Between Ventura Beach and Pacific Coast Highway, on a desolate misnomer named Pleasant Valley Road, lined with decrepit strip malls and non-places that blight suburban California, lies a rundown cemetery. The small plot of land caught my eye on one of my long drives because the tombstones are Japanese.
The decaying cemetery with a handful of run-down graves behind a chain-link fence is the final resting place for Japanese migrant workers buried at the end of the 19th century. The local Japanese society does some volunteer upkeep, but the men and some children buried there have no relatives that visit, no family, no descendants that remember them. They died in a foreign land, far from home.
Japan is a magnificent land, ancient, and full of spirits. The years I lived there were formative for my intellectual and spiritual development. The beauty of its nature, the feverish complexity and order of Tokyo, and the mystery and spirituality of its countless temples and shrines are sublime and unforgettable.
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.G. K. Chesterton
But Japan is not my home.
A friend said, “I love Japan, but I could never die here, I fear my spirit would not find its way home.”
I understood. My soul is not Japanese, and the land is not mine. I have no tethers, no anchors holding me down.
The above thought haunts me whenever I drive past the Japanese Cemetery on Pleasant Valley Road. Did the spirits of those Japanese men find their way home, or are they untethered in a foreign land, lost in the oceans of eternity.
I worry about my spirit.
My home no longer exists.
I was born in the early eighties, Bucharest, Socialist Republic of Romania during the most austere time of Ceausescu’s regime. My early childhood memories are of a liminal era in Romania. I was six when the 1989 revolution began. I remember the tanks and armored personnel carriers. I remember the feverish excitement of the revolution. The Romanian flag with the socialist seal cut out. The sound of distant gunfire.
I remember the Christmas execution of Ceausescu and his wife. Walking through a snow-covered Bucharest and seeing buildings damaged by machine gunfire. I vividly remember the Romanian Athenaeum, close to where my grandmother lived, being damaged by a tank shell. I remember that everyone was afraid of secret police infiltrators, Securitate agents, boogiemen in a liminal time.
I remember the first Coca-Cola I ever tasted.
It was during that liminal stage of life that my mother moved our family across the world to Southern California. I just started the 1st grade.
My mother was an oikophobic Americanophile. Growing up I had no exposure to my culture. A barbarian raised in a foreign land.
When I meet Romanians my age, I have a hard time connecting with them. I left as one country died and a new one sprung out of its ashes. The 1990s were a formative time for Romania as the Soviet Bloc collapsed and the forces of market capitalism took hold. Any Eastern European that lived through that chaotic transitory decade of collapse and rebuilding is marked by unique circumstances that are hard to understand from the outside.
I grew up on the beaches of Southern California. Eastern Europeans my age grew up through Boris Yeltsin and the Balkan Wars. I had the Los Angeles Riots and O.J. Simpson.
I haven’t been home since 1991.
The country I left as a child no longer exists.
The country I made home is starting to fade, become unrecognizable.
Maybe this is why the American desert speaks to me. Its nature is transitory and untamable. The Natives who made it their home came across the ice from Eurasia, their pictogram-filled desert caves abandoned before any white men set foot on the land. The prospectors searching for gold. The Mormons for a promised land. Cowboys, bandits, railroad men, immigrants, criminals, merchants, all of them foreigners. My people.
Thoughts of home, of permanence, of space, consume me as I approach middle age.
I fear the fate of the Japanese men. Buried in a foreign land. Forgotten.