Migrations Facing Crises—and Mosquitoes—at Home in Osaka
If you’re looking at something, you don’t know where it’s going; if you know where it’s going, you don’t know where it is.
I need to take a bath, but there’s a mosquito in the bathroom. It’s refusing to break eye contact with me, threatening me: “The second you look away, I’m gonna swoop in for my kill!” On this particularly humid day in June 2021, I stand frozen, naked, sweat pooling on my upper lip, my dry eyeballs locked on this bug.
Twenty-one years ago, I attended kindergarten from this house—my grandparents’ home in Osaka, Japan. My mom and I had just survived a car accident in Spokane, Washington; I had taken only a couple shards of windowpane to my face, but my mom’s hips were shattered on impact. Because taking an international flight on a stretcher was more affordable than healthcare in the United States, we were flown back to my mom’s hometown. My grandparents took care of me while my mom recovered at a nearby hospital.
Maybe it was all kinds of traumatic, but I was only five. At the time, I was more preoccupied by the mosquitos that circled me in this house than the fact that my mom had been told she may never walk again. I didn’t doubt my mom’s invincibility. She did walk again, and still does. I never question my mom’s invincibility.
That summer, I stood in this same place, facing down another mosquito. Presumably, it was an ancestor of the present-day mosquito: Like its descendant, it hovered right between the mirror and hairspray as if to mock me, knowing I was (and am) too chicken to risk knocking over all of my grandparents’ bathroom products and/or punching the mirror broken.
I learned recently that mosquitos have a tendency to pick one target in a small group of people. They are more likely to choose younger bodies because of higher metabolism and blood flow. Explains why, whenever I’m in this house, I am eaten alive. I am always the only grandchild/child in the building, the most prime piece of meat around at any given moment. Bon appétit!
On May 15, 2021, I flew from New York City, where I live and work, to Japan. When I first arrived, I had to self-quarantine for fourteen days, even though I’m vaccinated and tested Covid-negative before and after my flight.
During isolation, my friends in the US asked me, “How is Japan?” My response: “I don’t know because I haven’t been outside in days, but we just entered a state of emergency and a lockdown, so probably not too different from this chaotic stillness we’ve become accustomed to in the last year.”
How foolish of me. Had I bothered to turn on the TV even once during those fourteen days, I would’ve known that people weren’t staying home but were going about business as usual; the infection rates were exploding, with the neighborhood I was isolating in at the epicenter.
After two weeks of snacking, napping, and sitting in my empty childhood home in Tokyo, I got on a bullet train to Osaka (three more hours of snacking, napping, and sitting). When I stepped off the train at Shin-Osaka Station, my first thought was Wait, did I get the dates wrong for the lockdown?
There were so many people, left and right. At least as many people as after vaccines had become widely available in New York City. Most were masked, but many were unmasked while eating and talking indoors. My grandparents had just gotten their second dose of the vaccine the week before, and I knew that they were part of the 3 percent of the Japanese population that was vaccinated at the time. Statistically, most—if not all—of these people were not vaccinated. I finally understood what my friend who lives in Tokyo meant when she told me, “I think most people here have given up.”
I met my mom at the pickup lane. “I vomited on the train,” I said, and she replied, “Okay. Do you need something to eat?”
I don’t know how other families reunite for the first time in five years, but my family does not do it Love Actually –style. My mom handed me a wet wipe and gestured “clean up any vomit left on your clothes” with a flick of her wrist. For the first time in my life, I saw that my mom’s fingertips were not perfectly manicured. A pang of fear that I wasn’t expecting rushed through me.
She parked the car and we walked back into the train station to find lunch. The number of shuttered restaurants in Shin-Osaka confirmed the emergency lockdown, but the flow of people looking for a place to grab lunch still seemed to suggest otherwise. The only place we could find was a Kyoto-based green tea spot. I thought we were going to get something to go and eat it in the car or at my grandparents’ house. But my mom joyously bought a matcha parfait, took her mask off, and started eating it right inside the train station.
