Wandering Heart

I picked up Wandering Son (the manga) shortly after Christmas in 2016, and over the span of the next ten days, I slowly worked my way through the series’s fifteen volumes. I quickly fell in love, and while I was reading, I juggled around the idea of writing something up to express how I felt, and how much it meant to me. But as I got further and further in, what it meant to me became something so intensely personal I wasn’t sure I could put those feelings into words. Or that, if I did, those could possibly come even infinitesimally close to demonstrating how important it was.

And then I hit the final volume, which depicts almost exactly the struggle I was going through, and the conclusion gave me the push I needed to give this damn thing a shot. It’s going to be messy, disorganized, and probably rather unpleasant—much like myself—but I feel like I have to do this. Like it would be, in a way, disrespectful to the series’s final message for me to not spill my heart as well.

So that’s what I’ve done. It’s taken a full year, but I’ve put together a mostly unedited, meandering pile of 5000+ words in the hopes that maybe a fraction of them can stand as a representation of my feelings for this series. And that maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have at least somewhat sorted through some of my other feelings.

[Spoiler warning: while Wandering Son isn’t a story-focused series where spoilers are a big deal, I’ll still offer a courtesy warning before I get into the meat of things. This post touches on events from the manga that take place well after the anime ends, as well as from beyond what’s officially available in English.]

[Misc warning: this is mostly actually not about Wandering Son, but the boring person writing the post.]

[Content warning: brief descriptions of (fictional) self-harm and suicide, non-fictional homophobia and transphobia.]

The Story of a Boy

Takako Shimura’s 2002-2013 manga is about a lot of things. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll borrow from how the manga describes itself: It’s about Shuichi Nitori, a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino Takatsuki, a girl who wants to be a boy, following their lives from fifth grade until they graduate high school. (As a side note, this is the one and only time I’ll refer to Shuichi as such.)

Shuichi experiments with wearing skirts and dresses and all manner of hair accessories, while Yoshino wears t-shirts and jeans, chops off her hair (for a while, at least—the characters go through a variety of hairstyles over the course of the series), and binds her breasts when they start to develop. The two of them occasionally go out together, dressed in their preferred attire, far enough from home that they’re not likely to run into anyone they know.

Wandering Son‘s early volumes are frenetic and fragmented, a highlight reel of Shuichi’s and Yoshino’s most memorable childhood moments. Reading it is much like the experience of digging through my own oldest memories. Most come with little context, barely a thread binding them together, and no clear reason why those memories stuck with me as opposed to an endless array of other possibilities.

Shuichi is, in no uncertain terms, extremely blessed. For every person who would make fun of her, she has three who will stand up and fight to defend her and ten more who will offer their support. I grew up in an LDS household, the oldest of six children and the object of great expectations. Anything short of an A+ was an F, and the slightest deviation from the straight-and-narrow was an unconscionable affront to everything good and right. “Support” was plentiful, but it only extended so far as it fit my family’s vision for me. As someone who’s always hated conflict, I mostly just shut up and tried my best not to rock the boat.

From a fairly young age—possibly three or four—I had an odd fascination with my two-years-younger sister’s clothes. Much like Shuichi furtively eyeing her sister’s new outfit at the end of the first chapter, every so often I would find myself doing the same when my sister got some new skirt or dress. For a good part of my youngest years, it lay mostly dormant, bubbling up every now and again but not actually coming to the surface until around sixth or seventh grade.

I don’t remember what the exact trigger was, but one day, while my sister was out of the house, I snuck into her room and dug around through her clothes, hastily trying on a couple pieces in front of the large mirror on her closet door before shuffling off in fear of being found. While nothing fit particularly well because of the age difference, this continued on and off over the months. At one point, I rather stupidly “borrowed” a couple items and stashed them away in the bathroom for easier access. So as to not arouse too much suspicion (and give the clothes a chance to be washed), I would occasionally swap them out for a new set.

I remember almost having a heart attack when she came up to me one day, holding the stolen clothes, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “I think [younger brother] might be gay. I found these in the bathroom. I think he’s been wearing them.”

I don’t remember how I responded—I might not have said anything at all—but suffice it to say, that near-miss encounter put a swift end to my girl-clothes-wearing days. I didn’t have the allowance—or the courage—to buy any of my own, and unlike Shuichi or Yoshino, I didn’t have anyone I felt like I could confide in.

