📝 Girls' Day postmortem2024 January 22
I originally posted this on cohost. I also call it a "postmortem" for Girls' Day, and I set out to write one, but in the end it turned into something more... rambly and strange and not really having much to do with the game at all. Oh well.
CWs for abuse, parental death, suicidal ideation, fatphobia, and body-shaming.
Before I can talk about the game, I need to tell you about my maternal grandmother. I called her Maachan because I couldn't say Obaachan as a toddler. She was born in Hiroshima to a fairly well-off family. When the war came, they were able to take shelter in the countryside, but in the process, lost pretty much everything they had ever owned. They also lost friends and family to the atomic bomb. My great-uncle (Maachan's younger brother) often told stories about seeing the blast from a great distance. I don't know if he was exaggerating or lying, since he is prone to telling tall tales, but he would do dramatic retellings at family gatherings and she would not correct him.
Maachan never once talked about the war. Neither did her husband, a Nisei from Hilo who was in the US Army and worked as a Japanese-English translator, and who I knew as Jiichan. Nobody in my family can tell me if he was drafted or if he volunteered, or what his feelings were about the war or the US or Japan. His parents had come from Hiroshima to work on the sugar plantations. I don't know if my grandparents were first or second cousins, but they were somehow related, and that's why it was decided that they should marry. Jiichan was thirteen years older than Maachan. He rarely spoke to her or his children. When my mother was in high school, he had a stroke and lost his ability to speak entirely. I never heard him utter a single word.
So there is my grandmother, a young ojousan whose hometown had just been blasted off the map. She was hastily married off to an American who would not and later could not speak, and who mostly left her to her own devices. She spoke almost no English, yet was expected to move across the Pacific and raise three children and manage a household in a foreign land pretty much by herself. Unlike Nikkei, she had no connections there, no Nisei friends who could show her the ropes. Her husband's family were all back in Hilo, but she couldn't get help from them either since her own family bounced from military base to military base due to her husband's job, never staying in one place long enough to lay down roots. She was surrounded, constantly, by American servicemen like the ones who had killed her family and friends and burned down her childhood home.
Her first son was stillborn. Much later, she and I would light a stick of senko to him in the butsudan. A few years after Maachan lost her first child, my mother was born. A year after that, my aunt, who would later become a fundamentalist Christian, to the complete bewilderment of my grandmother. Two years after that, my uncle, a man who inherited by grandfather's legendary silence. Those three grew up as military brats and shuffled around American bases on both the mainland and in Japan until my grandfather's stroke forced him to retire. After moving a couple more times after that, they finally settled into the house that I describe in the game, the one in Kailua with the courtyard that used to be filled with my grandfather's orchids.
When my mother was pregnant with my younger sister, my parents sold the house they had been living in and moved in with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather spent all of his time gardening, raising his orchids in that cement courtyard or growing vegetables. There are pictures of me as a toddler riding on his back like a horse while he's bent over his precious plants. According to both my mother and aunt, those pictures are extremely shocking because it shows their father being fine with, even comfortable, around another person. My aunt would hold this against me for the rest of my life, even bringing it up at my wedding to comment on how I have always been so shameless.
My grandfather had his orchids, and my grandmother had her dolls. Her walls were lined with glass cabinets displaying these ornate, beautiful, kimono-clad dolls. It was like living inside of a museum or a high-end doll shop. There is, or rather was, a Japanese department store in Ala Moana called Shirokiya that sold these dolls for ridiculous prices. These treks into Honolulu would take an entire day and would leave her completely wiped out afterwards. She would also buy new fabrics (she made her own clothes) and other household goods from there, looking and behaving more like a Japanese tourist than a local. Sometimes I wonder why they had decided to live in the boondocks of Kailua instead of Honolulu, where she would be more likely to meet other Japanese speakers.
I spent my childhood with Maachan. My father was in the Air Force and was stationed at places all over the world, but instead of dragging his family along the way my grandfather had, he'd go alone, and would come back for only a few months at a time before leaving on another assignment. My mother worked at a big accounting firm in downtown Honolulu and would come home close to midnight every day, so I'd only really see her on weekends. Even then, she would be too exhausted to want to have anything to do with me, so I'd be left with my grandmother.
