OBACHAN'S SCRIBBLES

Saturday, September 10, 2005

DISCOVERING UNCLE M

I was going to post this entry right after the one about visiting my parents’ house last weekend if Nabi didn’t hit Japan. But it did and I HAD TO post something about the typhoon because I was too bored on that day with the work cancelled.

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At my parents' house last weekend...

When I dragged out several old family albums from the closet at my parents’ house, I found this O-L-D one that I’ve never noticed before. Assuming it to be my dad’s or mom’s, I brought it under the light in the living room and dusted carefully. No it didn't belong to either of them. It was the album of my uncle M who I'd never met.

Uncle M (with round glasses in the photos) was my grandparents’ first and only son. You might be puzzled to read this, but yes, he was. He joined the army and went to Manchuria in WWII, and died there when he was in his early twenties, I heard. That’s all I know about him. I don’t know if he died in a battle or from a disease. Several years after his death, my grandparents adopted a boy from a distant village, the youngest of 15 siblings. That is my biological father.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember seeing my grandparents and my dad talking about uncle M at all. Maybe just a few times, I heard my dad reminding grandpa or grandma about the Buddhist memorial service for uncle M, but that was it. I almost never heard about what kind of person he was until I told my family, more than 10 years ago, that I was going to the U.S. for several years.

None of my family really liked the idea of me going abroad for such a long time, but they just couldn’t stop me. Later my grandma told me that she finally okayed it because of uncle M. According to her, uncle M was an enthusiastic learner who wanted to study more but couldn’t achieve it, so she wanted me to achieve it instead of him. I never thought I was living my life to achieve someone else’s goal or wish, but I did remember that piece of information about him. Most of the time, however, he seemed to have been totally forgotten in our family, even when my grandparents were still alive. Maybe they didn’t talk about uncle M on purpose because they cared about my dad’s feeling.

When I opened uncle M’s album and saw the sepia photographs, I was a little surprised… and understood why my grandma wanted to see uncle M in me. My dad is a serious person and he never puts humorous captions to photos in his album. Uncle M’s album, on the other hand, was full of handwritten captions in blue ink on sepia-colored pages of the album. They showed his young enthusiasm, cute but not arrogant (over?)confidence, and sense of humor. There were some funny captions playfully teasing his friends in the photos, written in our local dialect on purpose.


I'm not sure but I guess the scene in uncle M's photo (top) is the same place as in mine (bottom). It's the view of the beach about 1 minute from my parents' house.

Looks like photo-taking was his hobby and he had his own camera when he was in his early twenties, which must have been a luxurious hobby at that time. I bet for many people in such a rural area, photo-taking was something for special occasions and at sightseeing spots only, but he was obviously interested in taking snaps of things he liked in everyday life. I’m 100% sure that he would be photoblogging if he were alive now.

I especially liked the shots of some girls he took, and I assume he had a crush on one of the girls who often appeared in his photos. The biggest surprise was that a few times he signed his name in English, and it was very similar to the way I signed my name in English when I was in junior high school.


I think this letter has a scarcity value now --- I don’t think most Japanese families kept something like this until today. This is a letter to my grandpa sent from an educational section of Japanese army in WWII. No, not the one to inform of uncle M’s death. As far as I can understand from the old Japanese written there, the letter seems to be telling grandpa that his son, uncle M, is almost finishing the training and they are ready to provide him with those items on the list so grandpa needs to send them money. The red letters stamped on the envelope say “military mail” and “official business,” and the name of the regiment is stamped on the back.

Going through uncle M's album, I felt as if a vacant spot inside of me was filled somehow. It was surprising, because I never thought that not knowing about him was such a big issue for me. I felt happy that he didn’t die young without living his life at all. This album told me that he lived, and enjoyed his life to the fullest in the time given to him. I’m not sure why that makes me happy – or relieved – though. Was I feeling unconsciously responsible for the things he wanted to achieve in his life? I don't know. All I know is I feel much closer to him now and at the same time feel freed from his “unknownness,” and somehow I feel encouraged to live my own life. And I don’t see much logic there. ;P (Well, my feelings are illogical most of the time anyway.)


Dear Uncle M,
The boy who was adopted after your death did his best and took a real good care of your parents. I guarantee that. His daughter often takes pictures of her hometown just like you did, and now she is sharing them with the whole world.
And she will probably keep your album as long as she lives.