There was no way my Mormon parents would be anything resembling understanding, and I had very little in the way of interaction with girls my age, let alone anyone I could call a close friend. This was in part due to an overwhelming lack of social skills and in part due to the fact that we were mostly forbidden from spending time with kids of the opposite sex. I wasn’t allowed to have girls over or go to girls’ houses, and likewise, my sister wasn’t allowed to do the same with guys.

Perhaps the only resurfacing of this was a brief episode near the end of my eighth grade year. On the way back from a field trip, one of the girls in my class vehemently insisted on me letting her paint my nails. I haven’t the faintest idea where this came from—a couple friends who witnessed the event later told me they thought she had a crush on me—but I gave in with a little resistance. For the next 15-20 minutes, she carefully painted bright, sparkly blue polish on my nails at the back of a dark, quiet school bus. When she finished, I looked down at my hands, intensely satisfied—the barely suppressed smile hidden under the veil of night.

But I knew the clock would soon strike midnight and the magic wear off as the bus rumbled ever closer to home. My parents wouldn’t stand for their pride and joy, their first son, wearing nail polish. That was for girls, of course. So I kept my hands buried deep in my pockets when they came to pick me up from the school, and with no polish remover on hand, I spent a good hour or so in the shower that night laboriously scratching it all off.

She and I were split up in ninth grade, only sharing I think one class for half the year, and then she either moved away or dropped out (I don’t remember which). After that, I never heard from her again, meaning the one person I could have possibly explored the idea of how I wanted to present myself was gone, and I was back to square zero.

Without the means or the confidence or the support I would have needed to continue, my story ended right about the point Shuichi Nitori’s began.

Playing My Part

While my high-school years were fraught with peril and fairly typical teenage drama, what kind of clothes I wore and how I presented myself were not chief among my concerns. There was, however, a lurking refrain in the back of my mind that would occasionally float to the surface: “God, I wish I was a girl.” There was never any real reason attached to it—just a moment’s yearning that quickly faded back into background noise. I never really gave it much thought beyond that, either. It was simply a fantasy, a fleeting desire, nothing I could ever do anything about.

So I focused on the things that were more immediately relevant to me: being a dumb teenager.

Being in an LDS household, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16, and we were highly encouraged to pick our partners from within the church. The latter point didn’t much concern me, and shortly after my sixteenth birthday, I worked up the courage to ask out a girl in my grade (who I will refer to as R) who I had gotten to be friends with over the previous year. Much to my surprise, R accepted, and we started going out. Mostly, we did boring teen stuff—go see movies, play World of Warcraft, take each other’s clothes off.

That last one didn’t go over too well with my parents, as all forms of premarital sexual indulgence were staunchly forbidden by the church. But by that point in my life, I was thoroughly disillusioned with religion, so I wasn’t particularly concerned with following their rules where they couldn’t see me. At home, I was a model Mormon boy, studying to one day go on a mission and spread the word of God. But as soon as I left, I was a vulgar, horny teenager who liked to read schlocky fantasy novels and sneak into R-rated movies with my friends. And being a teenager, I was naturally not very adept at keeping my sinful deeds from my parents’ watchful eyes.

For about a year, my relationship with R held steady, until one day, my mother spotted an unfortunately placed hickey peeking out through the collar of a shirt one size too big. This set off a wave not unlike Shuichi resolving to wear Yoshino’s uniform to school. The very act of being myself deemed an unthinkable act of rebellion. Though rather than a deliberate decision to express myself as I wished, I had simply failed to keep my split lives sufficiently separated.

Growing tensions between me and my parents over this started to create a rift between me and R. Deciding they couldn’t trust me anymore to be a Good Mormon Boy, they required R to attend church with us (a three-hour commitment) in order to “earn” a date each week. While she generously complied with their ridiculous demands for some months, that—along with a litany of other teenage troubles—led us to a prolonged cycle of fighting, breaking up, and un-breaking up, until we finally ended it for good somewhere around the midpoint of our senior year.

One of, if not the very last of our major confrontations involved R pointedly proclaiming she thought I was gay. I never did learn why she said as much, but (assuming it wasn’t merely an off-handed jab) with about a decade’s worth of retrospect, I feel safe in assuming it was because I came off as too “girly,” and that was the only explanation she could come up with for my behavior. I’ve always been on the… emotional side, though I’ve mostly kept it to myself—I rarely get outwardly mad or upset at people because I dislike conflict, and I rarely cried because Boys Don’t Cry™—but I had grown comfortable enough around R to be more open with my feelings. And one of the big points of contention in those last months was that she didn’t feel like she could cry around me because it would cause me to cry too.

