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February 21, 2019, Japan

Thicker than water

Family is what you make of it, not just what you’re born into, as Bryant Chan discovers

Bryant Chan

ISN’T it a bit alarming that with a single swipe of a pen, you can legally be family with a complete stranger?

I found myself pondering this when my eldest sister got engaged to her longtime boyfriend Haruki last year. Soon enough, the Chan family went to Tokyo to formally meet the rest of the Matsuda family for the first time.

“It’ll be odd to suddenly have two older brothers,” I told my sister, as we stood swaying to the movement of the Tokyo Metro. “I’ve never even had one before.” 

“If you want to get technical about it, it’s really just one brother.” She awkwardly typed out a message on her phone with one hand, her other hand firmly wrapped around a hanging strap overhead. “Legally, Haruki’s brother isn’t even related to you — just to me.”

This was true. I knew this because I’d Googled the question “How is my sister’s husband’s brother related to me?” the night before. (Answer: he isn’t.)

But sitting opposite the two of them in a restaurant on the 38th floor of Yebisu Garden Place, it seemed like they were barely related to each other, for that matter.

Over the eight years that I’d known him, I’d never seen Haruki’s rakish grin leave his face. He had an irresistible compulsion to pick up every cat he saw. His fastball was the stuff of legend in his local baseball club. He’d survived dysentery in Nigeria and swam with hammerhead sharks off the Okinawan coast.

By contrast, his older brother Takeshi, had said precisely four words since our arrival: “Nice to meet you.” 

Well, I thought. At least he’s polite.

Ten minutes had passed, and all we’d done was exchange cursory introductions. It was the shortest game of broken telephone in history: for about a minute I spoke to him in faltering Japanese, and he responded, slowly, in English.

Then a curtain of silence fell over the two of us, even as the other members of our families continued to chatter among themselves. I fidgeted with my rapidly-cooling oshibori. He polished his glasses on his sleeve. I became uncomfortably aware of how moist my underarms were becoming.

Suddenly, salvation. “Takeshi used to play in a band.” Haruki leaned in briefly from a conversation he was having with his mother and my sister, perhaps sensing my discomfort. “He’s the Matsuda family rock star, you know.”

“Don’t talk about that.” Takeshi snorted, dismissing his brother with a wave of his hand.

“That was many years ago, when I was still in college.”

I hazarded a guess. “Guitar?”

“Yes, guitar.” He looked at me. “Do you also play?”

“Well… I’m learning, but slowly.” I pulled up a picture of my guitar on my phone, a flamed-maple Swing R-2 Plus in a gorgeous shade of forest green.

A low whistle. “It’s very beautiful.” 

“I only know a little AC/DC right now, though,” I admitted. “And only the rhythm guitar.”

For the first time, I saw a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. “Sugoi. I also like AC/DC. Do you know Van Halen?” 

Did I ever. Band names were offered up, tentatively at first, then fired off like we were reading off a jukebox. Nirvana. Asian Kung-Fu Generation. Twisted Sister. BandMaid. Creedence Clearwater Revival.

“You have good taste.” Takeshi nodded his approval as he thumbed through my Spotify playlists.

“So why don’t you…” I stopped. I realised I only knew the word for practise — renshuu — but not perform or play. “Why don’t you practise with your band any more?”

He shook his head as he passed my phone back to me. “Because you don’t have time?”

“I’m just a little bit…” Takeshi tapped his chin, looking for the right word to use. “Sukoshi hazukashii, ne?”

“It’s not embarrassing at all,” I assured him.

“No, no.” He gestured to himself; his navy blue knitted sweater, his tartan scarf.

“You can say that because you’re still young. I am almost 40. It’s not...good... for someone so old to go on stage, play music in front of so many people… you know?”

I tried to stifle my laughter with a sip of tea and failed miserably.

“I am being serious,” he said, though he was smiling. “Why do you laugh?”

That’s the most Japanese thing I’ve ever heard, I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how.

“Sasuga nihonjin,” I told him instead. How Japanese.

The smile turned into a grin — and just for a moment, I saw the slightest hint of his younger brother’s mischievous streak in his eyes.

“Yes.” Half-melted ice cubes clinked as he drained the last of his shochu. “Sasuga nihonjin.” 

Three umeshu sodas and a couple of chu-hai later, I don’t quite remember what I said over the rest of lunch.

I do remember having a lot of fun, though, which I think is what matters more.

“Thank you for today,” I told Takeshi, my head pleasantly fuzzy, as our respective families stood up to part ways. Chairs scraped the floor in a chorus of wood on slate.

He looked at me quizzically. “What for?”

“Um…” I knew the word for youth, and the word for people, but not the phrase for young people.

“For… talking,” I said instead.

“It must be boring to have to talk to youth… people… youth people? Children.”

“Waka,” he corrected, smiling. “And no, it was fun. It was good for me to practise my English.”

“My Japanese will be better the next time we meet,” I promised. “I’d like to practise more in future.” “I’m sure we will.” He extended a hand. “It is more comfortable to speak to family, also.”

Family. I silently tasted the word in my mouth, feeling it trip across my tongue. Kazoku.

Were we really, though? Not less than two hours ago we were complete strangers. And now, just because our siblings were getting married to each other, we were supposed to be family — even if, technically, we weren’t?

“Family,” I said, this time out loud.

Takeshi hesitated, withdrawing his hand slightly. “Is that strange to say?” I thought for a while.

“A little.” I grasped his hand firmly, and shook. “But I think I could get used to it.”

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