I glanced at the doorway to see if it was open, no; the windows, no; vents, maybe? Is there any air circulation happening here? The person sitting next to me was talking to her friend without a mask. Her maskless presence seemed gigantic to me. If I were to shoot that moment on film through my mind’s eye, she would’ve filled the frame. I couldn’t stop staring at her mouth. My ears were ringing. How could I, a city person to death, have developed such acute agoraphobia in just one year?
My mom noticed me and pointed toward the bathroom: “Do you need to pee or something?”
My anxieties fell out of my mouth: “Youliterallyhavecancerandcan’tgetthesurgeryscheduledfornextweekifyougetCovidbutyou’resurroundedbyabunchofstrangersandnotwearingamask!”
A mosquito flew away from my head. Oh, that’s why I thought my ears were ringing.
“Whoops!” my mom exclaimed jauntily, sticking her tongue out and putting her hands over her mouth like a kid caught ransacking the snack drawer.
“You’re not supposed to touch your face!”
Her bare nails, in front of her face, shoved right to my sight line, spoke loudest of what my next few months were going to look like. The presurgery handbook said to “remove all nail polish prior to the operation.”
One of the big reasons I’m in Osaka is because my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer while I was riding out the pandemic in New York. Yes, after twenty-one years, I’m here because of another maternal medical emergency. This time, my grandparents were not supposed to be taking care of me. I’m, in theory, the able-bodied miracle adult, here to take care of them while my mom recovers at a nearby hospital. Circle of life, etc.
I saw that my mom’s fingertips were not perfectly manicured. A pang of fear that I wasn’t expecting rushed through me.
I had been dealing with a bunch of immigration processes prior to 2020, so I hadn’t been able to come back for a while. My grandma likes to tell my mom, “Non could’ve been so successful if you had just raised her in Japan instead of letting her run free!” Through high school and college, I got good-enough grades for my family to not lose hope. Upon graduating college, I received an offer from a fancy ad agency, but the offer got rescinded because my employment authorization didn’t arrive. It was illegal for me to be employed in the US until my immigration status was stabilized.
Between 2017 and 2020, I spent every night destroying my liver and my days limp in bed. It was all part of “the process” of “being an artist.” My vision for myself got increasingly detached from my family’s expectations the longer I didn’t see them. I don’t have a problem with my life or any regrets; I love my queer trashy self. Still, the thought of having to revert to a “family-friendly” version of me was panic inducing. The truest version of me proudly cobbled together beef jerky, Trader Joe’s chile mangoes, and a day-old donut next to my laptop ready to mind meld me with HBO Max and called that tableau “Dinner.” But ever since I bought my plane ticket to Japan, this still life looked more like “you’re a disappointment and are going to accidentally kill your family.”
Since arriving in Osaka, I’ve been focused on accessing pre-twenty-one-year-old me, so I can give the performance of my lifetime. Come through, theater degree! My grandparents are eighty-five and ninety years old. I like them a lot. It doesn’t seem worth it to make them sad at the end of their lives while their daughter battles cancer—a scary mystery illness to them. (This is the first time anyone in my mom’s family has been diagnosed with cancer.) My mom’s side of the family is tough as shit; my grandparents and my mom all have multiple(!) stories of skirting death. But seeing their irritation at their own ageing bodies, and the updated Rolodex of medication they have to take every day, turns what used to be my unwavering belief in my family’s invincibility into a line of dominoes I can’t dare to even blow air on.
“I love washing dishes!” “I cook real, healthy meals all the time!” I exclaim while I enthusiastically help around the house. In my mind’s eye, I see my partner shaking their head at my most blatant lies. When my grandfather’s apprentices (all men in their seventies) come around asking me when I’m going to get married and/or have kids, I don’t throw my drink at them (a move I have used generously in New York when asked the same question). I’ve even perfected the “wow I just did a lot of work” expression to plaster on my face to disguise the fact that I just woke up from a Sad Nap.
Last weekend, my mom, dad, and I ate dinner together for the first time in five years. We went to a fancy sushi restaurant that my dad would never have chosen if he weren’t going through some sort of midlife crisis. Too amazed by the food, I lifted my chopsticks the “wrong” way, and my mom corrected me. I got certified in Japanese-style table manners when I was a teenager (yes, that is a real thing), and I have since forgotten everything because the knowledge never really served my lifestyle in the US.
