Yan Ge short story: Looking for the Japanese
12 stories of Christmas, Day 5: a story about a missing boy conjures up memories
Yan Ge: ‘People’s Literature’ magazine recently chose her as one of China’s 20 future literary masters. Photograph: Alan Betson
First, it was Nana who mentioned the Japanese. It was a rainy day in Ballina. The cold, wet wind rushed from the west coast and roared through the town, taking away the last bit of summer green. We were in Nana’s sitting room. The fire was lit. Cups of tea in our hands. Biscuits on the table. Nana was saying the weather was so much milder when she was a little girl. “We used to have at least 20 good days of summer back then,” she said. I was fascinated, meanwhile, by the geraniums on the windowsill. There were two pots of them, one carnation pink, the other scarlet red, both blooming in a surreally fresh fashion, as if this was just the beginning of the summer. I was amazed, nearly offended by their ability to stay immune from the weather when I heard Nana saying, “It must have been in the 80s, I bumped into them a few times, those Japanese.”
“Yeah they used to come into town a lot,” Thomas said.
“You remember them too? “ Nana was slightly surprised.
“Of course I do, I went to school with one of them.”
“This was the Japanese people who worked in the factory in Killala we are talking about. The factory was invested in by a big Japanese company in the 80s, or late 70s. But it closed a long time ago,” Nana turned to me and explained. She always tried to keep me in the loop.
“So do they still live here?” I asked.
“No. They are long gone,” Thomas said.
“You never know,” Nana said, “there must be some of them still around. I heard a big Asian supermarket just opened up in Sligo. Can you believe it?”
Later, we left Nana’s in the drizzling rain. We took the short cut behind the petrol station so we could get home soon. Some local teenagers were hanging out beside the wall of somebody’s back garden. Two boys and three girls. Smoking. When we passed by, a girl with blue hair looked at me suspiciously. I smelled weed.
We walked away quietly, turned at the end of the road. “What did you do when you were here as a teenager?” I asked Thomas.
“School, football, gigs . . . the usual I suppose,” he said.
“I thought you don’t read Japanese writers.” I was amused when I found a copy of A Wild Sheep Chase from Murakami in Thomas’s apartment.
“I read everything.” Thomas was sitting on the coach with only his boxers on, pouring himself a whiskey. “Plus, he is not exactly a Japanese writer.” He put down the bottle, raised the glass and took a sip.
This was back when we were in New Jersey. We had been seeing each other for about five months and had gone out about six times. Dinner, movie, theatre and other money-draining stuff. Soon enough we were doing grocery together, along with some book-browsing and record-shopping. I kept my toilette bag at his place and vise versa. In short, we’d hooked up, said the people at the English department of R__ University, which hosted us as visiting writers for its international writing programme.
“Sorry, but he is the Japanese writer these days. Don’t you know that?” I said, sitting on the dining table and scanning through the pages.
“Yes, but he is too Americanised, too ubiquitous, too consumer-orientated, too . . .” He thought for a second and decided to finish the sentence, “slight.”
“So you have a problem with him.” I jumped from the table.
There is only a thin line between poetic repetition and commercial reproduction. I think he crossed that line a long time ago.”
“No, no I don’t,” he said, “he’s a good writer. He has vision and ambition. His prose is stylish. But, I’m not very comfortable with the way he has prematurely consumed himself. A sort of self-branding, self-franchising. There is only a thin line between poetic repetition and commercial reproduction. I think he crossed that line a long time ago.”
“Are you talking about Murakami Bingo?” I sat down by him.
He took a mouthful of whisky. “No. And yes,” he said, “that is one way of interpreting this: all of his trademarks, his cliches, his shtick.” He put down the empty glass and continued: “The parallel narrative, the protagonist and his paired shadow, the eeriness as epiphanies, the permanent sense of adolescence and the endless recurrence of all these elements . . .”
“Let’s not forget the twin girls and their perfectly symmetrical boobs,” I added.
“And yes the sex. The sex in his books is always from a strong male sensual point of view. This is problematic, notwithstanding, it is a common issue among male writers,” he went on.
I leaned over and kissed him. “You know I get so turned on when you become this serious,” I murmured.
He held me and kissed back. And we went to bed again.
I asked Thomas the other day: “Do you remember when we were in Princeton, that day we talked about Murakami? Feels like a lifetime ago.”
He was sitting on the sofa, reading the Sunday Times, generating around himself a limbo of newspaper. He didn’t say a word until after a while. “Don’t be passive-aggressive.”
The rain got heavier, hitting our kitchen window like small bullets, and then streamed down. I could barely see the apple trees in the back garden.
“Did you text Sean to tell him that dinner will be late?” I asked while washing potatoes.
