Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Ninja speaks of his past

It is of some concern to me when reviewers note that my characters are "distant" or "detached," because I do want the reader to feel a "connection" and because I want to write authentically about Asians in general and Chinese in particular. I wonder what kind of a connection could these same readers feel with Jason Bourne or James Bond or any of the characters from The Matrix?

Here, in any case, is a scene from The Ninja and the Diplomat. There are not many such scenes but if no one feels a connection to this one, then it is back to the drawing boards for me. Prayer and fasting might also be in order. Wikimedia Commons is the source for both the graphs for ninja and for the Scene from the March 1826 Edo Nakamura-za production of Sanmon Gosan-no-Kiri, with Kōshirō Matsumoto V as Ishikawa Goemon (above) and Sanjūrō Seki II as Mashiba Hisakichi, by Toyokuni Utagawa II (1786–1865).

I still remember my seventh birthday. The beautiful lady said she had seen me earlier but it was on that birthday that I noticed her, taller than almost everybody at the orphanage. She had brought treats for us all. Later, I learned from the others that she had been coming once or twice a month to visit the smaller children. She had brought toys and then she got permission to give us treats. Once a month, everyone with a birthday could celebrate and she would bring cakes and sweets. On my birthday, she brought us boxes of different mochi. My favorite were those with red bean filling. I chewed them carefully in small bites and made each last so I could savor the sticky rice and the natural sweetness of the red beans in the paste.
I shared what I received with my roommate. 

Everyone called him Dummy because he could not speak and was never called on in school. He and I had shared the same tiny room, our beds though small almost touched each other, for as long as I could remember. He was bigger than me. I learned from the staff that he was two years older, and we had been brought there in the same week. The orphanage took us just after we learned to go to the bathroom by ourselves. I knew he could understand what everyone said even though he often pretended he was deaf as well. My earliest memories of him were of the nights during which he would cry himself to sleep. It was nearly a year before the crying stopped. The women who looked after us were not unkind but they always had so much to do, cooking and cleaning and all the other things. It was nearly a year later, almost my eighth birthday, before someone learned which month was Dummy’s birthday so he could receive his own mochi from the lady.

The first time I received my present, she pointed out the ones filled with coconut. I did not know what coconuts were, but she did not laugh at me. She explained that they grew all over islands in the South Sea and were a treat in Taiwan where she had grown up.
I thought she smelled nice but I did not tell her this because I was too shy. When I thought about it again later, I decided I would tell her on my next birthday. It would be my present to her and I could think about it for a whole year to get ready.

On my eighth birthday, she smiled as she gave me the box of mochi.
“Do you like the coconut filled ones?” she asked.

I admitted that I had gotten accustomed to the crunchy coconut and begun to like the exotic creamy taste. But I told her that I loved the red bean filling best.

“Me too,” she laughed. “But the coconut will always remind me of my old home. Japan is my home now.”

“I like the way you smell,” I told her.

She laughed a happy and embarrassed Japanese-style laugh and said, “That is a nice compliment. Women often wear special scents and what I wear is something that my husband gave me when we first met. It is called Shalimar and comes from a country far away called France.”

“Why doesn’t your husband come with you?” I asked.

“He is very busy,” she said, “We do not yet have any children.” She looked a little sad when she told me that. I was glad I told her she smelled nice.

Her visits were happy times for all of us. I noticed that she always had a kind word
for all the children and that she also brought gifts for those who worked at the orphanage. This was a word I learned around that time. No one else said it with such kindness.

I soon noticed that the word was corrupted into a bad word, insulting and obscene, at the school where we met other, ‘normal,’ children. By my ninth birthday, I had been suspended from school because of it. I wasn’t the only one suspended but I had caused the trouble at the school and that resulted in many students being punished.

As she gave me the long awaited box of mochi she asked, “Can you tell me about the trouble at school?”

“There are six of us from the orphanage that go to the same class at school,” I told her. “The smartest student in the class had recently been recognized and she was from the orphanage. Some of the others at the school were angry about this. Ten of them, all boys and some older than we were, stopped us from leaving one day and started to pull the girl’s hair and spat on her. I told them to stop. That started the fighting.”

“Didn’t any of the adults do anything?” asked the Lady.

“The language teacher did,” I said. “He actually spoke up for us with the principal, but the parents of the boys later came together and complained.”

“So you were suspended,” she said.

“Yes, I replied. “I also heard that the teacher who defended us would be leaving the school at the end of the school year. Those of us who were suspended, the six of us, would be sent to a different school next year. One in a poorer neighborhood.”

I was afraid that the lady would stop coming to visit, but she continued. In fact, she told me that her husband might come to my tenth birthday. I was surprised to hear that, but on my tenth birthday, there he was. He was slightly taller than her; I wondered if I would grow to be as tall as him. He looked stern. That was the look I caught when I looked directly at him during the party festivities. For some reason, I did not look away but continued to look him in the eye until suddenly he smiled. It did not give me the joy that her smiles did, but it gave me confidence. I felt that if he approved, I could achieve big things. That year, the lady stopped giving me any mochi except those with red-bean filling.

The girl from the orphanage who had been in the fight at school killed herself in the third month at the new school. She had found her way to a bridge over some trains and jumped in front of one. Nobody at school or at the orphanage said anything. I felt that if anyone at school had said anything I would have fought that person to the death. That was what I told the lady, I feel that there would be no honor not to do so.

The lady cried.

“Have I said something bad?” I asked.

She shook her head and said, “I am crying because the girl killed herself. Maybe if I had shown her more love, she would not have done that.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

The beautiful lady said, “It is very important to show compassion to others so that they do not feel hopeless in this world.”

I found that difficult to understand.

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