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The Man Who Holds Trash

“I follow Bernese mountain dogs on Instagram!” I approached a man and tugged on Jayden’s leash gesturing, Is your dog friendly? My black lab made his usual nose-to-butt introduction.

The owner smiled and responded, “My dog is on Instagram.”

I smiled back.

A beat.

“Do you post things in the first person as if your dog is talking?”

He laughed embarrassingly and also realized that I was being serious. “Well, my girlfriend does, yes.”

Jayden nudged to explore a nearby tree, and I could tell the man was eyeing the countdown timer for the crosswalk. Furthermore, I didn’t know what else to say after that. “OK, well, have a nice day!”

I adopted Jayden in July, and because of my frequent trips to the park, my encounters with owners of Instagrammable domesticated animals have since skyrocketed. As you can tell, however, I’m still working on becoming friends with strangers who own those dogs.

Among many things that Jayden has brought into my life, such as internet followers who love black labs, owning a dog has made me confront my feelings about having a family. Not in a way that makes me want to have kids. Although I do—I can wait. He reminds me of the son I am to my parents.

I moved out of the Nakashige household of Texas nine years ago, and only until last summer when my nephew was born, I never had a photo of my family on any of the desks, fridges, bookshelves, nightstands, or walls that surrounded me in the Bay or Greater Boston Area. Every graduation and even some marathons I finished are commemorated in my parents’ empty nest. I like photography and have had many of the places I traveled to decorate my daily life, but none of them depict my family.

An out-of-state student, I wasn’t near my parents throughout college, and by graduate school, I was used to being independent and convinced myself that I preferred it that way. Now that I have a job, ironically, I wish to spend as much time as I can with them.

Taking Jayden for jogs along the East River Esplanade evokes the story my mom loves to tell where my uncle called out “Good boy! Good boy!” to encourage little Tosh to walk the hot summer streets of Tokyo. Taking Jayden to the vet for his anti-depression medication recalls the rough patch I put my parents through during my freshman year of high school. Picking up Jayden’s shit reminds me of my dad.

Like many children, I generated a lot of garbage. Candy wrappers, dirty napkins, used Band-Aids. Whenever I was with my dad and needed to get rid of one of these things, I yelled “Gomi!” (“trash” in Japanese) sticking my hand out toward him with a wad of whatever for him to take. He always did, extending his arm and opening his hand.

When I was a kid, the piece of gomi disappeared.

As I hold onto the warm plastic baggy until I find the next trash can—there are two before and four after the pedestrian bridge between my apartment and the dog park—I think about all the trash I made my dad hold. At the time, I was too consumed by Pokémon Silver or strawberry Sour Punch that I didn’t even notice where he put it.

Almost every American I know who has visited Japan has expressed some sentiment like, “I can’t believe Japan is so clean!” There’s Upper East Side Manhattan clean, and then there’s Daikanyama Tokyo clean. “There aren’t trash cans anywhere,” they say. I paint an image of my dad, his hands full of all the gomi of the city.

I believe that places are clean not because of the place, but places are clean because of the people who inhabit the place.

My dad makes sushi. He calls himself a cook, and I call him a chef. For all the trash I made him hold, his hands have crafted a thousand times as many beautiful jewels of Japanese culture.

The aroma of ethnic food has been the subject of countless stories of shame by children of Asian immigrant parents (see Margaret Cho), and luckily, Japanese cuisine, perhaps guided by the Buddhist tenet of moderation, doesn’t exhibit too many extreme smells. Although I can hardly say I’m abashed by the scent of nattou (fermented soybeans)—sorry to my two French roommates who have asked me not to prepare such a thing while they’re around—having a dad who makes sushi for a living and carries raw fish in his car for catering jobs was difficult for a kid who wanted to fit in with his American friends. Carpooling to soccer practice with my teammates was out of the question. Since July, I visited home for a week, and despite my elementary school aversions, the smell of catered sushi on the ride from the airport didn’t bother me so much. Picking up Jayden’s shit probably helped me with that.

I recently called my dad to ask him how to prepare a Japanese meal for a friend who has a soy allergy. Soy sauce is ubiquitous, and that mission is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, I’m incredibly proud to have a father like the one I do. My dad eats simply yet readily spoiled me with unending avocado and tuna rolls throughout my childhood. Now admittedly snobbish about Japanese cuisine, I appreciate the cultural capital I was nurtured to possess. I hope, one day, I can give that to my kids. Photos of my family now adorn my life. My parents occupy picture frames in my New York apartment, and alongside Jayden, they’re bright smiles in my Instagram.

My dog has become the cornerstone of my social life. In addition to making ramen for them, playing with a dog is a great way to get people to take the train to Upper East Side. On one of these canine-related excursions, my friend—the one who has the soy allergy, actually—asked me, “Did your parents tell you they loved you growing up?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You say ‘I love you’ to Jayden a lot.”

Like many other Asian parents, mine didn’t say, “I love you.” There’s probably a Margaret Cho bit dealing with this, too. I can think of one instance my parents may have emailed this statement to me, but no, they conveyed their love to me in different ways. For my dad, it was making sushi and holding trash.

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Toshiki Nakashige