Lunar New Year

It used to be about the economic storm of the 1930: how people respond to the crisis, especially the Chinese in Java. I didn’t know why the Chinese popped up. Maybe because they owned small-middle business. It was an intuition, I was too ignorant. Social history is not my fort but I respect testaments. So, memoirs should be great sources, I thought again. Worldcat then helps me to find dozen of titles, of first-person memoirs, of memories left in written words. Then I arrived at Tjamboek Berdoeri. Ah, a giant intellectual once searched him for decades – thanks to him I knew the thorny whip as Kwee Thiam Tjing. So I looked at Thiam Tjing’s writings too. This guy was hilarious but maybe there is something more. I don’t fully trust a narrative overglossing reality. I looked. And looked. Scanning newspapers, reading his words. I delve deeper. And now I’m lost in the middle of cobweb that I have avoided for almost all my life: the story of Chinese Indonesians.

your pecinan neighbor

A classmate said to me once, “Thank god your mother is tenglang. If she’s not, my mother would not allow me to come to your place.” I stayed silent. My mother is not Chinese. She is a Javanese from Sidoarjo, East Java. But people think she looks like one. Or maybe because my father is Chinese, so people assume she is too. I never bother to explain to people about my mom, although I know some people are not necessarily racist but merely curious.

There are a lot of rules. If you see someone older (but not too old) and they’re Chinese call them “koh” or “cik” but if they’re not Chinese call them “mas” or “mbak”; if you’re not sure, call them “kak.” In elementary school, it looked easier: most of my schoolmates and seniors are Chinese. In junior and high school, it got harder. Once I went to university, I barely used cik/koh outside the church.

I still remember many remarks about my outside appearance. “Really? You don’t look like Chinese.” “You look sooo Chinese.” But I never really bother to take it seriously. I feel safe when I’m not declaring “I’m Chinese,” I feel safe when I’m declaring “I’m Chinese.” Ethnic card is useful for me everytime I need comfort in social relations. Pragmatic.

I never really know why I particularly avoided the history of Chinese Indonesians. I felt reluctant. My father’s stories about his childhood in Madura, Jember, and around is enough for me to see how hard it is strolling around cities, scavanging chances, scrapping for life. He is lucky. His family is lucky. His love of math and God allows him to survive. So I thought being a Chinese descendent is already enough to understand what does it mean being a minority with all of its problems and conflicts. The burden of history has been weighed within our existence. I was wrong.

I’m trying to redeem my ignorance: reading as much as possible, studying it, writing about it. I see historians of Chinese Indonesians, academic and public, have done a lot of things in the development of scholarship – more than half-century of scholarship, covering hundreds of years of history. One camp celebrates heroic narratives, one camp uses critical approaches, one camp offers more complex nuance. The body of knowledge is rich. But the storm comes for me. A feel of bitterness lingers, creating a big question I’m not sure how to articulate. The history of Chinese Indonesians overwhelms me, a kid who once didn’t bother about manifesting descendent/lineage/blood/heritage. They say knowing history makes you wiser. It makes me blue.

Maybe someday I will find a better way and becoming a better person to understand all of this. Maybe someday I will know how to resolve the tension of being a person labeled as minority but want to escape from its complex. A pressure to understand self-positioning in a society makes one lost. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just too overthinking it, maybe I was trapped in my own way to stay safe, maybe it’s only a projection of my survivorship bias, maybe i just miss my family, or maybe I’m too privileged to even say something like this. History, where is thy greatness?

Shimura Takako, "Wandering Son" Vol. 3

Friendship and siblings are hard indeed. Shu and Yoshino got into “silent” mode, because some boys read their shared diary, and now they were objects of bullying. Maho, Shu’s sister, forced Shu to have a date with her classmate, Seya because that boy apparently liked Shu (because they were cute). Their relationship was getting more tangled with slice-of-life drama that makes readers (at least me) symphatize but also angry with some of the characters.