Of course, I haven’t spoken with R in god knows how many years, so I can only make assumptions, but it’s the answer that makes the most sense to me now.

Signs Unseen

College is a place of self-discovery. A massive array of classes on all different subjects at your fingertips, so long as you have the interest, drive, and willingness to put yourself into incredible amounts of debt in exchange. Students floating from major to major every other month as they discover the real thing doesn’t quite live up to the shiny PR blurbs. It’s a land of opportunity, ripe for exploration—the chances you’ll find the right answer under any particular rock you overturn as slim as pulling the character of your choice from a mobile game’s gacha.

Too indecisive to plan out the own course for my future, and too scared to go out into the world on my own, I applied to (and was accepted into) the same college as about a half-dozen of my closest high-school friends, picking the same major as most of them as well: computer science. I enjoyed programming, and I enjoyed messing around with computers, so it seemed like the perfect choice. There was my answer, in the very first box I had opened.

But as the months passed, I realized—as fun as programming was—it wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do. I also enjoyed reading, and I had dabbled a bit in fiction writing in high school. Creative writing had been a way to escape from a less-than-pleasant reality and (in retrospect) a safe outlet for me to explore certain aspects of myself. I wrote stories of pirates and haunted caves. I wrote a tale of a werewolf—a young boy shifting between two identities, bullied and eventually killed simply for existing. In retrospect, an obvious allegory for my relationship with my parents and my life at home and out of it.

I’ve frequently heard it said that the aftermath of discovering one’s self is akin to looking back through the early pages of a mystery novel once you’ve finished. With the answer in hand, the hints seem almost brutally obvious. And how apt a description indeed—as I flipped through dusty manuscripts while working on this post, I stumbled upon a story I had written in my senior year of high school entitled “Endstop.”

It tells of a boy who one day suddenly began menstruating. Confused and panicked, he confided in his best friend, only to be immediately betrayed. Word spread quickly, and he was bullied by the entire school, driving him to quite violently cut off his own penis before committing suicide. My subconscious was not subtle, to say the least, the story including such choice lines as “You don’t tell your mom your body’s had an identity crisis” and “God sure fucked up with you, Tracy.”

All my fears were laid bare, but my dumb teenage mind was too dense, too ignorant to understand what it was saying at the time.

I shared both that and the werewolf story with R, who, upon reading them, quite pointedly told me I was a very bad writer. They faded into the annals of my hard drive, and then I proceeded to forget I had ever written them—until now, more than a decade later.

Despite the lack of support, I still liked doing it well enough, so I used my elective slots to enroll in some literature and writing courses, eventually deciding to pursue a minor in creative writing. And in what was possibly one of the few instances of me stepping outside my comfort zone to do something for me, I joined a writing club helmed by a girl who frequently showed up in those same classes. Together, along with a couple other people, we wrote the first handful of chapters to a really hokey fantasy novel. We never did finish, but we had a blast getting together and hashing things out, trading ideas and brainstorming plot developments. And through that experience, I discovered two very important things: that there were people who would support me, and that I enjoyed writing as much as I did fiddling with code.

Dreams Too Fragile

And then one day in my sophomore year, seemingly out of nowhere, a close friend of mine from high school (who I will refer to as S, and who went to a different school) messaged me with a handful of links to photos. S said that I could choose to look at them or not, but that she was a girl now and they were pictures of her as herself and not the S I had grown up with.

I was confused at first. Unsure how to process this entirely unexpected revelation. Unlike Shu/Yoshino’s friends and family, our personal circles were, it seemed, not as conducive and welcoming to individual expression and exploration. And so she had kept it to herself. But as surprised as I was, it was also a revelatory moment—the very first time it had occurred to me that the ever-more-frequent refrain of “God, I wish I was a girl” might not be just a fantasy. That it could actually be done.

One roommate, however, was not so accepting. His response was one of, “If he’s still got a penis, he’s a guy,” and at the time, I had neither the confidence nor the conviction to fight him on that point. But seeing this out-of-hand rejection of one friend’s identity from another, as well as hearing about how poorly S’s parents took the news, nipped my swelling hopes in the bud. I wasn’t strong enough to take that kind of rejection. The risk of ostracization by the only people keeping me upright was too much to even consider.

So I buried the thoughts, yet again, and focused on finishing my degree.

