Wednesday, March 23, 2011

George Takei on My Mind

Carol Greenburg

Please forgive the delay in my addressing the horrors of the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, which are linked to me in ways that will become obvious as you read this essay.

I'm diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a type of autism. Although I am verbal and can express myself in writing, one difficulty I have is gaining enough control over strong emotions to communicate them constructively. Like many Aspies, another difficulty for me is obsessiveness. Autism experts call this perseveration which is one of those pathologizing terms used to describe a quality they'd call persistence in non-autistic folks. I'm used to perseverating and hearing myself described as obsessive. Nothing new there. The topic of my hyper-focus in these past two weeks, however, is new to me: I can't stop thinking about George Takei.

George Takei and I actually go way back, though we've never met. I used to edit Star Trek novels for Pocket books. Yeah, I know, what better gig for an autistic chick? I joined the team right after they published Mr. Takei's autobiography; although, I have not met Mr. Takei myself, my then-boss, now-husband who was Executive Editor of the Star Trek novel line has had lunch and traded awful puns with him on several occasions. Like any good geek -- even those of us who geek for a living -- I naturally worship at the altar of Captain Sulu. Yet, unlike many people who know about his activism and admire his post-Star Trek work, I never tried to reach out to him personally. I'm no shrinking violet; normally I wouldn't hesitate to at least write a fan letter, but when it comes to George Takei I'm uncharacteristically shy.

Probably the only thing we have in common other than some Star Trek-related friends is that we both speak Japanese. He's Japanese American, and though many people who share his heritage speak little to no Japanese, Mr. Takei grew up in an environment saturated with that language, so he is fluent.

While I have no family members from or in Japan, like most autistic people, I pursue my special interests with an unmatched fervor. As a child, I knew some families of Japanese business people who commuted from my New York suburban neighborhood, and became fascinated with everything even remotely Japanese. I began teaching myself to speak Japanese when I was twelve. A typically developing child probably would have picked up a few words and that would have been the end of it. I on the other hand, with what I like to call my autistic superpowers, determined to hang in there until I became fluent. With the help of a ratty Japanese/English dictionary that was the only reading material on the subject I could find in the '70s, and the endless patience of Japanese neighbors who let me practice my embryonic skills to my autistic little heart's content, I got partway there.

At sixteen, I gave into the reality that I wouldn't get much further with my obsession unless I moved to Japan. And like every other autistic teen with underdeveloped social skills, I got bullied, so I really didn't see the point of hanging around American high school any longer than absolutely necessary. I began to plot my escape by applying for a Rotary scholarship behind my unsuspecting parents' backs, hoping I'd get sent far away, preferably to study in Japan.

As the rigorous interview process shifted into high gear, I could no longer hide what I was doing from Mom and Dad. The Asperger’s diagnosis was unrecognized at that time, but my folks knew there was no point in trying to talk me out of a goal once I set it, so they shrugged, encouraged me, then stood ready to help mend my broken heart when I lost -- except I won. So I left home at 17, and spent what would have been my last year of high school in a tiny Japanese fishing village nestled among Mandarin orange groves on the shores of the inland sea.

As the one white person in town, I kind of stuck out. I suppose if a Japanese American like George Takei had been sent to Japan for part of his education, as was common practice when he was a child, he might have momentarily fit in better there than I did for obvious reasons -- at least until the Japanese noticed his lack of reticence in expressing his opinions. (Like I said, I don't know the guy, but from what I'm told I can't imagine he was any more hesitant to speak his mind then than he is now.) Although he undoubtedly gets the star treatment he deserves when he visits Japan now, in a different time he might have been treated with disdain.

Of course mere disdain still pales in comparison to the treatment he got here in his home country. As the Japanese proverb says, the nail that sticks out gets hammered. Despite the well-deserved recognition of his artistry, George Takei still suffered the outsider treatment his whole life: raised in an internment camp because of his ancestry; too American for the Japanese, too Japanese for the Americans; forced to hide his sexual orientation for so long; and criticized because of his activism on behalf of both popular and unpopular causes.

But my comparatively trivial status as just a bit of an outsider explained my inability to fit in in the US or Japan, and was entirely predictable. All autistic people are to some extent outsiders wherever they go, so it never occurred to me I'd be accepted readily in Japan. I guess if I had thought it through, I would have seen flaws in my plan. A socially inept uber-individualist like me in such a heterogeneous, conformist society: not such a great idea on the face of it. Looking back, I can't believe things worked out as well as they did; but as it turns out, it was all meant to be.

I was obviously an odd duck, but at the time no one knew autism explained much of my behavior. My hosts quite logically concluded that my strangeness was a result of my American upbringing. Untrue of course. My mother is not autistic. In fact she is much like the descriptions I've heard of Mr. Takei's mother: an uncommonly gracious woman by the most rigorous standards of any culture. I was raised right, but developmentally delayed by autism -- it took me much longer than average to learn the simplest niceties such as greeting people and saying goodbye properly when I entered and left a room. Luckily, when I was finally capable of absorbing basic social skills, I had the privilege of living in the most polite society the world has ever known under the tutelage of people who showered me with amazing kindness.

