The body can translate into any language. A jump, a twist midair, the conviction of feet returning to ground: they are impressive wherever he goes. So it is a simple pleasure to do this, an art that requires both intense concentration and a peaceful emptiness of mind. It is also a way to keep warm in a country where the wind is acrobatic enough to throw rain in every possible and impossible direction.
Djiu Be Fu is popular. He suspects that it’s not purely because of his performance, because he could be an attraction while doing nothing at all. People gawp at him like he’s a talking animal or gaze as if he is an exotic treasure. Sometimes he forgets and sucks his teeth in case there is food caught there, or touches his head as if he is wearing a strange hat. But it is all of him that is strange: his accent, his eyes, the strong shine of straight hair. However, he is a performer, and performers can’t live without eyes on them. A show means freedom, not just of body and mind, but of the consciousness of difference.
He will have to return home sooner or later, but he still doesn’t have money to prove it was worth leaving in the first place. He will have to tell stories of the places he has been and the things he has seen, and he rehearses them in his mind the way he rehearses his routines. When I travelled with the circus… or In England, they… or Irish people always… That’s what is done when you leave home. You return with money and with stories. The stories are probably the more important of the two.
He always dreamed of the places at the ends of the roads that led out of his small town. He only ever heard gossip about the people who had left the borders of China. Yuewen went to Taipei to be an actress. Wei left for Japan to become rich. Whenever he asked where these people were now and if he could meet them, there was always a shrug or a head shake. He never came back. We never saw her again. If he asked why, he would be told, She is too wealthy to be bothered. He is too poor to come back. Her family is dead. He wanted to go, but he wanted to return, too.
He considered ways to escape. A businessman? But he was bad at math and hated to haggle. A teacher? But he had no knowledge to impart. A soldier? But the battles being fought were within China or at its borders, and that was still too close to home. Besides, he might die.
A circus visited. He loitered after the show to talk to the performers, who told him they had been everywhere and were on their way to go there again. He practised balancing, tumbling, and flourishing, and when the circus returned a year later, he said, Look what I can do. And when they left he left with them, and travelled over land and sea.
In a small town by a grey lake in the west of Ireland, the circus performs. After the second performance, a young woman waits by the tent to say that he had been amazing and she had read about China in books and would he like to take a walk with her tomorrow? So he finds himself with a girl with black hair and blue eyes, strolling around the edge of the lake in the softness of the early evening. She’s eager to talk and point out what had been a moat and a castle centuries before, the white swans and their grey children, the glowing stained-glass windows of the cathedral.
She is the first audience for his stories and is as rapt for tales about London as she is about Nanjing. He asks if she wants to travel and she says, Yes, more than anything. She pauses. Does the circus need any workers? He thinks of all the possibilities that could unroll before him: saying no and leaving decently tomorrow, saying yes and stealing her away, remembering her when he is old and married in China, marrying and growing old with her in China, parting ways in some European city or in the next town. He is so engrossed in the envisioning of these futures that he doesn’t see the group of men coming their way on the path. One of them calls the young woman by her name and asks her what she’s doing, and she replies smartly, Walking and talking.
It’s only after they are around him that he senses danger. They exhale alcohol and their hands are suddenly pushing him, taking his arms, dragging him toward the end of the pier. Her voice is echoing like a church bell across the water, but they laugh and yell over her. It’ll do him no harm. He needs a wash, look at him. The skin on him. They are pretending to each other that it is a joke and that they don’t mean anything bad to happen, not really. Arms lift and swing and heave him into the air and he flings himself forward on the momentum, diving up and somersaulting. If they throw you then embrace the air. If you fall then do it with grace.
Underwater, everything is hazy and slow. He can skim through the air so easily, but the water is heavy and unforgiving. It is as cold as exile. If they throw her into the water he is ready to catch her as she tumbles down, but there is only him. There are noises, perhaps voices calling to him, distorted by distance and time. How will they find him? This is the farthest from home he has ever been.
Even as a dreamy teenager, I wondered how big of a problem it was that I identified so closely with a gravestone. It’s in the graveyard of Loughrea library, a converted church that still houses sacred things, namely books. There’s an information sign in front of the church about when it had been built and other historical details, but the final paragraph reads:
Perhaps the most unusual headstone in the burial ground is that of Djiu Be Fu who died on August 27th, 1936. A Chinese performer, he lost his life tragically in Loughrea Lake.
I was a reader of everything as a child—The Farmers Journal, ancient magazines, the parish newsletter, countless books—and was instantly impatient once I had finished them. But I read these two sentences over and over, even though I never found the actual grave in that deteriorating cemetery.
