by Warren Decker
Mike came to Japan because he was tired of being Mike. He was the only guy in the dorm who would never take lime Jell-O vodka shots, and would get mad if his roommate woke him up— stumbling drunk through the door, and turning on the florescent light, before passing out snoring in the lower bunk, fully clothed, wearing shoes filthy with mud and wet grass clippings from the university lawns. Mike would climb down from his top bunk and turn off the light but he could never get back to sleep, and his morning study routine would be disrupted.
Mike preferred Chinese characters to people, specifically the kanji characters used in Japan. He had already worked his way through the bright red “First 500 Kanji Workbook,” and was halfway through the light blue “500-1000 Kanji Workbook,” while some of the other freshmen were still struggling with the phonetic hiragana characters. His teachers praised his diligence, but for Mike it was very simple: he preferred Chinese characters to his roommate but he also preferred Chinese characters to Mike. If he spent an hour carefully memorizing the stroke order of a kanji like 鬱, then Mike—with all his doubts, his unfounded sadnesses, and fears—would be somewhere far away.
In his junior year, he arrived at Kyoto University as マイク (ma-i-ku). When people spoke, he could quickly associate the syllables of sound with a specific kanji, and decipher the meaning within a few seconds. The other exchange students were still fumbling around with “ohayo gozaimasu.” Within a month マイク had lost his virginity in his single-occupancy dorm room with Reika, an English major, who wore huge sunglasses and had long hair that was dyed a dark shade of reddish-brown.
But Reika decided that she actually liked トム(to-mu), from Canada better, and it was Erika who マイク ended up marrying, three years later, up north in Akita City, where he was working as an assistant language teacher on the JET program. マイク had returned to Missouri and barely made it through his senior year. He stayed out of the upper floors of the library where the windows could be opened wide, and carried his “1,000-2,000 Kanji Workbook” with him constantly. His professor strongly encouraged him to apply for the JET program and wrote that Mike was a “gifted teacher” even though Mike had never been in a classroom except as a student.
Erika was also an English major, a graduate from the new Akita International University, with ambitions to live in Seattle and work as a flight attendant for ANA. They named their daughter Risa, so she could be Lisa in America, and 理沙 in Japan. But a few months after 理沙 was born, Erika got mad at マイク for not being Mike, and for not speaking to 理沙 as Lisa in his standard North American English. マイク tried to explain that he spent every day at work as Mike. Everyday he read grammatical awkward phrases from the Sunshine English textbook: “This is the book written by Natsume Soseki,” to uniformed junior high school students, until even his partner teacher, Takeda Sensei, started yawning into her own textbook, finally telling Mike—who could never be マイク while teaching—that, “Maybe the students would like to play a game?” Then Mike would write “This is the book written by Natsume Soseki,” on the board, handing out chalk, then calling out letters: “A!” and watching the students scramble to be the first to circle the “a” in “Natsume.” When he came back to their studio apartment, with a loft and a tiny kitchen, and when he saw his intimidatingly beautiful wife and the miracle of his daughter 理沙, all he wanted to do was be 理沙’s father. He didn’t want to be Mike— he couldn’t, even when Erika narrowed her darkly mascaraed eyes at him, blinking slowly and deliberately like she was trying to remember a person that she might have once recognized.
マイク started studying Chinese the year they got divorced. By then, he was a tenure-track lecturer in Chiba. The students called him マイク Sensei, and he lectured—entirely in Japanese—about the English language, and English education. He thought that when Erika left him, he could also finally be free of Mike. But watching 理沙 get on the plane, preparing to go be Lisa in Seattle, wiping tears from her eyes even though her mother didn’t wave or even look back, had filled マイク with a sadness that even Mike had never known.
He worked his way quickly up to Level 5 of the HSK Chinese Test, and the university accepted his research proposal to spend February in Beijing after the fall semester classes were over. He arrived on a frigid day with unexpectedly blue skies. Sun Yu, his contact from the language school, wasn’t at the airport and she didn’t answer her phone either. But 麦克 (mai-ke) wasn’t worried, and he was proud of himself, that even with the thick Beijing accent and rapid urban speech, he managed to get himself to a room in the Seven Days hotel near Guomao station. 麦克 didn’t think that マイク could have done that, and 麦克 knew with certainty that Mike would have been hopeless. But after two days that Sun Yu didn’t return his calls マイ克 remembered how quickly he had put together his proposal— and how quickly Mi ク had put in his credit card number in at the first language school website he found, determined to commit himself before Mike lost his courage.
When he had come to Kyoto 17 years ago, マイク had felt like a celebrity. Girls he didn’t even remember meeting would smile and wave. Now, trying to track down the language school from the address on the website, he saw himself reflected in the protective glass barriers at Guomao Station, gaunt where he used to be slim, with hair that was thinning and gray. The rush hour passengers poured out of the train, pushing him aside like he was a piece of cardboard.
Later, walking around the Shilihe Station area, moving more and more erratically as he searched for the Pinguo Mandarin Chinese House, the other people on the street walked past him as though he were a plastic bag blowing in the cold Beijing wind. He found himself going diagonally across the streets, zig-zagging back and forth, then swirling in a gust and spinning up and around, catching for a moment on the corner of a street sign, before getting blown off and falling back down to the road again.
Warren Decker’s writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Plus, The Arc Poetry Magazine, Think, and Frogpond, and is forthcoming in The Best American Poetry 2018. He hopes to eventually transform himself into a pure light of compassion that will transcend all time and space, but for now he can be found in the outskirts of Osaka, where he writes, teaches, runs, bakes sourdough bread, and converses with lichens. You can find samples of his writing and more at The Disorienteering Emporium, “The place for all of your disorienting needs,” at https://disorienteering.wordpress.com/.
Illustration by Devan Murphy