Down the Rabbit Hole
Jump down into the rabbit hole with me for a little bit, if you have some time to spare. It might be a story you’ve heard many times before, and it might be a story you are hearing for the first time. Regardless, I’d like to share a little story about a kid I used to know:
H. was a happy kid. His dad loved him, his mom loved him, and most of all, he had all the Yu-Gi-Oh cards an eight year-old could ever want at his disposal. He could only watch television for an hour a day, and he wasn’t allowed to have a Nintendo 64 like all his other friends, but what could he do – his old man ruled with an iron fist when it came to TV and video games.
H. was currently finishing up his summer term in Miyanohara Elementary School, which was located in Utsunomiya, Japan, the capital of Tochigi Prefecture. It was a ten minute walk from his house in 1-4-4 Hinode District to Miyanohara, and five days a week, sometimes six days a week, H. would trot out every morning with his black randoseru, a Japanese backpack for grade school students, gather with his group that walked together to school, and come back home in the afternoon with a big grin on his face.
As I’ve said before, H. was a happy kid.
One day, H.’s dad told H. and his sister that they needed to have a serious talk. H. thought he was perhaps in trouble, and he began to quickly go over in his head all the potential wrongdoings that his seemingly omniscient dad might have found out about.
“Guys,” H.’s dad calmly said to him and H.’s sister, “we’re moving to America.”
What startled H. wasn’t this sudden announcement, but rather the blood curdling scream H.’s sister immediately let out after their dad broke the news. H.’s sister was four years older than he was, and she had already built longstanding childhood friendships that she had began to consciously think would last a lifetime. This sudden move to America threw a cruel wrench in that idea. H.’s sister stormed off, inconsolable by anyone, and cried and cried for what seemed like hours. The next days, weeks, and months were a blur to H., but he could still remember that scream, his sister’s shaking shoulders as she sobbed uncontrollably, her normalcy shattered like fine china being dropped from the top of a three-story building. Before he knew it, he was on a plane to Austin, Texas, and living in that white house on Bridle Path.
H. was still a happy kid, because he knew he was a happy kid.
In Austin, H. began learning how to speak English, getting enrolled in an ESL program at his elementary school, and began adapting to the American way of life. H. wrote in a journal for his second grade class every week, read English books to himself and out loud every day, and visited from time to time his grandparents Ted and Virginia who only spoke to him in English. At first he had a difficult time making friends with his classmates and the other kids in his grade because his English wasn’t that great, but soon enough, he had found himself a group of kids that liked him and played with him during breaks and after school. Walter, Michael, Andrew – all those kids liked H., and H. liked them back. He had found people, just like he had in Japan before he moved, who enjoyed being with him.
And then one day, H.’s dad told him they were moving again.
Of course, this was the last thing H.’s sister needed. If his sister was hysterical the last time a similar news had been broken in Japan, she had gone completely mental this time. H. felt bad for his sister more than for anyone else in the family because H.’s sister was becoming a big girl and making friends again like she used to in Japan at Lamar Middle School. She was beginning to smile and be happy like she used to smile and be happy back when they all lived in Utsunomiya, but now, she was back where she started, friendless and tossed around by things she had no control over.
The move was a blur, and H. began forgetting about almost everything and everyone from Austin.
H.’s family moved out to a remote part in the Panhandle of Texas called Miami, which wasn’t quite like the Miami he had read about in his textbooks and seen in movies. There were no dolphins, no big buildings, no beaches, and certainly no Ace Ventura. Miami, and the rest of the Panhandle, was a big, dry wasteland where everyone was white and they looked at him funny and everyone had a really funny drawl where they pronounced things “lahk thiiis”.
Sometimes, H. wasn’t too happy, because his classmates weren’t quite as nice as the ones from Austin and they made fun of how he looked. Even people he didn’t know made fun of him and laughed at him, like the big kids at school. One time, as he was walking back home to his family’s tiny apartment, an older brother of a kid that didn’t like H. swerved his pick-up truck off the dirt road and at him and made him cry. The older brother and his friends laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more, and they sped off into the distance.
There were good times too, though. H. was really happy was when he would play with Chaz, who lived in a trailer home with his angry dad and even angrier mom. Chaz was really quiet and really nice, and he spoke with the kind of timidity that said maybe his angry parents were angry with him often back home. Chaz and H. would play with Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and Chaz didn’t really care that H. had Japanese cards instead of American cards and that he had to trust H.’s rough translation of what the Japanese cards said into English. Chaz wasn’t bothered by the fact he never beat H. and never blamed his losses on the questionable translations. He was happy that he had a friend, and H. was happy he had a friend as well.
Chaz’s family up and left one day without telling anybody. Soon, H. had begun to forget his time with Chaz just like he had with the people from Austin, just like he had with the people from Japan.
Before long H. had become a sixth grader at Pampa Middle School, where he met a batch of new kids that replaced the Michaels and the Chazs and the Andrews and the Forests and the Ashleys and the Emilys.
And then one day, H.’s dad told him they were moving again, and H. began forgetting about more people, like the ones he had met in his one semester at Pampa Middle School.
Throughout this entire time, H. was still a happy kid. He still smiled like he always smiled, and he still laughed like he always laughed.
I want to cut short this story here and point out something: Do you know how I know H. was a happy kid? Because I’ve told myself H. was always a happy kid.