Jiichan got lung cancer when I was four or five, and so went to stay in the local hospital. My childhood was spent riding in the backseat of Maachan's car as we made our way over the Pali to Shirokiya, or to the hospital to check on my grandfather, or to buy sweets somewhere. (Maachan had a sweet tooth, and was always either making or buying something delicious for us to snack on.) She never really learned English, and from what my parents told me later, I spoke more Japanese than English as a preschooler because of it. All of that Japanese ability faded away by the time I was in elementary school.
Everyone who ever knew her makes sure to mention about how much my grandmother doted on me. She made all of my clothes, including the kimono that I wore for the annual Hinamatsuri photo in front of her prized hinaningyo. The picture I describe in the game, that was a real picture, and one that made Daikon tear up when he saw it. And, I get it. I'm sitting in a high chair, wearing a lush, hand-made yukata and surrounded by this stunning array of Japanese dolls that my grandmother bought. The war took her family, friends, home, whatever dolls she had growing up, her sense of stability. Could you blame her for compulsively collecting and filling her home up with beautiful things to make up for all that loss?
Jiichan passed when I was six. I was too young to remember the funeral, but I remember the way his death made him seem more present in the house than when he had been alive. They put his picture in the butsudan, next to the little paper written with the kanji for my mother's dead older brother, and Maachan and I would offer senko and tangerines from his garden every day. Nobody knew how to take care of his orchids, so they were left to rot and wither in the courtyard. Years after my grandmother passed, my aunt or maybe my parents finally threw out all those pots and dead plant matter.
Maachan seemed to give up on life after he was gone. My aunt (the fundamentalist Christian) moved back from Honolulu to live with her, while my parents moved out and got their own place. The only problem was that my parents' new house was too far from my school to walk, and so I would still go to my grandmother's every day and wait for my mother to pick me up at midnight. This meant having dinner with my sister (four years younger than me), Maachan, and my aunt.
My aunt was not a fan of the Japanese dolls, and would fill up the glass cases with toys and plushies of Tigger, the Disney character. If she happened to knock over a doll, she wouldn't bother to fix it, or would sometimes take it out and hide it in a closet somewhere. Over the years, she removed the dolls one by one from those cases until, now, there are none left. She closed the butsudan doors and laid a wooden cross in front of it, and put an end to my and my grandmother's daily offerings. She would also tell anyone and everyone that I was a pampered little child who needed to have the brattiness slapped out of me. She decided I was not feminine enough, and set about trying to teach me the proper way to be a lady. This involved hurling all manner of verbal and physical abuse at me for being ugly, for behaving the wrong way, for having the wrong kind of friends, for playing the wrong kinds of games. She was fond of verbally dressing me down in front of my schoolmates and friends, my mother and my sister. She did know enough, at least, to never do that in front of Maachan.
Maachan, who had been more or less healthy at the time of Jiichan's death, started rapidly deteriorating. We later found out she had liver cancer, and that although she was only in her early sixties, she was probably too fragile to make it through chemo. Just like with my grandfather, she spent the next year or more in the local hospital. Everybody knew that she was not going to recover, only that she could struggle against the inevitable. Finally, she said she didn't want to die in hospital the way her husband had, and that she wanted to die in the last place she called home. I spent her last few months curled up at her feet watching outrageous Japanese game shows on KIKU TV. When she died, I was nine years old. It was the first time I thought about killing myself.
Unlike my grandfather's funeral, I remember Maachan's with horrible clarity. It was the most traumatic memory of my young life, and I thought I was going to die from how hard I was crying. My aunt was there to slap me in place and tell me to behave, that I was making a scene, that it's one thing to be sad but it's another thing to be so disgusting about it. My younger sister, who was only five and therefore unaware of what was happening, was my exact opposite. She was cheerful and bubbly, and all of the adults cooed over what a cute girl she was, unlike the other one, meaning me. She beamed at all the positive attention she was receiving, oblivious to what was really going on. I thought, I will never forgive you for this. It was only decades later when we were both adults that I was able to confess to her why we had never been close as children: I had always resented her for the way she could be so happy and loved when I was so unhappy and despised.