I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but it put my mom in a terrible mood for the rest of the weekend. She sighed every time we made eye contact. The sighs became tears the other night, as she sat over me while I tried to fall asleep.
“I don’t have any regrets about how I raised you,” she said. “You’re the product of my choices, and it is how it is. But sometimes when I see that those choices resulted in you losing touch with how to behave in Japan, it hurts.”
I don’t even know what “how to behave in Japan” even means. For the past few months, I feel that I’ve done nothing but adjust toward Japaneseness, but clearly I’m missing something. My grandma had also mentioned to my mom, “Non speaks Japanese. She understands Japanese. We’re communicating in Japanese. But I don’t think she’s Japanese.”
I want to scream, “ But I am !” What else could I possibly be? Look at all of the paperwork I’ve had to file and checks I’ve had to write to the US government because I’m Japanese! This is the only place evidence of my childhood exists. This is the only place I have health insurance. This is the only place where I don’t have to worry that a misstep or an accident might put me straight on a plane. This is a cliché, but while my mom told me all about how “she knows I’m not ‘really’ Japanese anymore,” all of the moments I’d been reminded I’m not American, period, simultaneously flooded my brain. (I’m a Japanese citizen with a permanent residency in the US.)
I made a mental note to schedule an existential crisis about “identity” and “home”—for the hundredth time in my life—as a gigantic mosquito landed on my right eyebrow.
My mom swatted at my face, launching us into a very serious mosquito chase. It was one in the morning. We knew we needed to sleep but absolutely could not with this huge menace on the loose. We launched our bodies in various directions with a sharp clap of our hands, while trying to be quiet so as not to wake up my grandparents. It was an unexpected sharp turn to physical comedy. By the end of it, we were laughing so hard we couldn’t remember why we were crying just minutes before. We fell asleep from physical exhaustion. I don’t think we even got the damn bug.
Back to the bathroom, to my standoff with the mosquito.
I blink, my eyes dry from maintaining eye contact. A WhatsApp message from New York blinks on my phone; someone is asking me when I can turn around an updated version of a poster I’m designing to promote a new digital theater piece. What a blessing and a curse 2020-born remote work is. I don’t even think I have the bandwidth to keep working on multiple projects. But I was raised in a world that told me I’m worthless if I am not stretching myself thin. Making promises that I feel anxious about keeping both breaks my brain and keeps me grounded.
We were laughing so hard we couldn’t remember why we were crying just minutes before.
Phone. Mosquito. Phone. Mosquito. My gaze jumps back and forth between these two pressing-unpressing issues in my life. I hear the evening news in the background, reporting on an anti-masker rally happening in Shibuya, my actual hometown. Rain pounding down shakes the bathroom window. Phone. Mosquito. Phone. Mosquito.
“ There it goes! A home run! Get it!!!! ”
My grandma cheers on her baseball team in her room. She cuts through all the noise. Her thunderous clapping jolts the mosquito out of its spot.
I scan the bathroom for where the mosquito could have gone. It seems to have evaporated into thin air. Suddenly, I don’t give a flying fuck. While I was staring at the mosquito, it seemed to be the only thing that mattered. To avoid getting bitten was my life’s mission, but it’s literally just a bug bite. I can rub some Muhi on it and get on with my life. Maybe it’s like the only thing about quantum theory I know: If you’re looking at something, you don’t know where it’s going; if you know where it’s going, you don’t know where it is.
Since I’ve been home in Osaka, my subconscious modus operandi has been to find anything to fixate on. Any distraction from the overwhelming onslaught of Covid-19 news, from the Olympics continually exposing the incompetencies of the Japanese government, from the unending rain and earthquakes crumbling my home country, and from the cloud of death and ageing that thickens the air in this house.
I chose to obsess over things that seem controllable: how I present myself, the anxieties about my future, this mosquito—unaware that staring straight at it, while getting in my head, made it impossible to gain the perspective I desperately needed.
I think I’ll watch the Hanshin Tigers’ game with my grandma tonight . . . while scratching this red bump forming on my forearm right now.