I grew up calling the neighboring islands of our state that weren’t O‘ahu the “outside” islands, and that big continent northeast of us the “mainland.” I am not Hawaiian, although I take great pride in being Hawai‘i born and bred. I am fiercely proud of our state, and the relatively good-as-advertised acceptance of other cultures that exists here, as opposed, say, to all the states on that big continent, and Wisconsin, where I lived during some of my college days, being a good example of a place that could use a little loosening up when it comes to interactions with people who do not share the color of your skin.
Ah, Madison. I tell you, friends, you have not lived until you’ve been called a Jap, a Chink, a Gook, or a slant-eyed son-of-a-bitch. Really gets the old juices going. Let’s you know you’re alive. After all, someone’s noticing you enough to point you out, hail you, acknowledge you’re alive. Hey, I’m somebody. Even if none of them ever correctly identified me as half Korean.
I’ve written about how on my first day headed onto the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus for registration purposes, four young strapping farm-fresh lads pulled up to the curb where I was standing, waiting for the walk signal to cross the street, and from their great care shouted out to me in the friendliest smiling manner that I should remember Pearl Harbor. Remember it? Why I’d just moved to Madison from my home on O‘ahu where I could see Pearl Harbor from my house. Remember it? I had a fully detailed picture of it that I carried around in my head, indelibly etched in my memory.
So over there on the not-main-land, I lived the life of an Asian guy being appreciated by my Asian-hating fans. Yeah, it was a fan club I never lost touch with my whole time there. Not only did these fans scattered about follow me around when I was a student, but when I took a job at a record store there, after I’d finished school, members of my fan club would turn up pretty regularly to say “hi” to me. Funny, none of them ever asked me for an autograph. All they really wanted to do was compliment me on my Asianism, or maybe, from their perspective, my Saidian Orientalism. I was different, all right, as exotic to them as the kind of rarified dog shit you might find unwelcomingly smeared on the sole of your jackboot.
But don’t get me wrong. I met many great, good people over there on the continent in Mad City, and even in the record store, where I was out there, out in the real world beyond the somewhat more accepting individuals in academia-land. In fact, I gradually came to know many customers, of all ages and a great variety of ethnicities. We spoke the common, leveling language of music.
There were the rock fans, the pop fans, the soul fans, the funk fans, the jazz fans, the classical fans, and the country fans. Some were extremely well-versed in their genre of choice. One young man gave me an extensive education on the virtues of Judas Priest before I realized he was shoplifting an in-dash cassette recorder. We had quite a tussle in the hallway outside the record store, he and I, before Security rushed to the scene and first, grabbed me the Oriental/Asian, me having to point out that it was the young Caucasian lad who needed their custodial attention.
Because there were so many people with whom I regularly exchanged all manner of thoughts about various kinds of music, it was with mixed emotions that I finally decided to come back to Hawai‘i. It was a woman, dammit, and our relationship had nearly killed me, it’s breakup especially hard because we both worked at the record store. Let me tell you, I have often heard the advice that you should never date a fellow employee, and I’m here to second that advice, although had it gone the other way and I were now married to that woman, I might then wholeheartedly support the fairy tale culmination of intra-office romance.
So I dragged my ass back here to the islands, all these healing neighbor islands. I was nearly dead on my feet when I got off the plane here, back home, where the mix of races interacting with each other was, and still is, I believe, so much better than over there in the lower 48, and maybe even in the upper one where Sarah Palin watches the Russians from that rocking chair on her back porch. I’ve only been to Alaska once, for work with Duty Free Shoppers, and it was all long hours of solid work for two days, so we really interacted with no one to speak of.
Now what surprised me most about coming home, and I’ve not thought much about this until today, was that these people I’d come to know as record store customers, these newfound friends to whom I’d not said I was leaving Wisconsin, well, they actually seemed to miss me. Accordingly, the folks back at the record store gave these kind people my mailing address back here in Hawai’i, and I started to receive letters.
Unfortunately, as I say, I was so emotionally beat-up when I came home, that I slept an awful lot, and I mostly did my best impression of a member of the walking dead. So really, the last thing I wanted to do was read those letters. Not only would this make me miss the store and the customers, but it would make me think about that whole shitty love affair deal. This I did not want to do.
To further compound this funk I was in, one of the letters was from my ex, and one was from the woman I should have fallen in love with but didn’t. Well, sidebar, I did fall in love with her. What I mean is, I wished to hell she’d been the one with whom I’d fallen in love first. Who knows? I might have played out a whole new life with her, living out the rest of my days in Wisconsin, or wherever else my imagined life together might have led. It finally led her to New Mexico, and honest to God, I wish I were living with her in New Mexico right now. I’d move there in a heartbeat. But that’s a whole nother story
Anyway, I had this small collection of unopened letters. The pile grew gradually, as did, hallelujah, my will to live. Finally, when I stepped out of my lead role in the first-ever Hawai‘i-based zombie movie, I sat down with this little stack of correspondence and began to go through it. I left the letter from my ex and the letter from the woman whom I wish I’d married for last. And one more.
On that last fateful day, then, I had three letters left. The first I opened was the one from the ex. I thought, eh, get the worst one out of the way, right? Then it would only be uphill. As I’d feared, her missive did nothing to cheer me up. She was still struggling with our break-up as well, and she was unsure of her relationship with the guy for whom she’d left me, her former boyfriend before me. Did I care? Yes. But fuck it. I was moving on.
The second one I opened was from the woman I really loved. We actually ended up writing to each other quite a lot for two years. Geez, how I blew that relationship. I really should have flown back there and tried to sweep her off her feet. I mean I was lovelorn and a half.
It was in this melancholy mood that I opened the last letter. This was a little-old white-haired woman who always came into the store when it opened in the morning. We became what I would call good friends, although our only interaction was discussing our mutual love for classical music. She came to the store often. Near the end of my tenure there, she would bring me coffee, and sometimes a donut or some such pastry.
I cannot remember the exact wording of the letter, but it started with her saying that she missed our morning talks. How the record store wasn’t the same without me.
And then she said something like this.
It seems so odd for someone as old as I to say, but you are the first Asian person I’ve ever known. It’s not that I think I’m a prejudiced person, at least I hope I’m not. I’ve just never been around any Asian people until I met you. I think I was afraid of you at first, but then you became my friend. I will always remember you not because you were different, but because you were a kind person who made this lonely old widow feel good when we talked.
And that, Dear Reader, was the letter that made me cry.
And that, Dear Reader, was the one that made me cry.