Image result for wandering son volume 3

Nonetheless, I still like the calm and warm stories, and how the characters respond to each other in a very realistic way. I like Mako-chan, Shu’s classmate who also liked to wear dress and supported Shu. Mako’s appearance makes me wonder how Shu and Yoshino’s relationship would be like. I think the idea that an elementary kid can make a new friend despite school and peers hardship is always nice. It reminds us that the world does not completely against us. This corner of safe space, where Shu can be themselves, without the burden of defining friendship as long as they can be kind and nice is seemingly enough.

Buuuuut, I’m still uneasy with Yuki who touched Yoshino too much (although they then apologized and comforted Yoshino).

From three volumes so far, I enjoy Wandering Son so much. I reserve myself for nor reading all of them in one go. Reading it slowly helps me think better about the ways all the characters deal with their role. We can categorize the theme as a struggle with gender and sexuality, but the quotidian aspect of this theme makes the story stronger. It makes us recall our childhood–how did we deal with this kind of stuff? How wondrous kids’ ignorant yet unassuming view.


Kawamura Genki, "If Cats Disappeared from the World"

This review is part of the Cat Series.

I bought the novella because of the cover: shades of blue, a man, and a cat. The original book in Japanese was published in 2012, with its movie adaptation in 2016. The English version was owned by Flatiron Books and translated by Eric Selland. This review is part of A Cat Series.

biru biru gitu

What if? This novella starts with a simple premise: a young post man has to die, and the devil shows to offer him one day of extra life in exchange to making one thing from the world. For each item, the young man contemplates about his mundane life, with his cat, Cabbage, accompanies him. His recall and nostalgia about his life, family, and ex-girlfriend is an almost typical theme in a story like this. But I think the calmness of the story gives each fragment a tender tone.

It is a gentle story, with much predictable plot and theme. I want to say it is cliche but the fact that I enjoy it without struggling too much is an appreciation. There is no odd or strange scenes, except Kawamura portrays the devil himself as humorous being. Nor there is a complex conflict. Cabbage, and the previous cat, Lettuce, appears in the story to gives a sense of belonging to the story and its character. The existence of the cats are significant to portray story about memory of the loved one and affection. This novella is another slice-of-life that makes readers calm and may appreciate the mundanity of everyday lives.

Some reviews of this book mentioned about the lost in translation–as the translator seemingly does not capture the nuance that Kawamura intended to do. Well, I cannot make an opinion regarding the issue, but I think I’ve outgrown such theme of story. It is beautiful, for sure, but my high consumption of slice-of-life manga and anime makes me think this novella is a common, typical model of the genre, instead of an exciting one (knowing that the hype for this book is considerably huge).

Nevertheless, it’s a nice-to-read book when you just want to relax and entertain yourself with mild story. You don’t have to think about existence, let the young post man does that.

Shimura Takako, "Wandering Son" Vol. 2

In this volume, both Shu and Yoshino have shared each other’s secret and embraced it together. Shu bought wig and dress, and went together with Yoshino in public place. There are a lot of things goin on in this volume, but I will just mention two main things.

First, more appearance of Yuki, a woman who befriended Yoshino, makes the story develops into another theme of child-adult relationship. On one side, I’m quite nervous reading this part–especially when Yuki’s friend (an adult man) kind of harassed Yoshino by touching their body to make sure if they’re a girl. And I think this part is quite problematic because it just easily went away after Yuki’s friend said that Yuki is a transgender too. I also wonder why Yuki wants Yoshino to come to her place without Shu, is troublesome. But on the other side, those scenes are too real: the confusion of such relationship, as children often look up to grown-ups; the paradox between genuine intention and obsessive desire. I think Yuki, in this story, becomes a model of figure of Shu and Yoshino, who opens possibility for them in the future to live a life they want. To them, Yuki is ideal, and I think their interaction and relationship can portray the intricacy of children/adult’s perception of gender and sexuality.

Second, Chiba, Shu and Yoshino’s friend who wants Shu to wear dress, is an ace. I like how Shimura gives her a complex personality, showing the cold and warm interaction of friendship. Through Chiba, these kids’ relationship becomes more nuanced. I like how she stood up for Shu when some boys bullied them, yet I also adore her passive-aggresive attitude when Shu/Yoshino started doing a shared diary. I don’t know, a character like Chiba often gives richness to other characters too.