After Maachan died, my mother quit her job at the bigshot accounting firm in Honolulu and got a part-time accounting job at a local construction company. That also coincided with my father retiring from the Air Force and getting a job as a systems admin. Both of them still worked long hours, and my sister and I grew up as latchkey kids. Although my mother was technically part-time, she would be at the office from nine to seven every day. I suspect it was not due to being overworked so much as the thought of not being at work was terrifying.
My grandmother died when my mother was 37. I turned 37 last August.
When she was at home, she would zone out in front of the computer playing Minesweeper and Solitaire for an entire day, or watching all the soap operas she recorded on weekdays in these long marathon viewings. She would get so absorbed that she wouldn't even realize that she was hungry or that she'd been needing to go to the bathroom for the past how many hours. She would often forget to go grocery shopping or make meals for us, and so my sister and I would suck on ice cubes, delicately cut up squares of sliced cheese and eat them one sliver at a time to make it last, downing cup after cup of water to fill our bellies, and find our own ways of dissociating so we wouldn't have to think about our hunger.
My mother never learned to sew the way Maachan had, but she was also completely baffled about why she should have to buy clothes for her children when we were just going to grow out of them anyway. We would go to school in filthy T-shirts and shorts with big gaping holes all over them. I was, by far, the worst-dressed student in my school. I would get hauled into the principal's office every year because I had once again shown up on class picture day dressed in rags. It was somehow seen as my fault that I always looked like a Dickensian urchin. And yet, despite these annual angry phone calls at work from my principal, my mother would not take us clothes shopping. It was only in middle school when I could walk to the local Salvation Army and raid their stock of collared white shirts, dusty blazers, neckties, and vests, that I could finally start to piece together a visual identity for myself. But that wouldn't be for years.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have encouraged my mother to seek professional help for her obvious and severe depression. She lived in her own dreamworld, the trauma of losing her parents in her mid-30s weighing heavily on her, saddled with these two children she had only had out of obligation and had no idea how to care for. If I had known then what I know now, I would have seen that she was drowning; that for all that had been stolen from Maachan, my mother had never even had from the start. She was the bridge between the generations, forced into the dual roles of helpless child and parental caretaker, the eldest daughter of a first-generation immigrant. What did she know about what children would want? She had not been allowed to want for anything in her life.
It was difficult, but not impossible, to rip her eyes away from the screen. When I could make her look at me and smile at some joke I said, oh boy, it was like heaven opening up and radiating glory on me. My sister and I starved for her love, but when it came, it was the sweetest nectar.
But it was more common for my mother to show her disappointment in us. For my sister, it was in the way she had ADHD (only diagnosed fairly recently, in her mid-30s) and could not concentrate on her studies at all. And for me, it was in the way I was so ugly and fat. She would sigh and say, "What happened to you? You used to be so cute." Then she would turn back to the television or computer monitor and zone back out for another several hours, not realizing how devastated she'd left me.
I knew what she was talking about. I used to live with my grandmother, my darling Maachan, who made me three meals a day and helped me with my homework and mended and washed my clothes and was delighted to look at my drawings and who spoke to me so much that I knew more Japanese than English. Of course I used to be so cute. I was loved, and that showed.
The butsudan that used to be at my grandparents' place got moved to my parents' house, since my aunt did not want a Buddhist altar in her domicile. We added Maachan's picture to the lineup, though my parents did not want to light senko in the house, and we had no offerings. (If there had been, I'm sure my sister and I would've stolen and eaten them anyway.) My mother lived on a distant shore of reality from us, physically near but mentally and emotionally across a vast, uncrossable sea.
These are the memories I wanted to infuse in Girls' Day. There are the more obvious themes: my discomfort with being seen as a girl, a cute doll in a collection, a trinket that lost value once the cuteness wore off. I wanted to talk about my transness in a subtler way, because while I don't like being thought of as my mother's daughter, I also feel uncomfortable being described as my mother's son.
I have come out to my mother, and like with most things I have discussed with her in my life, it is all completely alien to her and she has zero interest in hearing more about it. She does, at least, call me by my chosen name, after asking me if "Daikon is okay with it." She refers to me and talks about me as if I am Daikon's purchased object, and asks if he is "taking care of me" the way a former owner might inquire about a bone-white Japanese doll draped in heavy kimono fabric.