Back to the Present
My grandmother and I were eating at a Schlotzsky’s in Houston. The place was on Main Street, and as with every other store and restaurant in the great state of Texas, Schlotzsky’s had its AC down to sixty degrees and the fan overhead on full blast. Uninvited goose bumps had crept up all over my arm like a bunch of Sooners and each bump marked the location of their settlement.
My grandmother Sharon was leading the charge in the conversation as I quietly ate my eight-inch BBQ chicken pizza and sipped on my watered down Minute Maid lemonade. I had grown up with Schlotzsky’s when I lived in Austin, and their food wasn’t quite as tasty as I remembered twelve years ago.
She had been talking for the past twenty minutes about her two friends’ recent developments while completely neglecting the sandwich and chips she had ordered. Apparently, one of her friends had been searching for her real mother, and the other had been looking for her daughter who was given up for adoption, and now they had both recently been reunited with their respective long-lost family members.
As my grandmother animatedly retold their stories with much hand movements and varying inflections of tone, I began to mull over my own past.
“I wish I had things to look back on,” I said.
My grandmother gave me a curious look and burst out in her signature, high-pitched laugh.
“Of course you do! We kept a bunch of stuff of you and your family when your family was moving from Austin, and we have it all stored in huge containers.”
“Right, but I’m talking about my stuff. Stuff I deemed important. I don’t have any of that stuff. Every time we moved, I had to throw away more and more of my things.”
She didn’t quite understand why I was arguing with her and told me she would bring everything out that was mine when we got back.
When we arrived back at my grandparents’ place, my grandmother found the plastic bin that contained whatever junk she had salvaged from my family’s move from Austin and placed them in the living room. Among the memorabilia was a huge folder containing my journals, homework assignments, projects, drawings and whatever else from my time in Casis. As I flipped through them, names of people I had forgotten flittered in front of me playfully, their respective faces coming back to me in smudges and too blurry for me to fully remember them.
At first, the journal entries and the science projects made me laugh through the sheer force of nostalgia. The typos and the naivety of a child is funny to read, especially when knowing I had come so far from that very first time I put pencil to paper and inscribed the pedestrian dealings of my childhood in what was a foreign language to me at the time. Once the nostalgia faded, and the typos and the naivety lost their novelty, what was left was a bitter taste in my mouth.
I didn’t remember these kids. I didn’t remember what actually happened in my classes. I didn’t remember how I actually felt at the time.
A week ago, my grandmother Virginia was telling me about a conversation she had with her friend who had endured a rough childhood. Much to my grandmother’s amazement, her friend recalled her past situation with fondness and neglected to recognize the harsh realities she faced during that time as bleak or grim.
“I don’t know, Grandma,” I quipped, “should that be surprising?”
“You know, it’s the same with you, Hans,” my grandmother replied.
This took me quite by surprise.
“Why would you say that? I had a great childhood.”
“I’m sure you did, sweetie. But what your father put you through…”
“You’re talking about how we moved.” I was annoyed at the way she had brought up the topic.
“Okay, we moved a lot, but I wouldn’t be who I was if not for all the times we moved. One of the most important qualities that I like to tell myself I have is my ability to read people and to interact with people. If not for the countless different walks of life I came across during my childhood, moving from place to place, I can’t see how I would have developed that kind of attribute.”
“Of course you wouldn’t be who you are now if not for what happened, but wouldn’t you have had said that regardless of what happened? It didn’t have to be your family moving, it could have been anything else that was difficult for you, and you would have come out of it to say that ‘I wouldn’t be who I was if not for…’”
I was silent.
“Your move had a huge impact on how you developed, honey,” she continued, “but perhaps you’ve focused largely on the positives that came out of that tough time as a kind of defense mechanism. To cope with all that was happening and had happened, which was a lot.”
At this, I laughed.
“A defense mechanism? Against what?”
Lies I Told
After my move from Pampa, we moved to Houston, and from Houston, we moved again to Palos Verdes, California. Every single move meant that I was forced to throw away more and more of my older belongings, and by the time I was moving out of my room in California to go to college in Philadelphia, I realized I didn’t particularly have anything of personal sentimental value except for what I had packed in my suitcase.
This fact rarely bothered me until I began looking through these relics from my Casis Elementary days. As I dug up these memories physically and mentally, the activity no longer retained the pleasantness that I had initially found. My grandparents had kept these because they deemed it important for themselves, but all they brought back for me were the memories of abruptly ended friendships and lost connections. These weren’t important to me; these were painful reminders of what I had cut off and left behind.
Here’s a question that I don’t have an answer to: Why does it bother me so much that I don’t have anything from my childhood that is important, that is significant to me?
Here’s another question that I don’t have an answer to either: Did I throw away my possessions because it was physically necessary in order to move on, or did I throw them away because it was emotionally necessary in order to move on?
I’ve told myself that I was happy, that I couldn’t have asked for anything better than to have lived in so many different places and seen so many different people. But how much honesty is in that if I look through pieces of my past only to feel emotional angst? The more I think about it all, the more the questions pile up. Except, there isn’t a plastic container that I can dump them into and keep stored away forever.
These papers, these journals, these drawings, they’re a memento of what could’ve been. Doors closed that I never wanted closed. Forced shut.
H. was happy during everything that happened, I think I know that. But am I happy about it now? That’s a question I’ll grapple with for a little while longer.