It was comforting to know of another Asian in Loughrea history. By the time my younger sister was in first year she had classmates from Poland, the Philippines and Brazil, but for the majority of my secondary school years the foreigners were just me and two girls from England. I had lived in Ireland almost my whole life, a handful of years before it became a place where people immigrated to rather than just emigrated from. My mother is Irish, so really it was a homecoming as well as an immigration, though the homecoming part is not usually what’s picked up on. But here was another exotic foreigner who had been in Ireland long before me and settled here, if not in life, then at least in death.
I thought about that Chinese man in the graveyard because, in a place where everybody seems the same, there is solidarity in any difference.
Djiu Be Fu was rich, an eccentric who had left his wife and child in China to travel westwards across Asia and Europe and Britain. He discovered that the west coast of Ireland was the final piece of land before the ocean and Canada. He was a drinker, and the heat in his face made the cool lake water irresistible. He was prone to panic, and flailed his arms until they were exhausted, and then he slipped beneath the surface, flaming cheeks becoming pale and cool.
I have a memory of a white Irish boy, a cousin or a classmate, saying once, If you call a Japanese person Chinese, it’s like calling them a pig. I absorbed this and because I was a child I didn’t question why he thought this or how he had learned it. I remembered the woman in the Asian food shop who used to give me white rabbit rice sweets; the shopkeeper who yelled at me when I tried on sunglasses and then walked out of the shop to show my mother; my parents’ reminiscences about The Pink Pearl’s dim sum in Vancouver and the waiter who would usher them to the top of the queue because they were such regular customers. I thought about the goldfish given to us by the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Athlone. He was friendly and chatty—excited, I think, to see other Asian people. My brother and sister and I admired his fish tank, and we were in the car when he rushed out of the restaurant and handed us a 7Up bottle with two little glimmering fish swimming inside.
I thought of my father walking down the street and a man passing by saying to his son, Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees. I thought of sitting on a bus and a girl outside pulling the corners of her eyes up and down. They hadn’t known the difference between being Japanese or Chinese; they had just known difference, and for them, too, that was similarity enough.
Djiu Be Fu was a poor scholar touring with a book about the history of ceramics in China. He was performing readings to small crowds. He lost his footing and fell into the water and there was nobody nearby to help him. They said later that the copy of his book in his coat was too heavy, and dragged him down. His dying regret was not listening to his editor.
One day, when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen, I went into the library and sat in the back corner, across from the small section of historical non-fiction. A title hooked my eye and I lifted a heavy hardback book from the shelf. It was The Rape of Nanking, detailing the Japanese destruction of the Chinese city in the 1930s. I began to read the introduction and very soon felt sick. The man in the graveyard died in 1936, and in 1937 Nanjing was brutalised. I closed the book and felt layers of guilt settle as I returned it to its space on the shelf, about what I didn’t know and what I was afraid to learn.
There are miles of difference between people and countries, created by history and culture and language and time. Maybe if that Chinese man had met me and my family, he would have felt no solidarity at all.
Djiu Be Fu had an Irish lover but when he went to her home to meet her family they refused to let him in the door, told him to go back to where he came from, and her pale face at the window only watched. He threw himself into the lake in dramatic despair and his heart was a stone in his pocket.
My Japanese grandfather fought in World War II. We didn’t share a language, so could never speak about it. Even if we could, we wouldn’t have.
He was my Japanese grandmother’s second husband. Her first had died in the war. I don’t know how long they were married or how much time they spent together before he died. They had no children. In my grandparents’ house there was a photograph of him that I’ve never seen. This first husband was handsome, according to my mother, who was the one who spotted and asked about the photo. Very handsome, she said.
After his death, my grandmother was left with only her husband’s name, and this she was made to keep. When my grandmother married again, her new husband—my grandfather—had to take her first husband’s surname: Kumagai. My grandmother had become a Kumagai when she married into the family, and now she was the last one who could carry on the name. And her father-in-law insisted that it be carried on, no matter the blood. This is not unheard of in Japan. My grandfather had been the third of four sons in the Sawada family; perhaps he would not have inherited much, perhaps it was better to become the head of a different family, perhaps after the war there were few choices left, perhaps it was love. My grandfather, like his new wife, accepted the conditions of marriage, duty, tradition. If that first husband had survived, what would I be like? My name would be the same, but my blood would be different.
My actual grandfather returned from the war. I don’t know where he had been sent or what he had done. My father’s family were farmers, and in the house they had silkworms, in the garden they grew vegetables, in the forest they foraged mushrooms. After digging up sweet potatoes, my grandmother showed me how to wash my hands in the rainwater gathered in broad leaves. My grandfather fed his iridescent koi carp and mourned when the herons sometimes plucked them from the pond. Things grew and lived and were consumed and lived again. There are many things I am still afraid to know.