“Relax. Nobody will mind,” Thomas said, sitting in his armchair, reading.
That evening, Thomas’s brother Sean and his girlfriend drove up from Swinford and joined us for dinner. By the time we all sat down, the rain had stopped.
“What was Thomas like when he was a teenager?” I asked Sean.
“Oh!” Sean’s girlfriend Sara raised her hand. She gulped down a mouthful of white wine and said: “He was very thin and wore oversized jumpers. Really long hair and a big pair of thick glasses. And he never talked to girls. I mean, never.”
“Really?” I laughed and looked at Thomas. He was cutting bacon carefully.
“Yeah, he was kind of a nerd,” Sean said, “He wasn’t into sports, or music. He just liked books I suppose.”
“Sounds like a nerd to me,” I said.
The rain recommenced, lashing the roof vigorously.
“He sure was. Remember my friend Pauline? That poor girl had a crush on Thomas for a while. Whenever I came down to see you she came with me, lingering around the house and trying to get Thomas to talk to her. Poor girl.” Sara finished her glass and gestured for more.
“Pauline who? Pauline Murray?” Sean passed her the bottle.
“No, not Pauline Murray. You guys were not in her league. Pauline O’Callaghan. One of her brothers plays rugby.”
“Oh! The O’Callaghans. Sure I remember Pauline. She liked Thomas? Really? When was this?” Sean laughed loudly.
“Probably the third, or the fourth year of secondary school.” Sara narrowed her eyes. “I think it was that summer. When the Japanese boy went missing. The one from your school. What was his name?”
“Ah, I remember now. That summer was bad, just wet and miserable. Yeah the guards were out looking for him for days. What’s his name Thomas? Was he not in your class?” Sean said.
We all looked at Thomas who was finishing up his plate in a surgical manner.
“Do you remember his name?” Sean asked again, with a broad smile on his face.
Thomas put down his cutlery and drank from the glass. “Tetsuya,” he said, “his name was Ito Tetsuya.”
“Are you Japanese?” This was the first sentence Thomas said to me. It was my second day in the States. We were both at the registration office of R__ University, waiting for our campus cards to be issued.
“No I’m not,” I said, putting down my book, “I’m Chinese.”
I was reading White Noise by Don DeLillo, which I had handpicked from my friend Tang’s bookshelves before leaving Beijing. Tang owned an enviable collection of original English books, all gifts from his father, who worked in the education department and travelled aboard regularly for different conferences. Tang had promised that I could choose one book as my farewell present so I picked DeLillo.
“Oh no,” I remembered him groaning. “Why take my White Noise? You’ve read this one many times.”
“It’s not for reading,” I said.
“Then why?” He whinged, like an old woman from the countryside.
Because a book was a sign expressing my stand as a permanent protestor, a lighthouse that could only be seen by sailors of eyes alike, it marked my trace in the forest, so I could be rescued by my comrades. And since I was going to Princeton, New Jersey, the book had to be White Noise.
I said this to Tang and his face became strangely sad. “Give it back to me when you come back,” he said.
I never did. At the registration office, Thomas looked at my book and said: “That’s my favorite DeLillo novel.”
“Oh really? I like it too. This is probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve read it.”
“Are you a student here?”
“No, no. I’m too old to be a student. I’m a visiting writer at the English department.”
“Oh! Are you Quan? I thought you looked familiar. I saw your photo from the programme website. I’m Thomas Kenny. The Irish writer.” He lightened up visibly.
He was the Irish guy who I’d considered good-looking when investigating the list of visiting writers
I recognised him. He was the Irish guy who I’d considered good-looking when investigating the list of visiting writers. “You don’t look like your photo,” I said.
“Oh? How so?”
“You looked more gloomy in that photo,” I told him.
He laughed. “That’s just the Irish weather.”
We didn’t go out until a few days later. The department hosted a welcome dinner for visiting writers. Afterwards, we travelled to a nearby pub and ordered more beer and nachos. “How can you not love America?” the Angolan writer exclaimed, pulling a nacho from a mini mountain of melted-cheese.
“Yeah. And how can you not love their beer?” Thomas quaffed the Budweiser they gave him.
“So, you haven’t answered the question yet. How did you become a writer, Thomas?” A young lecturer from the English department persisted with her group interview.
“Ha,” Thomas exhaled, “you see, where I come from, the west of Ireland, is densely populated with writers. There are more writers than butchers in the town I live.”
“That’s awesome. Any reasons?” the lecturer asked.
“It’s just the weather,” Thomas shook his head and stood up, “I’m going to the bar. Who wants whiskey?”
“Me.” I raised my hand. “Can you ask them if they have Yamazaki? The Japanese one.”
