By Micah Tasaka
Talking to High Monks in the Snow, by Lydia Minatoya, is an autobiographical novel about the challenges a Japanese American woman faces to understand the multiplicity of her identities while attempting to connect to her cultural and ancestral roots and seeking to stabilize her career. The book questions what it means to belong to or feel connected with one’s self while trying to balance one’s place in the world. In Lydia’s world, she had no access to what it meant to be Japanese. Aside from her family, Lydia did not meet a Japanese American person until she was twenty years old. As an adult, she travels to various homelands in search of an identity and direction. She speaks of having a divided identity. She says, “I am a woman caught between the standards of East and West.” To deal with this, she decides to travel between the two, constantly searching for where she belongs. Ultimately, Minatoya finds that self-discovery is a journey in which one is molded through the process of going.
First, Minatoya talks about the qualities she was taught since childhood that an Asian American woman should have. She speaks about her upbringing in Albany, New York. Young Minatoya tries to understand the expectations put on her as a Japanese American woman through the only source she has to navigate that world, her mother. However, her mother, Okaa-chan, has a fractured identity of her own because she grew up without knowing her mother. When she was very young and still living in Japan, Okaa-chan’s parents divorced. As a result, Okaa-chan was not allowed to see her mother for the rest of her life. Coming from this type of fractured femininity that trickles for generations, Minatoya gives snips of conversations between her and her mother. In one conversation, Okaa-chan explains, “My father gave me an okoto to teach me to cherish my womanhood…the notes are delicate yet there is resonance. Listen. You will learn about timelessness and strength. Listen. You will understand how, despite sorrow, heart and spirit can fly.” Okaa-chan is trying to teach her daughter about the qualities an Asian American woman should value. She wants her daughter to be able to withstand many hardships while remaining elegant and having depth. Minatoya comments, “An American daughter, I cannot understand the teachings of my mother’s okoto. Instead, I listen to the music of her words.” Because she is American, she cannot grasp the cultural connection her mother speaks of. She has been divided from that part of herself. However, through loving her mother, she establishes a connection to her culture, which she is able to revisit later in life.
In addition to lessons of endurance and elegance, Minatoya is also taught that an Asian American woman must be clever if she is to survive in the world. When Okaa-chan is writing young Lydia’s name in Japanese (Yuri), she explains that there are two ways to draw the characters. One way of writing Yuri means “clever” while the other means “lily flower.” Young Lydia questions why her mother decided to name her clever rather than after a beautiful flower. Her mother says, “Too many flowers already. In America, it is better to prepare a child to be clever – to be open to the world, to accept imagination, to see the unseen. A flower girl gets picked. A flower girl gets trampled. A clever girl gets prize.” Okaa-chan wants her daughter to be resilient while still willing to take chances and allow herself to experience the world around her. She wants her daughter to be an active participant in her own life instead of a girl who is acted upon and walked all over. She is preparing her for the world to come.
Instilled with these qualities, Lydia moves into adulthood where these values are challenged. Minatoya excels in college, receives her doctorate, and moves to Boston to begin her teaching career. Though optimistic with her new position, Minatoya learns that she is only one of four Asian women working in her field at her university. However, Minatoya’s position is soon compromised. Lydia was hired while the university was going through an accreditation process. It was suggested that her department could “benefit from a more ethnically diverse faculty.” Once the school received its accreditation, she is conveniently let go. Lydia felt used but also relieved; she was never sure that teaching was for her. Teaching was a simple opportunity presented to her, not a conscious career choice. Lydia needed to discover herself before she could settle down with a career. So, instead of letting this setback destroy her, she takes action. She is encouraged by her friend, Moe, who said, “Go on and travel. Go on, just for a change of scene. You’ll see. Gonna be you that changes. Indeed, indeed. Gonna be you.” Moe was exactly right. Lydia sets off to travel to Asia to discover her roots.
To further her understanding of herself, Lydia travels to Japan to meet her relatives. She says, “I am not an adventurous person. I am the sort who hesitates at the brink of escalators, reluctant to relinquish terra firma.” She admits her fears and cautious spirit but does not let these hinder her and steps out in search of some connection to guide her. After traveling around Japan for some time, Minatoya finally connects with her family. She meets many of her family members and often feels displaced because, even though she is of their bloodline, she still feels awkwardly American and struggles to understand herself because of her Asian American identity. Then, she meets the patriarch of her family in Japan. At first, she believes he does not like her because she is traveling with a man who is not her husband. Then, after much silence, the patriarch takes out a six hundred year old scroll containing the lineage of Lydia’s family. Her family is the oldest traceable line in the region. Minatoya says, “For the first time, the old man looked at me. He turned and studied my face. For a long and breathless time, his keen eyes seized and held me. ‘This is who you are,’ he said. ‘Remember and be proud.’” This experience shows her that her elder accepts her as part of the family and approves of her, which makes her connection to her culture more tangible and real. This powerful acceptance from her family boosts Minatoya’s confidence and helps establish her roots. Because of this, she is able to start teaching again and accepts a teaching job in Japan.
