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Deep Valleys Make High Mountains

What about suki kirai? Is there a word for that in English? It literally means “like dislike”—or maybe “love hate.” The phrase refers to someone who has a lot of preferences, and I usually ascribe this trait to food. People who have suki kirai are picky eaters.

I shouldn’t have suki kirai, my mom taught me that.

It usually happened like this. I would be sitting on the floor of our study, probably playing Diablo II, and my mom would call out from the kitchen that dinner was ready. I was sitting on the floor because I moved my desktop computer to a low table. Not Indian style, but I was into seiza, which literally means “proper sitting,” or kneeling butt-to-heels like they do in tea ceremonies. I had this setup throughout middle school, and it may or may not be the reason that in my adulthood my knees don’t touch and I feel the need to get cupping therapy to fix my back. If I didn’t instinctively yell back “Chotto matte!” (“Wait a little!”), I would hop downstairs to the dinner table.

I disliked cabbage, yakisoba that was too oily, spaghetti sauce that was too watery, avocado, and cilantro. My mom would tell me, “suki kirai wa dame da yo.” I thought she said it to make me eat healthy vegetables, but my 12-year-old analysis was myopic. She was also telling me to eat fried noodles that, in my humble opinion, had too much pork fat in it. I think there was something deeper in these terse life lessons sitting in front of half eaten meals while I swayed side to side on a chair that had wheels because our dining room chairs had wheels. In hindsight with expertise having taken a Japanese Buddhist studies course in college and reading a book on Zen Buddhism by some white person, not having suki kirai is some Middle Way bullshit that I learned to espouse.

I got over my aversion to cabbage and, along with other variants of Brassica oleracea, now esteem it to be one of my favorite foods. And if I could afford it and felt less guilty about the perceived water crisis caused by cultivating this fatty fruit, I would have avocado in every meal I prepared. I’m not sure exactly when I lost my distaste for oily yakisoba and watery tomato sauce, but like the seiza thing, that was a weird phase. I would still say I kirai cilantro in my adulthood because I have that genetic thing, and I can’t help it.

Finding new food spots is one of my most valuable pastimes in New York. I recently tried Malaysian cuisine for the first time with a friend whose family is Malaysian and frequented a Michelin-guided restaurant that’s in the cultural liminal space intersecting Chinatown and Little Italy. Even if it’s not meant to be, everywhere is family style to me, and we probably ordered double the number of menu items recommended by the waiter or by anyone who wants to feel good after Sunday brunch.

“Are you sure you want the laksa? Malaysian laksa is different from Singaporean laksa.” My friend warned me that the noodle soup was more sour than the savory kind I’ve had before, but I insisted on ordering it.

“There’s this phrase called suki kirai in Japanese. It literally means ‘like dislike.’ I generally don’t have strong preferences when it comes to eating, and I like to try new things.”

Pretty regularly I have flashbacks to interactions I’ve had with my mom. Sometimes they’re ones that happened when I was a child, like one of those dining table moments. But usually they’re interactions I’ve had with my mom as an adult. For many reasons that I think only about five people on this planet understand, I recently went through an enlightenment with my parents. Many details of this three-year saga are mundane, but it started in the summer of 2015.

That summer I went through one of the most difficult times in my life. In the reenacting-a-cinematic-crying-scene-in-the-rain kind of way while I shower, that experience is like a thundercrack that shakes me when I’m alone, still. There was a bad relationship. There were concussions, bruises that I photographed, lawyers, therapists, and people saying things like, “You’re a survivor, not a victim.”

Talking about this kind of thing in this public way can be polarizing, and I understand that it’s uncomfortable. I don’t seek pity, at least not anymore, but there was something important that came out of all of this that I want to share—that I sometimes feel like I need to share—to feel like a complete person again.

My first phone call to my parents about what happened was a snowplow that crashed into a car that didn’t have its windshield wipers up, which happened occasionally during the winter in Boston, which is where this all happened. Not having eaten in a week or left home besides for work, I was empty and couldn’t get the right words out of my body. I ended the phone call prematurely, and everything went blurry.

My person is generally independent, where correspondence with family members is irregular, but I remember my parents calling me almost every day in the two weeks following the snowplow, worried. My daily life was trying to move forward amidst meetings with counselors of departments at MIT that I didn’t know existed, but revisiting some of the details with my folks was overwhelming. I called my mom and my dad separately telling them not to call me. “I’ll call you when I’m ready to talk about it.”

Late summer and the following fall felt like a series of activities with friends who were trying to make me feel better, and I have the Instagram photos to commemorate them. Every week I would retell some part of the blurry story to my four counselors, but I didn’t speak at length about it with my parents for almost a year.

At this point, I had moved from Boston to Cambridge into a creaky four-bedroom apartment, and there was always mail for all the roommates scattered across the living room table. In December, there was a red envelope addressed to me. I opened it.

There was a holiday card. Above a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year message, my mom wrote:

谷深ければ山高し。 Deep valleys make high mountains.