He looked at me, mildly stunned for a second. “You are too posh for this town m’lady.” He smiled and said, “I’ll try my best.”
Sometimes, I missed the Thomas in New Jersey. Not only that he looked more exuberant than his photo but also that he sounded closer when he spoke, felt tenderer when he kissed. That Thomas might have been able to talk about Ito Tetsuya, the way we had discussed Murakami zealously. But now he seemed disinterested. He pushed away his plate and asked: “What’s for dessert?”
“We brought an apple tart,” Sara said.
“Excellent.” He stood up. “I’ll whip the cream.”
As he went to the fridge I asked Sean: “So, did they find the Japanese boy in the end? Where had he been? Why was he gone?”
“I don’t remember now,” Sean said.
“You can check the archive of the local paper. I’m sure there must be some story from back then,” Sara suggested.
“Why are you suddenly interested in the Japanese?” Thomas came back with the cream and started looking for the hand mixer.
“I don’t know. Maybe I can write a story about them. I feel close to them.”
“Why?” He took out the mixer from the press. “You are not Japanese.”
“Close enough now that I’m here,” I said when Thomas poured the cream into a big bowl and turned on the mixer. The electric noise filled the kitchen.
That night, I was still reading when Thomas came to bed. “I need to go to Sligo tomorrow. Do you want to come?” he said, lifting his side of the quilt.
“Maybe not,” I said. “I want to go to the library to check the old newspapers.”
He turned to me. I could feel his breath eroding the space between us, one in, one out. “Seriously?”
The Japanese people living in Mayo in the 90s. Why didn’t you ever mention this?”
“Why not? I’m interested. There might be a story I can write about. The Japanese people living in Mayo in the 90s. Why didn’t you ever mention this?”
“You never told me to report to you on all the Orientals who ever set foot in this place. Some Burmese live outside the town. Do you want to go and conduct an interview?” He slid down, positioned himself into the spot, and shut his eyes.
The rain persisted for almost the whole night, stopping only before the dawn. When we left the house it was bright and clear. The mountains looked purple in the crystal blue sky. Thomas gave me a lift into town before he went to Sligo. “See you later,” he said as I left the car.
The librarian and I had become friendly. His name was Paul. “Howya Quan. You’re early today. Fine day out there,” he said.
“Yes. Absolutely beautiful.” I smiled. “Can I take a look at some old newspapers?”
Paul pulled out the archive of the Western People 1990-1999. Ten years of time encapsulated in a palm-sized roll of film. He showed me how to use the projector in the reading room. “Now, take your time.”
I did. So much had happened in the 90s. Every time, the deeper we travelled back in time, the more Thomas’s life appeared foreign to me, and vise versa. In 1992, Thomas was a long-haired teenager in the west of Ireland while I was a seven-year-old Chinese pupil. Everyday, Grandpa took me to school on his bike and picked me up in the afternoon. I wrote homework in their bedroom while Grandma cooked dinner on the balcony. The world was absolutely soundless.
When I finally found Ito Tetsuya’s story I wasn’t sure if it was the piece. Local teenagers FOUND after six days, the headline said. Fortunately, there was a photo. In the photo, I saw an East Asian looking boy. Tetsuya. Unfitting for the subject matter, he was grinning warmly, like one of those famous Shiba Inu dogs. He stood in the middle of a few boys. Right next to him was my husband, Thomas Kenny.
His hair dangled a couple of inches below his shoulders, casting a long rectangular shadow on his face. He wasn’t smiling or wearing glasses. He looked ghostly and distant, as if he was superimposed onto the photo.
The protagonist and his paired shadow. I heard his voice echoing in my head.
In Princeton, my go-to place was a bookstore called Labyrinth. It was on Nassau Street, not far from the world-renowned Princeton Record Exchange in which Thomas would immerse himself for hours, scavenging for vinyl by King Tubby or Scientist. Every time, on his way to the record shop, he’d check me in to my daycare centre with a cup of coffee. “See you later,” he’d say to me and walk away.
Later usually meant much later. However, occasionally he would finish early and come to join me at Labyrinth.
One day, I remembered, I was sitting on the floor, leafing through a book when he walked in and asked me what I was reading.
So I showed him the book, The Dancing Girl of Izu by Kawabata. “My favourite writer in the world.”
“Oh?” He said, “A Japanese writer? I’ve never actually read Japanese writers. What’s he like?”
“He’s like . . .” I bit my lip for a while, searching for the right words, “he is unbelievably exquisite, extraordinarily sad, and . . . with a soft touch of eroticism.”
“Hmm,” Thomas sat down by me, “now I’m listening.”
“The title story.” I found the page for him. “Here, it’s really melancholic, about first love.”
