Oct 19, 2015

The Day I Turned Japanese

When I was growing up in Rock Island, almost every kid had a "homeland": their grandparents or great-grandparents came from Sweden, Germany, or Belgium, or less commonly Greece, Poland, France, Italy, or Estonia.

Except me: As one of the few plain generic Americans, with ancestors from Indiana and Kentucky as far back as anyone kept records, I was always left out.

My Grandma Rani belonged to the Potawatomi tribe, but she wasn't a blood relation, so she didn't count  I checked.

Teachers were constantly assigning us reports on our homeland.

We had to bring food from our homeland to club meetings and church socials.

We had to learn the song of our homeland for pageants.

Every new acquaintance asked "Where are you from?", and wouldn't take "Indiana" for an answer.  "No, where are you from? What's your homeland?"

One day in the spring of fifth grade, my boyfriend Bill said "Why don't you just pick a country?  You can be adopted!"

That was a great idea -- I could adopt a country!

I was already making a list of "good places," where boys could hug and kiss openly and grown-up men could live together without wives.  I could be from a good place.

During recess Bill, Joel, and I went to the school library to look for a place.  We sorted through all of the My Village books,  by Sonia and Tim Gidal, photo stories of real boys in villages in Germany, Ireland, France, Switzerland, and so on.

Bill liked Yugoslavia, because there was a picture of two boys hugging.

Joel voted for Finland, because there was a picture of the boy naked in the sauna.

I liked Italy, because the boy had a lot of hunky adult friends.

But wait -- why did it have to be a European country?

I knew where the men were always naked!



I took Joel and Bill into our house, down to the basement, where my mother's old set of  Collier's Encyclopedias sat on a lonely shelf.

"These books have all kinds of naked guys in them," I said, handing them the pertinent volumes.

We leafed through old black-and-white photos of naked men.

Bill liked some Indonesian athletes, because they were holding hands.

Joel liked African tribes, because they were muscular and naked.

I liked the Philippines, because the guys were cute.

"Wait -- I know where we can get pictures in color!" Joel exclaimed.

We ran over to his house.  In his basement there were shelves of old National Geographic magazines -- his older brother once had a subscription.

The guys were never naked, but there were lots of shirtless pictures.

Cambodian boys splashing in the ocean.

Dour Amazonian men carrying blowguns.

Pygmies of the "Belgian Congo."

Japanese athletes in singlets with noticeable bulges.

"We shouldn't decide just on a couple of pictures," I said.  "We should do research."

Through the spring semester, and into the summer, we worked on our project, reading geography books like The Land and People of Israel and Come with me to India, looking up old magazine articles on Switzerland, New Guinea, Ethiopia, Bolivia, and Spain.

When we had sleepovers, we interrogated the Fifth Boy about his homeland, the food, the costumes, the songs.

For my birthday trip in May, we went to the Putnam museum (with Randy the Golden Boy tagging along) and got a whole new revelation: why did it have to be a modern country?

Why not the Aztecs, or the ancient Egyptians?

Or ancient Greece, where they worshiped naked musclemen?

For that matter, why did it have to be a place in the real world?

Soon we were looking at Leonard Wibberly's Encounter Near Venus, the Basidium of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and the oxygen-rich canals of Robert Silverberg's Lost Race of Mars.

It was time to reel it in, get back to the basics of men with muscles.


One day in Joel's basement I leafed through the December 11th, 1970 issue of Life Magazine, and found an article: "The Samurai Who Committed Hara Kiri."

It was about the ritual suicide of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima (without mentioning that he was gay, or that his novels were infused by gay themes).

I was already taking judo lessons.  My sensei, Sammy, turned out to be married, but I was reasonably sure that he liked boys, not girls.

Mishima's gleaming, muscular physique and suggestively packed fudoshi settled it.

"I'm from Japan," I announced.

When sixth grade began, and our teacher assigned yet another essay on "our homeland," Bill wrote on Indonesia, Joel wrote on Ethiopia, and I wrote on Japan (without mentioning the suggestively packed fudoshi).  She gave us all B+'s, with the comment "very imaginative!"

The uncensored story, with nude pictures, is on Tales of West Hollywood