Nisei Drawl

The other night I was looking on Netflix for something I could watch and help me fall asleep.

Now this strategy has a flaw. If I find something fun enough to watch I might wake up as I watch it, even want to wake up so I can keep watching it. On the other hand, if I find a film or TV show or other video relaxing enough to fall asleep to, it might simply be boring, so I get annoyed. If I get annoyed I’ll either: 1) stop the dang thing and browse for something else to watch, or 2) I’ll get a little angry.

If I browse, I’ll probably wake up. ‘Cause I get to thinking. If I just mindlessly browse, I might go to sleep while I’m tapping my laptop’s scratch pad. But I’ll probably start thinking about all these thousands of videos, weighing pros and cons, bringing out the movie critic in me – we all got that, don’t we, an internal movie critic? – and I will surely be thinking once I get to picking apart a movie. Especially before I’ve even seen it.

If I go from annoyed to angry, as in “Why am I watching this crap,” I’ll definitely wake up. Nothing wakes me up as much as anger. Anger is our natural drive to take action for survival. Boredom is a slow, lingering death, so anger shakes our body and mind awake and gets us moving.

But then again, maybe this is just me. Maybe I’m the only human who lives like a shark. Even when I sit still, I have to keep my mind moving. If my mind becomes still, it dies.

Now, I must admit that when I actually keep still and my mind does die, I feel pretty good. No thought, a sense of oneness and wonder and connectedness, a feeling of belonging in this existence. Very occasionally I have felt this in meditation. More often I have felt this in sports: running or sparring or throwing or catching or swinging, my body moving and my mind flowing with it, feeling still in the movement. Or star gazing. Or sitting on a rock watching waves roll into tidepools and feeling and hearing the crash and roar of sound waves rolling over and through me.

Most of the time my busy, buzzing, gasa-gasa mind – Zen practitioners call it the monkey mind because it climbs and jumps and swings through the trees, often just to come back to the same perch – runs around in figurative circles, spiraling out of control. When I try to control my mind, it skitters away in another direction like my dog Coal avoiding medication.

Even now I’m doing it. I was talking about watching Netflix. See?

Actually Netflix’s offerings are really great; I only get bored when I watch one of the relatively few genres I don’t like. Some stuff is just not my cup of tea, so I gotta browse.

So I browse and I wake up anyway.

Okay, so I run across a video called “Henry Cho: What’s That Clickin’ Noise?” from a live performance in Knoxville. I gotta check this out.

Henry Cho explains himself right away. He’s Korean. He grew up in Knoxville. He’s got a lot of intriguing and amusing stories, telling them to his hometown audience. They laugh. I laugh.

Part of my amusement is my personal context. I grew up attending every new school that opened in our town. I went from an established all white elementary school to a new all black school. Did the same sequence in junior high before graduating from an integrated high school. One of my favorite songs, The Only Chinaman In Great Falls Montana Blues, expresses well my feelings as a child, teenager, and into adulthood.

I met the songwriter, Charlie Chin, back in my early Los Angeles days. Charlie is a great stage and studio musician, probably best known for his banjo work with Buffalo Springfield. I feel privileged to have seen Charlie perform an acoustic guitar set of his solo album that included The Only Chinaman In Great Falls Montana Blues. I wish I still had the vinyl all these years later. (Or did I get it on cassette tape?)

Back to Henry Cho on Netflix. I wake up. I mean, I never fell asleep, but I was on my way. Now I’m alert.

I get up and type these words because I am thinking about Henry Cho’s left hand.

Cho mimes writing with his left hand as he talks about writing down what he hears his wife’s family say over Thanksgiving dinner. He’s too busy to eat; he’s writing down this great comedy material.

Cho mimes writing in the air with his left hand, holding his microphone in his right hand.

Henry Cho is left-handed.

Yes, I notice. This is a fascinating subject for me. Because I grew up thinking I was right-handed. Wrote right-handed; still do. Ate right-handed; now I usually eat continental style: cutting with a knife in my right hand, lifting forked food in my left hand. I played tennis right-handed and had a horribly weak forehand; I switched to playing left-handed and gained a decent forehand and a much better serve.

