostly shopping at the Dollar Store or WalMart so that she could afford to send me to an expensive Christian school. It didn’t bother my aunt or my mother that she cared for me in a different way than she did for them, but her obsessiveness over everything I did worried them.

“I remember the first time I noticed it, Connie,” my Aunt Connie once said during my teenage years while we were driving. She shook her head. “We were at the dinner table and she just kept…watching you, with this intense look on her face, and every time you reached for something she never let you get it. She always had to get it for you. And she spent the entire time interrogating you, just asking the same questions…did you brush your teeth that morning? Were you sure? Were you sure that you turned in your homework at school today? Were you really sure?”

I didn’t know the name for what my grandmother had gone through when I was young, what she would unknowingly pass onto me: trauma. I knew that she had lived through WWII, and that it was a devastating and terrible thing that she had, as a child, witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima City as she stood outside on what was supposed to be another regular day at school.  But the fact that this could rewire a person’s mind, make them love differently, leave them with mental illnesses that they would refuse to get treatment for, wasn’t yet known to me.


I’m 24 as I’m writing this. The war is over now, the child that lived through it no longer a child, but an old woman. It’s the last day of February, the month when both my grandmother and I were born, and she turned 79 a couple of days before Valentine’s Day. Come home soon, she said when I texted her a happy birthday. We will have birthday party for both of us. I live in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I am attending graduate school, five hours away from my childhood home of Greenville, South Carolina. After I completed my undergraduate in South Carolina, I couldn’t wait to never go back to school and move to New York, where I could be with my friends and far, far away from my family. I applied to graduate school only because my grandmother wanted me to.

We spent a long time arguing about this the semester before I graduated. “I’m not going”, I said whenever I went home. “I hate school. I already have a degree.”

And her voice, the same tight knot of anxiety and stress that it always was, begged back. “Please.”

I believe that humans have autonomy. I also believe that being Asian-American means giving up some of that autonomy in order to serve your family for the rest of your life. So I applied for MFA programs at three universities, but only three: University of North Carolina Wilmington, Brown University, University of Oregon. My first choice was the school in Brown University, because it was famous, and my second choice was University of Oregon because of how far it looked from South Carolina on the map. My last choice was University of North Carolina Wilmington, which I chose because it was reported to be one of the best in the nation for creative nonfiction. I had spent the last two years in a deep depression, and even though I enjoyed writing poetry and fiction more, my writing of them had suffered.

I knew I wasn’t going to get into Brown, partly because their acceptance rate was so low, but also because they didn’t even have a nonfiction program there, so I long expected the rejection letter I received in my e-mail. When University of Oregon sent a rejection letter soon after, I was a bit disappointed—could it be that I actually wanted to go to school after all?

And then, when I finally received my acceptance letter from UNCW in my last fiction workshop of undergraduate, I allowed myself to feel excitement. There was something else there, too, I realized—a deep sense of relief. Because I didn’t want to be far away from you at all. Not then, not ever.

Now I am here, still writing about you. One time you came to a play I was in and afterwards you smiled and smiled and said you loved it while hugging me, which was then that I realized you didn’t realize a word of what I said, because I had been cussing the entire time. I always hope for the same every time a piece of mine is published online, even though I know you Google my name almost every day—both to monitor my behavior as well as support my writing—because there are things about me that I know you do not and will never accept. There were so many words you didn’t know that you used to ask me to spell, rapping your pen on the top of a notepad as you typed an e-mail to one of your Japanese friends.

 “Oh, grandma,” I would say, “I can’t believe you don’t know how to spell ‘appointment’.”

“Well that’s why I’m asking you, Connie-chan”, you’d say, patting my back as I sat down to type, scooching into the seat beside you. “You’re so much smarter than I am.”

I rolled my eyes, annoyed that you had interrupted whatever I had been doing, and wrote the word with ease.

You cheered each time.  “Wow! I have the smartest granddaughter in the world!” you would say, clapping so hard that I couldn’t help but smile.

Back then, I believed that knowing more words in English made me more intelligent than you. I hated going to Japanese school in South Carolina because it was on Saturdays and none of my white friends had schools on Saturdays, so I quit. I was beaming when you picked me up from my last day of class; you wore such deep shades of disappointment and sorrow that they smothered my joy like a stuffy winter coat. We didn’t say much that day.

I admit that I want for you to read this book, even though I want you to read nothing else. Maybe by the time that this is published—if it ever is—I will have already said all the things I wanted to say to you, but I’m unsure if this is true. I hope to capture here your life, the one that you unwillingly thrust into light for me to write about as one of your many great acts of sacrifice. And with your life comes my own, and all those who are like us. Will you, like Amy Tan’s mother did in Joy Luck Club, the first and only book I read by an Asian author in school, smile when you finish reading this, look up, and declare that it was “so easy to read”? Can I write us outside of history so that we exist only on these pages, so that you stop growing older and we still have time, so much time, to understand each other? What will these words accomplish once you are gone and I have failed?

I hope that they raise you from the dead.