“Oh yeah?” He flipped a few pages and said, “Can we go get some pizza? I’m half-starved.”
Outside the pizza stand I asked him: “Now tell me, when was your first love?”
He frowned, swallowing the pizza. Eventually he said: “About 17.”
“Seventeen? Who was the lucky girl?”
He drank some beer. “Pauline.”
“Yeah. Pauline from Swinford. Nothing exquisite or melancholic. Just a local girl.” He went back to his food. We ate quietly for a while until after two slices of pizza he was rejuvenated. “How about you?”
My first boyfriend was Tang, who I met at a poetry slam, a semi-official event organised by the literature department. Tang barged in halfway through from nowhere, jumped on the stage and roared out some Pablo Neruda. Half the audience was petrified while the other half applauded. Later, when I was out smoking he came to talk to me and we exchanged numbers. We were going out for a while before we realised the situation might deteriorate further so we stopped, and went back to being friends.
Tang was great at being a friend. He was, indisputably, the centre of our social circle. The best thing about him was that he was privileged. A red child if you like. Aside from shelves of English books, vintage vinyl records, he also supplied us with endless imported Yamazaki whisky and cartons of authentic Marlboro Whites.
The day before I left for America, Tang booked a suite at the Peninsula Hotel to throw a goodbye party. All our friends came. We sat on the carpet, passing a gigantic bottle of Yamazaki 12, and read poems together.
At a certain point, someone took out a bag of weed. “I don’t want to smoke that,” I said. “Come on,” Tang shouted. “You’re going to America tomorrow. You have to smoke your first joint in your motherland.”
So I did. I remembered I got giggly for a while and then I threw up.
The next day, I made my way to the airport and I had never seen Tang since. After our residency at R__ University ended, Thomas and I travelled across the States for three months. It was during that time I heard from a mutual friend that Tang had died in a car crash before his father was arrested for corruption.
Anyway, that was for a different story.
Back to this story. The story was two students from St Muredach’s College went missing on the 4th of August. The incident was reported to gardaí on August 6th by Mr Kenny, the father of one of the students. The guards and volunteers from Ballina and Killala searched for three days and finally found them at St Mary’s Holy Well near Rosserk Abbey. It was unclear how they’d made their way to the well and stayed there for almost six days, especially with the last few days’ torrential rain. Thanks to the guards and the volunteers, they returned home safely, under the proper care of their families . . .
I realised again how little we could rely on our memories
If anything, l realised again how little we could rely on our memories. After all, memories were but testimonies at our own trials. We picked up anything that served us, overlooked unflattering moments and then freely weaved together the material so it could be used in our favour.
As I walked out of the library, I recalled a discussion Thomas and I once had about my name.
“What does Quan mean in Chinese?” he asked.
“It means the spring, or the well. The water trickling out from underground.”
“Oh really? That’s beautiful.” He sighed, and kissed my hand.
“It’s just one simple character. There are far more beautiful words in Chinese.” I leaned to him, put my head on his shoulder.
“Tell me then. Tell me some words.”
“I can’t,” I said, “I can’t explain to you the beauty of my language. It is the inexplicable thing between us.”
“Well,” he kissed my hand again, “Don’t be too optimistic. I’m sure there are more things we can’t tell each other.”
I strolled back home along the River Moy. It hadn’t rained for a whole day. Pubs were getting busy before dinnertime. Things we can’t tell each other. What did he actually mean by that? Did he think of Ito Tetsuya the way I reminisced about my past?
In fact, I should have admitted that I couldn’t be certain whether the conversation even took place. It had been so long since America. After being narrated and consumed too many times, the Thomas in New Jersey had become a fictional character of mine, who would converse with me, after soul-drenching sex, about literature, music, countries, languages, among other trivial things.
It had to happen, though, in the story I was going to write. The one about the Japanese people. It would make a perfect epiphany.
When I got home Thomas was already back. Surprisingly, he was cooking in the kitchen.
“What are you making?” I asked, taking off my coat.
“I went to the Asian supermarket Nana mentioned on the way back and got some jiaozi. Thought you might want to have Chinese,” he said. A big ladle in his hand.
“Did you put them in already? Did you boil the water first?” I charged in to check the pot.
Later, we had jiaozi for dinner while appreciating the apple trees in the back garden glowing under a flamboyant sunset. The day ended uneventfully, leaving only a shapeless, shadow-less vestige, as if it was another story from Haruki Murakami.
Yan Ge was born in Sichuan, China, and lives in Dublin. She is the author of 11 books and was chosen as Best New Writer by the Chinese Literature Media Prize. People’s Literature magazine recently chose her as one of China’s 20 future literary masters.