I quickly reached my goal of becoming fluent in Japanese, as I had hoped, but I learned so many other skills I never even knew existed: that people and their feelings are usually more important than principles, so that sometimes an ounce of diplomacy counts more than a pound of the blunt indiscretion I called honesty. I learned about "Gaman," loosely translated as endurance, a quality I already had in abundance. But true Gaman is so much more than that, to merely survive is admirable, but to do so with grace and consideration for those around you is a higher value.

Most importantly I learned lessons about the fragility of life, not just from the chock-full-of-cherry-blossom essays and poems my Japanese Classics teacher made me memorize, but from earthquake drills, and a 20-foot sea wall a block from my host family's house -- which itself had roll-down metal shutters to fend off typhoons and tsunamis alike. The Japanese understand that all of us are vulnerable to catastrophe, whether natural or created by humans. And that understanding helps foster the attitude of life as precious and irreplaceable.

The Japanese have never denied this vulnerability, they have always faced it with grace, even humor. The survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for whom I eventually ended up interpreting are some of the funniest people I know. And perhaps due in part to the many trials he has faced, George Takei's sense of humor is legendary.

He has used that sense of humor to leaven the calm, hopeful, but still urgent message he has been delivering during this painful time in the country of his ancestors. His husband has supported and mirrored this attitude by continuing to deliver disaster relief information even as Mr. Takei himself is doing interviews.

Having worked on behalf of Japanese American interment camp survivors, as well as Japanese atomic bomb survivors, I feel a debt I can't ever fully repay to both groups, My first instinct is to hop on plane to Tokyo. I can't though, which is probably for the best. The Japanese have spent enough energy trying to get me to behave; they don’t have time for my current emotionally overcharged shenanigans. Even my ability as a special education advocate wouldn't serve them now, for I know nothing about special education law in Japan. Although naturally I worry about the disruption in services to children with disabilities that inevitably follow disasters, as a (partial) product of their educational system, I trust they'll provide as much as they can and as quickly as possible.

One challenge my autism poses for me is the constant struggle with Theory of Mind, the notion that other people come from completely different perspectives, that they cannot figure out my feelings or intentions without my explicating them. That leads to all kinds of communication difficulties even for a highly verbal autistic adult like me. Words literally fail me when I’m distressed, as does the ability to remember that not everyone knows what I know, or feels exactly how I feel. So while I understand on an intellectual level Mr. Takei’s beautiful statement that we are all Japanese during this crisis, I’m still emotionally and communicatively delayed, and like so many Aspies and take metaphors too literally.

He’s right that crisis should force people to put aside differences and focus on commonalities, but the rest of me keeps forgetting that, however compassionate, most people are not reacting to this disaster in the same raw, and frankly inappropriate, way I am. Some people don’t have to use every fiber of self-control they have to turn off the TV (24-hour news coverage, I am convinced, was designed to drive autistic people up and down the wall), some aren’t beating themselves up because they can’t remember every classmate’s full name, some aren’t fighting a compulsion to fly across the world and dig through rubble -- getting in the way of the people who actually have expertise in rescue work.

As it so often does, the constant emotional overload of my autism adds to confusion over where other people end and I begin. I understand that unlike the obsession that took me to Japan in the first place, this current obsession helps no one. It just makes me miserable and difficult to live with. So I need something new over which to perseverate. Perhaps I should work on my Gaman, not the endurance part, but the graceful, considerate part that Mr. Takei embodies.

I made a small donation. I'm searching for news of the many people I know who live in Japan. That's about all I can do right now. Most of my effort and money has to be spent on services for my autistic son, who unlike me is severely language delayed. Tenacious fellow that he is, he works harder on learning to speak his native language than I ever did to learn Japanese, and my attention rightfully belongs here with him and children like him, while George Takei continues to devote himself to Japan's relief effort, among other worthy projects. My Japanese and Japanese American friends understand my priorities, I know. Duty to family and community are woven deeply into both of their cultures.

If I do learn to not just appreciate but actually practice Gaman, I might actually get enough of a grip to provide some useful advice to others who wish to help in this crisis. Right now this is the best I can offer: It’s probably a good idea to pour some money, even if you only have a little left over from the autism causes you support, into the Japanese relief effort.  Despite recent economic troubles, Japan is still a fairly wealthy country, so you may think such offers are unnecessary, even insulting to these proud people. I’m not too worried about that possibility myself. The Japanese are nothing if not efficient. Even allowing for chaos and unlikely corruption, I’m pretty sure your donations will get exactly where they need to go at warp speed, especially with helmsman Sulu helping to direct their journey.

If you know anyone living in or visiting Japan, it might also help to type their names and identifying information into Google's excellent crisis response site: And hard as it may be, this is a good time to wait patiently for whatever information that might yield, with complete understanding that planned rolling blackouts will delay the quick response we wish we could get.

Heaven knows I’ve established my own need to practice Gaman. I welcome you to join me in that effort.

For more information on what you can do to help, please visit