--- From your niece who is now twice as old as you :)
posted by obachan, 9/10/2005 12:26:00 AM

10 Comments:

hi obachan, sweet of you to share uncle M's life with us. living in the US with chinese heritage, i noticed a basic difference (one of the many ones anyway) of how the deceased are remembered.

asian cultures tend to honor memories of the dead by projecting them onto the lives of the still-living (which probably has to do with family obligation, seeing everyone being a bump or branch on big tree of the clan, etc.) not much verbal communication here.

the "mainstream" american culture is to remember (very verbally) the people for the lives they had, without need for substitutes. of course, this is just off-the-cuff generalization. everyone carries on their tradition differently. ultimately it's just coping with life & maintaining a sense of belonging, family.

carry on photo-blogging for your uncle M -- what a fun idea! 

Posted by alf
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/11/2005 8:49 AM  
Hi alf,
Thank you so much for sharing an interesting analysis. I understand what you’re saying, though I think the situation in Japan these days is not so clear-cut as it used to be.

We have been so much influenced by Western values esp. after WWII. Most Japanese families seem to be remembering the people for the lives they had, keeping pretty Westernized personal boundaries, and still carrying on the traditional Buddhist ceremonies, which probably would look rather confusing to non-Japanese people.

I don’t mean to photoblog for uncle M. I can’t. The happiness I felt from discovering his life in the album was like discovering a fellow blogger. You enjoy sharing the fun of blogging with fellow bloggers, but you don’t/can’t blog for another blogger --- that’s the way I feel.

His world was exclusively his own, and it ended when he died. And since I found it fulfilling as it was, somehow now I feel more encouraged to keep going with my blog – my world – which is exclusively my own. … Maybe I’m not making any sense ;P Sorry.  

Posted by obachan
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/11/2005 12:04 PM  
obachan;
What a lovely tribute to your uncle M....He seems to have been a man full of life and living. One can only live the life you are given and he seems to have been up to the task. Sadly, it was only for such a short time. The universe has given your grandparents a second chance with you, their grandaughter. How touching. ...loved your letter to Uncle M. He watches over everyone and surely loved the letter!!!!and by the way, you make perfect sense....
Thank you for sharing. 

Posted by carlyn
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/11/2005 8:56 PM  
Thanks carlyn,
I guess, in a nutshell, what I was trying to say in this post is this:
I couldn’t set a personal boundary between me and uncle M before, because he was too “unknown” and someone pitiful who died young. Perhaps I was unconsciously feeling responsible for his unachieved goals or my grandparents’ expectations. But knowing that he LIVED his life, I finally became able to set a personal boundary. In other words, what I did in this post was probably saying good-bye to the uncle M who I had kept in myself as a shadowy ghost. Thanks for witnessing :) 

Posted by obachan
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/11/2005 9:54 PM  
How wonderfully lucky that you came across your uncle's photo album. You wrote a beautiful story about your family, it made me happy to read it. 

Posted by Amanda
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/12/2005 11:56 PM  
Hi Amanda,
I'm glad to hear that what I wrote made someone happy. Honestly, I felt good after I wrote this post, but never expected it to make any reader feel good or happy. Thanks Amanda. It's so nice of you. 

Posted by obachan
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/14/2005 9:52 AM  
hi obachan...sorry, late to the party as usual! thank you for taking time to explain the uniqueness of blogging/blogger. i guess i was taken by the (romantic?) idea that uncle M's beautiful photos and memories live on in cyberspace. something he couldn't expect, but would probably enjoy -- as strange a world it is from the 20s! agree it's hard to say what's asian or western anymore. perhaps the unwillingness to talk about premature deaths is common with older generation (took me years to learn about my own sister & cousin -- all before my time, etc.) 

Posted by alf
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/14/2005 4:42 PM  
Hi alf,
Thanks for commenting again :) Yeah, I definitely wanted his photos and memories live on cyberspace. That’s why I posted about him. I wanted the world to know that there was this person, who actually LIVED, with this kind of talent and view of life, etc. But it didn’t mean that I would keep blogging for him.

I’m not really sure if my grandparents really kept quiet about uncle M after his death. They might have given bunch of “M did this and that when he was alive, why can’t you?!” or “We wanted M to be like this so that’s what you’re going to be.” kind of stuff to my dad for quite a while. At least I don’t remember them saying anything like that, so maybe things changed when I was born…. Funny, I never realized this until this moment, but I think I’m hoping to have a chance to talk with my dad about what he went through (…someday in the future, but not too soon). 

Posted by obachan
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 9/15/2005 10:42 AM  
A sweet tribute, Obachan. Thanks for sharing it with us.

P/S: Did you know that Nabi means Prophet in Malay language? Does the word have any meaning in Japanese?
commented by Anonymous Amber Amethryne, 10/11/2005 8:15 AM  
Oh really? I didn't know. I don't think Nabi has any particular meaning in Japanese.
commented by Blogger obachan, 10/12/2005 12:52 AM  

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