The Autonomic System is a speculative investigation of the relationship between my mother, a Swedish immigrant who arrived to the U.S. in 1965, and my Japanese American father, born and raised in Honolulu. In contemporary lingo, we were a transnational family, where she and I spent the school year living in a suburb of Stockholm while my father remained in the San Francisco Bay Area. Photos from these years show me alternately decked out in Disneyland paraphernalia and sprawled on the carpet in front of a large television console, or back in the milieu of the middle way: midsummer celebrations around the Maypole, the only black-haired kid in each and every class photograph.
My father passed away in 2001, and his death – as many deaths do – triggered the realization that a multitude of questions surrounding my origins and childhood would forever remain unanswered. As an only child growing up alternately in California and Sweden, my sense of belonging depended on the ability to shape-shift and accept that one half of me would inevitably remain unknown in either place. As an adult, I hoped to fuse these unknowns through an increased understanding of my parents’ motivations and desires, but with my father’s death, one possible route of inquiry came to an end. Although I believe that the past can be a cache of answers concerning the present, I am less interested in those answers than I am in the poetic architecture of that repository.
In this text, I also seek to map the political onto the personal by looking at how past and present paradigms concerning gender, interracial relations, and immigration were (and continue to be) the negative space locus of my family’s experience. Given the sociohistorical context of their meeting, my parents fell in love in a lingering aura of civil rights, third world movements, and second-wave feminism – all had made a clearing for people of color and women in 1960s and 70s, and my parents’ identities were shaped by these advances. I see this text as an intervention in the perceived black-white (now increasingly brown-white) polarity of U.S. race relations vis-à-vis questions concerning Asian American gender norms, sexuality, and interracial relations. In addition, I explore my mother’s gendered experiences as a first-generation white immigrant to this country, her appreciation of racial difference and gender equality shaped equally by Myrdalian recommendations and Hollywood exports. As a mixed race, bilingual, and bicultural child and adolescent, I frequently attempted to juxtapose the differing tenors of social justice and equality in the U.S. and Sweden: in that light, this project takes on the quality of a personal archaeology, an excavation through the strata of the popular, the personal, the political, and the psychological.