After some time in Japan, she accepts a teaching position in China as a professor of American language and culture. While there, she works with a classroom of students who spend much time asking her about life in America. She is no longer among her people and is seen as an American. However, her students still wonder about her bi-cultural identity. A student asks her, “‘You are American Japanese. Can such babies honor their parents? Can they grow strong and straight? Or do they grow strong but misshapen, bowing between East and West winds? Or perhaps, do they snap?” Minatoya responds, “My mother told me that in America children could grow to be like the bamboo. Bowing between competing winds, the tree grows strong and flexible. It will not snap…But in some ways the bamboo is a fragile tree. It needs to grow in groves. By itself, the bamboo is a lonely tree for, inside, it is hollow…Perhaps this is what I have found. In Japan. In China. Here with you my dear dear friends.” She finds that it does not matter which place she calls her home because she creates a home in the people she holds space with. For the rest of the book, Minatoya surrounds herself with people who are familiar and comfortable. She travels with her home and finds comfort and connection wherever she is. She leaves China to go to Nepal on vacation with a group of friends.
In Nepal, Minatoya is treated as a traveler. This differs from her experiences in China and Japan where she is treated as a resident. Because of this, the Nepali people often read her as an American with similar features to themselves. Once again, she is made to question what it means to be American. She says, “The Western mind tries to seize ungraspable experience. Like gold miners panning a stream for shattered reflections of the sun, we search for the flow of experience, sorting its shadowy play of patterns into object that can be held and owned and trusted enough to be loved.” Nepal teaches her that in order to form identity, one must flow through the experience instead of forcing the experience to happen. Lydia lets go of her desire to control the world around her. Experiences cannot be owned like objects; a person has to absorb their experiences into their identities. She stops struggling and takes in the lessons she learns instead of trying to seek them out. By this time, Minatoya has matured enough to know that one’s identity is, ultimately, built by experience rather than subscriptions to other people’s ideas of how a person should act or what they should value. Identity and experience are intrinsically tied to one another. There is not only one way of being or a single identity. Minatoya is able to bridge her identities divided between the East and the West because her experiences have taught her that she is complex. She can have multiple identities and be able to navigate many worlds as a result.
As Lydia returns to the United States, her lessons take full form. She begins to study ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging. Though the end result of well-crafted ikebana is gentle and delicate, her Sensei, Keiko-Sensei, shows her that the flowers must be swiftly hacked and maneuvered, without mercy. When Lydia tries to bend her flowers with as much command as Keiko-Sensei, her branches crumble and become disfigured. Keiko-Sensei, seeing her struggle, takes the branch and twists it into a beautiful art piece. Lydia says, “And gradually I learn that what seems like roughness instead is honest intimacy. A real mother does not do her caretaking through a series of artful poses. And eventually my flowers cease to cringe and crumple at my touch.” Through the journey of self-discovery, Minatoya learns that sometimes, in order to become a true work of art, one must be molded, painfully and without delicacy. It is through this process that Minatoya finds herself. After being woven and bent through her travels across the world, she comes home to America to learn that what she was looking for was always inside of her; it just needed to be formed. She ends with, “Like a missionary, I was sent to light a candle deep in the wilderness. But the wilderness lit a candle deep in me.” For Minatoya, the journey is what shaped her, ignited her, and taught her about who she is.
As someone who, throughout the book, seems to challenge herself and go where she must in spite of her fears, Minatoya still describes herself as being afraid of change. She says:
Change unnerves me. Behind every opportunity lurks the possibility of my undoing. Was I now Asian? Was I still America? Would I have to choose between the two? While I had been living in Asia, Asia had begun living in me. She pulsed through my heart. She traveled through my bloodstream. She changed my perceptions, my thoughts, and my dreams. Like a mother who kisses her bruised daughter and shoos her back to play, Asia had transformed the ache of my lapsed career.
And indeed transformed Lydia, too. As a child, she grasped all around her for some foothold in which she might understand herself. She then grows into an adult weathered by experience. Although she still seeks to understand herself in a vast array of complexities, she allows the experience to change her and move her and in that process is able to discover herself and her life purpose. Through Minatoya’s work, readers can learn not to base identity on other people’s ideas and expectations but rather base identity on one’s journey of self-discovery through life experience.
Micah Tasaka is a queer biracial poet from the Inland Empire exploring the intersections of identity, spirituality, gender, and sexuality. Their work seeks to make a playground of religious myths while creating queerer deities. They received their undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside. They have performed throughout Southern California and have featured in Riverside, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Palm Springs. Their debut chapbook, Whales in the Watertank, was self-published in 2014. They have been featured on The California Journey of Women Writers literary blog, and their work can also be found in the upcoming In The Words Of Women 2016 anthology.