Henry Cho mimes writing with his left hand again and I remember a parent coach on the city ball diamond across from the JACL Hall in Monterey – that’s the Japanese American Citizens League, a Nisei organization – coming up to me when I decide to try hitting left-handed. This is the first time I think of experimenting.

So this coach walks over to me at the plate and says, “Are you left-handed?” I say, “No,” because I hardly know what being left-handed is. He says, “Get over on this side of the plate.” So much for that experiment. Years later I discover that I am much better – or at least not as pathetic – a batter as a lefty.

What’s the point? Why do I remember this parent coach talking about batting? Well yeah, I told you why, but here’s the other connection. This is the importance or relevance tonight.

That coach talked a bit like Henry Cho and his East Tennessee accent. I think about this. The more I think, the more I remember. All my aunts and uncles talk like that coach. So did my mom and dad. Not really a drawl, but kind of.

They all speak Japanese, cause that’s what they spoke at home to their parents, my Giichan and Baachan on both sides of my family. (Except for my youngest aunts on both sides, who grew up like me, English-only.) They all speak English, ‘cause that’s what they spoke at school and to each other. But they don’t speak with a Japanese accent. It is something else.

I come up with a theory about the way my parents’ generation spoke English. They worked their family farms in the Great Depression up to the Internment. They worked the land next to Okies escaping the Dust Bowl of the Plains States and Mexicanos escaping the even poorer jobs on Mexican farms. I think that’s why they sound like a cross between my Okie friend Jim Adams and my college roommate Juan Mora. That’s who they spoke English to, the other farm kids in Carmel Valley and San Luis Obispo. Other Nisei did the same in Salinas and Watsonville and Reedley, all over the West.

Mom cooked for Spanish and Italian families in Monterey before WWII. I think that’s where she got a lot of Spanish and Italian words.

On top of all this, Mom sprinkled Spanish words liberally into her conversations with my brother and me. Beans were always frijoles. Tamago was egg. I learned in college that tamago is the Japanese word for egg. Growing up I thought it was a Spanish word.

When Jim Adams showed me his rabbit sandwiches at lunch in sixth grade, I picked up a little of his Okie drawl, and maybe some of his Cherokee speech rhythm. Growing up in the largest black community between Hunters Point and Watts I also heard a different drawl and a rhythm from deeper in the South. In bull sessions with Juan Mora I assimilated his rhythm from the mountains of central Mexico, though I’ve never been near there.

So I learned early on to mirror the sounds and the rhythms of speech in many communities. I still have vestiges of Santa Barbara speak that most people think of as Valspeak or surfer lingo. I can break out a French or Japanese or German accent when needed. (Didn’t retain the vocab, unfortunately.) I’m not thrown off by English accented with sounds and syntax of Vietnamese, or Swahili, or Navajo.

Well okay, I admit Swahili syntax is same as Mandarin or English, so that’s plenty easy. You get the point, though. Chicano English and Ebonics are pretty easy. Just don’t expect me to understand if you start speaking Pidgin, Brah.

See, there I go again, running off on a tangent stage right. Let’s come back here.

So I can relate to the rhythm of Henry Cho’s Eastern Tennessee dialect. To my ear it’s more down to earth than Atlanta’s urban Georgia accent.

Mind you, the closest I’ve been is Northern Virginia. But once upon a time I did work in a sandwich shop in Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco. (I lasted about two weeks, one pay period.) The most vivid memory I have of that service stint (other than working an industrial dish washer all day for the second week) was a busload of teenagers from Atlanta. Each of the girls said, “May I have a SPRAHT?” To this day I still know how to order a Sprite if I’m ever in the Peach State.

If the person next to you comes back from a bathroom break and wonders where I got my Southern accent and you don’t want to tell the long story, just tell them what I used to say. My granddad was a farm boy from southern Honshu.

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