Djiu Be Fu had an Irish lover and when he went to her home her family ushered him in, delighted, and plied him with cake and tea. She put her mouth close to his ear and whispered that he should tell them that they were engaged. He made hasty excuses, avoided her grey eyes, left the table, thought a swim would clear his head. An eel touched his leg in the water and he panicked and drowned. His lover mourned, recovered, and married a Welsh man. It was said she had a taste for foreign men.
On a mountainside in Aichi Prefecture, behind our Japanese family home, there’s a graveyard. Japanese gravestones are usually tiers of stone with a pillar on top, as tall as my shoulder or my eye. My grandmother inherited her first husband’s house, and his family’s graveyard. There are twelve generations of Kumagais, split over two different plots. The first is right beside the house, the gravestones small and rounded and weathered, replaced now by a polished stone to represent the first six generations. The other six are higher up, at the end of a mountainside path. That’s where my grandparents are now. We put a pinch of rice on each gravestone and pour water from a kettle over the pillar. Then we bow and clap and bow again.
I wonder if my grandmother’s first husband is here, too. Where did he die, and were his remains brought home? Perhaps he is far away and lonely, killed for a cause meaningless to him; maybe he was proud to fight for his nation and ready to do the things that countries at war demand. In Japan, families usually have a simple altar or shrine in their home, small enough to fit into an alcove or on a shelf. They honour household gods and ancestors. Family members who have passed away can be memorialised there, even if their remains are far away. So my could-have-been-grandfather might be remembered in such a way, somewhere. The end of his story is the same, either way: He left to fight and never came back.
I was born in Vancouver, which has one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America. People emigrated, lived and worked there, but it’s hard to forget home. In the 19th century, some families paid for the bones of their dead to be dug up and returned home to China, where they could rest in true peace. For the man buried in a Loughrea graveyard, there was no such service. In China, Taoist followers have shrines in their homes. Dead are remembered during Ghost Month. Maybe there is a family who also has a story they tell: Djiu Be Fu left home to become famous and never returned.
Djiu Be Fu was not a performer at all, simply a quiet, curious man. But somebody said the only Chinese in Ireland were in the circus, and so the rumour spread. He didn’t drown at all but had a swift and sudden heart attack at the edge of a grey lake and fell gently into the soft mud.
When I started this, I wrote one story about Djiu Be Fu but realised that telling only one story was wrong, never mind that all of them are fiction. Different versions of Djiu Be Fu’s history have wandered through my mind for years, but if any of them are true it’s by chance, or coincidence, or something else. Maybe he would be angry at these fantasies, or pleased at remembrance, or amused by speculation. I remembered him as a circus performer, but when I hunted the internet for the exact inscription, I found that there was no mention of a circus at all. I’d presumed it from Chinese and performer in as reductive an assumption as any I have encountered myself. As simple as, You’re not from here.
I’m often asked how I’ve ended up in different places—Tokyo, Vancouver, Galway. I can spin out a handful of stories, versions abridged and unabridged, depending on my mood and the manner of your asking. I can go back as far as my parents meeting in the US almost halfway between Ireland and Japan, or to my birth in Canada, or my neighbourhood in Tokyo, or I can just say, Ireland, and see what you dare to question. There are so many paths that lead us to the places we are and as many ways to tell them.
Djiu Be Fu was raised in An Cheathrú Rua and had far more Irish than Mandarin. He had been infatuated with the giddy spin of jigs and reels from a young age. Musicians played with their ears and their hands, so it didn’t matter what he looked like. In Loughrea he had so mighty a session that his whole body was dizzy with music. It was the dawning of the day when he and his musician friends left the pub and strolled along by the lake humming bars of music. At the pier, the water rolled a steady beat. I’m going to swim, he told his friends. Mad! they said, It’s freezing! But in he jumped, and perhaps it was because he was singing that he choked and inhaled lungfuls of water. His friends jumped in to save him but they were too late. He was buried with his fiddle and the musicians played an Irish lament at his grave.
Differences don’t need to be erased and similarity shouldn’t equate to sameness. But when we are young or when we don’t know any better, it’s easy to do because it’s simpler and it’s comforting. Friends who are also half-Japanese or mixed race—especially if they grew up isolated from a wider community—have told me that they know this feeling: You’re different like me. I suspect, for myself, this reaction will never go away. But what intrigues me more now are parallels, mirror images, intersections. They’re uncanny and marvellous.
Standing in cemeteries, looking at stone and carved characters, all I can do is imagine and remember. I’m the result of names and blood crossing oceans, leaving, returning, living, dying. In a graveyard while remembering another graveyard, I think of two men, both dead long before me, in places they did not suspect they would be, being written about by a person they would never have considered. If they saw me, they would wonder where I came from. They might think: she is not my blood, and they would both be correct. Perhaps they would think: she is a little bit like me, and they would both be right about that, too.