With new characters appear, e.g., a boy (a friend of Maho, Shu’s sister) who fell for Shu when seeing them on a sailor dress, I think the story develops into something bigger. Looking forward to the next volume.

Shimura Takako,"Wandering Son" Vol. 1

I have no idea about this manga until I browsed in Evanston Public Library. I was attracted with the art cover, and the title. From the cover, I imagined a coming-of-age, slice-of-life story like Goodnight Punpun which I genuinely love. (I’m a fan of slice-of-life genre, really–and it needs different post on why). The English version was translated by Matt Thorn and published by Fantagraphics, a well-known for publishing awesome graphic novels, comics, and mangas.

Wandering Son Vol. 1 by Shimura Takako
it’s a nice cover, isn’t it?

This is a story about two adolescences in the fifth grade–Shuichi Nitori and his friend Yoshino Takatsuki–whose lives crossing each other. They are both from happy families and liked by their classmates but they shared similar secrets: Shuichi wants to be a girl, and Yoshino wants to be a boy. And when the class planned to do a play The Rose of Versailles for graduation ceremony, another friend Chiba Saori suggests for girls play men role and vice versa. With the everydayness of school and home, friendship and family, Shuichi and Yoshino take a journey together.

Disclaimer: this volume has no physical violence but there is a scene of bullying and one word fa**ot when Shu was scared if Yoshino hates them. I will use they/their/them pronouns to refer to both Shu and Yoshino. If I write something that is offensive, please reach out so I can correct it.

Shimura tells a very gentle story in a patient pace. I say patient and not slow (like some readers who put their reviews online) because I think Shimura wants to show the quite, silent side of adolescents who have to deal with the everydayness of gender: clothes, appearance, role. For example, both Shuici and Yoshino’s first attempt are trying clothes. It takes faster time for Yoshino to wear their brother’s old uniform and cut their hair short than Shuichi who wants to wear their sister’s dress. Another example is when Yoshino has the first period, and the boys tease them saying “oh you’re really a girl.” By showing both boy-girl sides, Shimura tries to portray the different kind of struggle.

Although the main protagonists are Shuichi and Yoshini, I find Chiba Saori, a classmate who wants Shuichi to wear dress and accessories, is intriguing. First, she wants to be a Christian: praying by herself and wants to go to church. Second, at first she seems to be a little too pushy by giving Shu dress and hair accessories on Shu’s birthday. But I think she has a genuine intention, as she observes Shu wants to try those things. I wonder what she will do next.

For the drawings, Shimura admits that she doesn’t do much background, and yes it is quite a plain because I think she wants to focus on her characters and their relationships. But I adore her decisions to put less words and more gazes and wandering eyes. Indeed, she emphasizes the “wandering”–Shu and Yoshino’s looks at things like clothes and themselves.

This is still the first volume out of eight that are available in English so I will stop my review here, and let’s see the next.

Cells at Work! Code Black, Vol. 1

If anyone following a manga or anime (available on Netflix) Cells at Work , this one is the “darker” version of it. This series was created by Shigemitsu Harada. Issei Hatsuyoshiya, and Akane Shimizu; and the English translation was owned by Kodansha Comics (2019). I borrowed the first volume from Evanston Public Library, and hopefully the next two volumes are available for review.

The whole idea of this series is about cells in human body, and Code Black refers to the adult body that is no longer healthy. Trillions of cells trying to make human body keep running, but stress hormones keeps yelling to red blood cells to work faster. Smoking, alcoholism, cholesterol, genital disease, everyday is a code black; and a newbie red blood cell struggles a lot to bring the oxygen throughout the body.

