“Mommy, walk on the ceiling!”
Our near-five-year-old calls to me from toe-touch position, where she is observing the world upside down. I used to do the same at her age, watching as the floor became the ceiling and the ceiling the floor, seemingly one I could tread. This is what she requests.
I could comply if, like Olympic gymnasts Gabby Douglas and Kohei Uchimura, I could walk on my hands and control the direction of my feet. Not so easy. It reminds me of a magic weaver in the Japan-born fantasy novel Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Moribito), who can function in both visible and invisible realms, only through great effort.
Life among cultures feels this way sometimes, as if you’re in one space moving in plural worlds — the one(s) above and below, seen and unseen. Not long ago I heard the U.S.-born wife of a Thai man say her daughter wished she could be just Asian, or just American, and not both. She gets tired of walking on the ceiling.
I can relate. At summer’s end my daughters and I visited Wisner, Nebraska, population 1,200, a place much like a rural Kansas town where I spent my tween years. It has a short main street, a single stoplight, and a small post office where you pick up your own mail. The town has clear edges, where houses end and fields and pastures begin and the power lines give way to sky. It is a town that offers just so much human society, and no more.
I enjoyed our time in Wisner, getting a haircut at the salon, attending a cozy church, and visiting the three-days-a-week public library. I took the girls to two local playgrounds and had little else to do but drink coffee with my parents and watch the London Olympics on TV. For a moment, all non-U.S. cultures in my life were confined to the insignia on athletes’ uniforms and tables of medal counts. No resort could have been more restful.
I fantasized (as one does on vacation) about staying, and putting one daughter in the consolidated preschool and, I don’t know, tapping away at essays and translations in a high-walkability one-story ranch, but a ramble to the playground past a certain lawn ornament brought me back to reality. The ornament was a silhouette of U.S. soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima.
The owner of the silhouette no doubt displayed it as a symbol of patriotism, not anti-Japan sentiment, but since my daughters hold Japanese as well as U.S. passports, I had to recall that I no longer move in just one world, and our family’s worlds can clash.
This past year has been one in which the birth of a second child and deadlines for this column — boundless blessings, both — upped the pressure on my husband’s and my relationship. We saw the best and the sleep-deprived worst in each other; we also, in facing our worst, found unexpected hope. We know that more pressures await. Yet fantasies aside, as the girls and I explored Wisner, the answer to whether we would return to life in expat Thailand, and to the man who spoke Japanese with us on Skype at night, was yes.
When we got back, my husband welcomed us with a poster that featured Japanese words and elaborate drawings of Kansas sunflowers and Nebraska corn. The one-year-old began to walk and rediscovered favorite picture books. The preschooler and I replanted tomatoes. Our family strolled in the neighborhood and admired dok kem (“needle flowers”), orange, red, and pink blooms we could only name in Thai. We caught up with expats, including former colleagues from Oman who just moved from the Dominican Republic. The preschooler began pre-kindergarten with a Filipino/Chinese teacher. My husband initiated a sleep-through-the-night campaign with the one-year-old. He asked me to fold his t-shirts differently; I asked him to put his clothes in the laundry right-side-out. We managed our first late date night as parents of two. It wore us out. We will try again.
In resettling here, I tore two months’ worth of pages from a Japanese-language wall calendar, which we often consult for the date but which also offers the year in the current (and previous) imperial reign, the traditional month name, moon and tide phases, and for every day a maxim. Among the maxims I found some that seemed familiar:
Practice makes perfect.
Laughter is the best medicine.
I found some I had never seen:
Words are messengers of the heart.
Stars shine even on rainy nights.
I also found sayings that speak to me now:
Children grow by watching their parents’ shoulders.
Failure is the basis of success.
Fall seven times, get up eight.
The final saying reminds me there are no real conclusions in this world, just as Iwo Jima was not the last word in U.S.-Japan relations. In 2004 the two countries marked 150 years of ties at a ceremony in Yokohama. I was there; heads of state gave speeches and terrific service bands played. Endings are only endings if that is how you frame the story.
This column was scheduled to be the conclusion to Four Worlds, and yet the lives it describes continue. So will the column. I plan a hiatus to recharge and translate some children’s fiction, which may include a fantasy novel with multiple worlds. More on that soon, I hope.
Meanwhile, I thank you for your comments and “me toos” of this past year, which have reminded me I am not alone walking on the ceiling. I toast your own writer-parenting feats and all our feet as we move forward, and await the next time our paths cross. For now, from a café table north of Bangkok, I bid you sawat dii kha.