I like to tell the story about my mom getting naturalized. In 2011, my mom became an American citizen, and because Japan doesn’t allow dual nationality, she had to give up her Japanese citizenship. In Japan, it’s also law that both spouses have the same last name upon marriage. It’s technically OK for a man to take the last name of his wife. It’s happened in my family before, but the vast majority of Japanese women change their last names, effectively giving up formal ties to their parents and to become a part of their husbands’ families. When my parents married in 1984, my mom adopted Nakashige. In the United States, married couples are legally allowed to have different last names. In 2011, she changed her last name back to her birth name Yamamura.

I think about this moment in my mom’s life a lot. It’s no secret that Japanese culture is patriarchal, and absent of a popular Lean In movement there, I think many Japanese women are socialized to become subordinate to their male counterparts. Becoming a US citizen was her feminist statement.

Yamamura means “mountain village.” My favorite memories visiting Japan during childhood were tucked in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture in a small town called Sugo where my maternal grandfather ran a ryokan, or a traditional bed-and-breakfast with public baths. I have always identified more with my mom’s side of the family and, following my rebellious decision to get my ears pierced during my senior year in college, even considered getting 山村 tattooed on my arm in bird script. Senior Fall was complicated.

Mountains have had symbolism throughout my life, and although I’m not a superstitious person, I know I sound like I’m way too into geomancy when I talk about mountains. The landscapes of my favorite places—Tokyo, Seattle, Cape Town—feature famous mountains. I can’t say I’m an avid hiker, but many moments of careful self-reflection have transpired atop scenic viewpoints. Most recently, it was an escape outside of New York where I had to ask passers-by to help push Jayden up that steep part of Breakneck Ridge, and the one before that was brainstorming ideas for my podcast during treacherous runs on Table Mountain. I think of several Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes fairly frequently, but the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech kills me every time.

My mom is from a mountain village, and now she’s here.

I don’t know if she tries to be funny, but she’s one of the funniest people I know. When my mom was naturalized, she also gave herself a middle name, Esther. When she told me that, my kneejerk reaction was, “Mama, you’re not Jewish.”

Sometime around high school I became obsessed with my family history. Not in the genealogical sense because this was way before personal genetic testing kits, but I wanted to know—it felt dire to understand—what my parents’ lives were like before migrating to the US and living here before I was born. I sat my parents down and asked them to make a timeline of their lives. I don’t know what I was expecting rallying such a massive request. We were sitting on the floor of our study. By then, we had moved my desktop back to a table of normal height, but I still liked sitting on the carpet. Like a homework assignment, my parents returned column-shifted lists of notable years and notable life events: when they graduated college, when they moved to the United States, when they married, when we moved to our current house enabling my brother and me to attend Plano schools. The last line read:

1990                Toshiki was born

If my kid asked me to write a timeline of my life, I want to be honest. I think I’d include 2015 and, depending on how old they were, something about depression or even domestic abuse. The valleys in my life have been more formative than the mountains I’ve climbed or those I’ve tried to move. The past three years have forced me to embrace the truth that life moves forward regardless of whether you want it to. My life isn’t an Instagram feed, and I want to share the difficult events that shaped me to become the man I am today because in the heart of all the pain there’s something important to learn.

In April the following year when I went to Dallas for my brother’s wedding and then in July when my mom visited Boston, I rescinded the communication embargo that I enacted during the summer of 2015. Therapy lifted me high, and my friends lifted me higher. I was ready to talk, and we talked and talked. I showed her photos of my bruises, and she told me about the mountains and the valleys that weren’t inscribed in the timeline of her life sitting on the floor.

This summer my mom visited me in New York. A woman whose origin story begins in the mountains of Gifu and a man who hails from the plains of Texas, we have a shared interest in immigration. We went to the Tenement Museum to learn about Jewish, Puerto Rican, and Chinese immigrants living in Lower East Side. The tour guide asked, “So where is everyone from?” We went around the room. There were visitors from Australia, Israel, and California. 

When the tour guide directed toward my mom, “Where are you from?” my mom responded without a beat, “I’m from Texas.”

“I’m from Upper East Side,” I followed. We were the only two Asians in the group.

After the tour, we went around the corner to a Chinese restaurant that was recommended to me by the Michelin Man. (There’s a theme to my NYC dining choices.) I didn’t really understand anything that was on the menu, but I ordered a few items to share, including a tofu dish that looked gorgeous on someone else’s table.

The Tenement Museum tour ended in a room in the likeness of a Chinese garment factory where there were interactive displays that told the stories of Chinese women who had lost their fingerprints because of their manual labor. Helping myself to portions of a roasted chicken with the bones still in it, I joked, “Did people in the tour come up to you thinking that you were an interactive display?” After the introductions, the Australians were probing where my mom was really from.

My mom sat back in her chair, placing the parts of the chicken attached to bone on my plate. She disliked bones. “I’ve never eaten something like that before. It’s surprising that you’re so adventurous with your food.”

Ordering things off menus I can’t read has become so commonplace, I don’t think about it anymore. Sure, I made some regrettable choices in Vietnam, but it’s OK. I’ve come a long way since my culinary preferences during my childhood. Oily yakisoba, come at me.

“I don’t have suki kirai. You taught me that.”

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Toshiki Nakashige