I like this type of story. Osmosis Jones is my first encounter with the animation of cells and human body. But this manga is something else. Unlike Osmosis Jones that still exposes the human face and his unhealthy habit, this manga clearly focuses on the interactions between cells and their jobs. In the earlier series of I was strucked by a scene where the immune cells (white blood, T cells) attacked cancer cells. The story tells that the cancer cell is a deformed cell since it was born; it was “killed” before mature but if it survived, it tried to grow under the reason of “survival.” This is actually deep, and Code Black pushes the theme around human body and system survival with the anthropomic cells who are frustrated working in an “exploitative, hostile working environment” to keeping human body alive. The adorable, relatively peaceful life of the healthy human body looks like a dream when you read this manga. Everday is a “war” with foreign substances, germs, and virus on a more difficult level. Immune cells get weaker with overload works, and red blood cells are vulnerable.

alcohol rain

Although the idea is brilliant, you will not find a strong, coherent plot in this manga. I think because the mangakas want it to be more descriptive and keeping it real to the facts. That’s why this manga provides real scientific explanations in every pages. There are a lot of boxes explaining each cell and its function, including the germs, bacteries, virus, disease, and dysfunction. It’s a very entertaining and educational manga really. And if you have enough time, lol, you may want to check youtube videos of a doctor reacts to the anime.

PS: You can read the first volume for free here. Remember to read this manga as an entertainment, because it might be accused for biological determinism due some unlikely dialogues (e.g., how a red blood cell reacts angrily about living sperms who are not reaching the egg). (You know what I mean). No matter how much they use the scientific facts, it’s still a work of fiction.

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, "A Cat, a Man, and Two Women"

This is my first review under A Cat Series. I’ve heard a lot about Jun’ichirō Tanizaki but this is my first book of him. My English version, awesomely translated by Paul McCarthy, is published by Daunt Books in 2015. (I guess there is an older version published in 1990). Tanizaki published the original novella in 1936 under the title Neko to Shōzō to futari no onna (猫と庄造と二人の女) and a film adaptation was released in 1956.

Lily sounds like an adorable cat

It’s a love triangle — plus a cat. After the divorce, Shinako sent a letter to Fukuko, the new wife of her ex-husband Shozo, to give Lily the cat to her. Shozo already had a new wife and Shinako was by herself. Fukuoko ignored it because she thought Shinako was being manipulative; she just wanted Shozo to visit her if Lily was with her — until she found out that Shozo was indeed close to Lily. He loved Lily so much: caring everything about Lily, sleeping with Lily, giving the cat an affectionate love a woman could ask from her husband. Shinako used to be very jealous of that feline, and now Fukuko felt the same thing too. She felt she was the third person in Shozo-Lily relationship. Shozo’s mother once took that kind of jealousy to make Shinako left Shozo. The mother-in-law wanted to have better daughter. But now Fukuko’s jealousy was a problem for her too. Shozo, a spoiled son he was, started to react. And Lily enjoyed her fish, purring and sensing when someone gave her love and food.

The arrival of Shinako’s letter just then should have had the effect of fanning [Fukuko’s] jealousy; but, on the contrary, it served to dampen the explosion of emotion that was just about to occur. Had Shinako only kept silent, Fukuko would have insisted on setlling once and for all the matter of Lily’s unwelcome presence, which she felt she couldn’t endure another dat, by having her sent off to Shinako. But to had over the cat now, afte rthe other woman’s attempt to stir up trouble with that insidious letter, was unthinkable — it would seem like giving in, … which emotion should she yield to?

This novel is quite something. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, as popular as his name, writes a clever story of everyday marriage problem with the cat as his device. From Lily, we gradually learn about those characters, their personality, their changes of attitude. The cat, being an ordinary pet, turns out become the core of this story, and Tanizaki is skillful in playing around the plot and giving his characters reasons to react around the cat in a very sensible way. I enjoy it so much, as I chuckled knowing how peculiar human is when it comes about pet and the tension of human/non-human love.

One part that I like the most is when Shinako finally found herself loving Lily too. I think the cleverness of Tanizaki is on the ways he portrays the complexity of human emotions. The cat is “just” a cat, and people around her tried to making sense of her and behaviour. And on that process of making sense, they found their own emotions, their position in a family — as a women, a mother-in-law, a husband. With no conclusion or any resolution (the last scene was Shozo hiding and running away from Shinako because he visited the cat without her knowing), this story gives an excellent picture about a complex relationship, with an appearance of a lovable cat. Lily is the star, indeed.