Not All Rainbows and Sunshine

Perhaps Wandering Son‘s harshest take on reality comes in its third act. After failing the entrance exam to attend the same high school as Yoshino, Shuichi enrolls in an all-boys academy. She gets a job as a waitress at a small café using her sister Maho’s name, and one of the first things she remarks on is how little people going about their daily lives seem to pay attention to people on their peripheral like her. She’s amazed that, even as her body grows more and more masculine, she can still be herself without attracting attention.

This illusion is quickly shattered, though, when Shuichi has a chance encounter with a girl named Minamoto, who was class representative when they were in fifth grade. They talk for a bit, and the next thing Shu knows, Minamoto’s promised to drop by the café where Shu works. Panicking, Shu realizes she can’t go out as a waitress any longer—at least not until the visit happens, which could be at any time. Almost immediately, Minamoto and a few friends raid the cafe, and dressed in a male uniform, Shu makes it through the day safely.

Relieved, she returns to working as a waitress, neglecting to consider they might come back—which is exactly what happens. While no one seems to realize they’re the same person, Shu desperately reaffirms to herself that people don’t pay attention. People don’t pay attention. But as Shu’s collecting their dishes, one of the girls slips her a note scribbled out on a napkin. She wants to talk.

So a few days later, they meet up at a fast food restaurant. Her name is Jougasaki, and as it turns out, she’s a writer, and she’s curious about the psychology of men who crossdress. Jougasaki bombards Shu with a series of questions, but their discussion is interrupted by the appearance of a broad-shouldered older man in a dress, Taiichirou Ebina, and his daughter, Midori. When they’re done eating, Jougasaki prompts Shu to chase Taiichirou down, because she wants to ask him a few questions too.

Taiichirou tells them he first started crossdressing after his wife passed away. As he was sorting through her belongings, some of her old clothes caught his eye. He squeezed into a dress too small to zip all the way up, found a pair of unopened stockings, and knelt down in front of a mirror to rifle through her makeup—when Midori walked in on him, to his relief too young to understand what she was seeing. Before long, he had purchased a wig and better-fitting clothes, and he started going out in them with Midori, all the while doing the best he could to keep it a secret from his mother, who lived with them.

But after sharing this with Shuichi and Jougasaki, Taiichirou says he knows he can’t keep it up much longer. Midori’s going to be starting school soon, and he doesn’t want to cause any problems for her. Shu asks if he’s really okay with just quitting forever, and he thinks to himself, what choice does he have? If he were prettier, more naturally feminine, then maybe society would be able to accept him. But he doesn’t have that luxury, and his daughter is more important. After the groups part ways, Taiichirou laments how he immediately failed to pass as a woman and expresses envy at how effortless it must be for Shuichi. He envies how early Shu got started.

A few days later, he calls Shuichi and asks if they can meet with her dressed as a girl. After talking for a bit, Taiichirou remarks that if he were to be found out by an acquaintance, it would be the end of him. And mere moments later, they cross paths with the woman Taiichirou is dating. She doesn’t seem to notice, but he’s horrified, and the next time we see him, he’s trashing his wig and all his women’s clothes.

One day, going out for lunch with a few coworkers, Taiichirou passes a man dressed in a sailor uniform. His coworkers inform him that the man is fairly well known in the area. That he’ll occasionally sing, and he has a great voice. Taiichirou worries he had unknowingly made a name for himself as well—the old man in a dress who brings his poor little daughter with him everywhere—and he says he’s glad he threw out the wig. But once he’s back home, he starts thinking back on the encounter.

You’re only allowed to break from the mold if society decides you have something of value to provide. If you’re easy on the eyes like Shuichi. If you can sing like the man in the sailor uniform. If you can play the over-the-top okama stereotype for their amusement. [If you’ve seen my occasional tweets musing about cosplaying as different female characters, that’s another (unconscious, at the time) manifestation of this idea.] Taiichirou has nothing to offer society for his right to express himself, and he knows it. But instead of yielding to pressure and conforming to the expected norms, he admits that even if he wasn’t pretty, and even if he couldn’t pass as a woman, those were the clothes he wanted to wear.

While apologizing to his sleeping daughter, he says he’s changed his mind. He wishes he hadn’t thrown everything out.

In his final appearance in the series, Taiichirou tells Shuichi that he opened up to the woman he was dating. Told her that he crossdressed. Shu asks how she responded, and he says he hasn’t heard from her since. He says that, while maybe sometimes opening up can push those you care about away, he feels better having finally gotten it out there.

From Zero

After graduating from college, I moved back home and set out on the next predetermined step of my life: the job hunt. Place after place after place I applied, and every single time I was rejected. My college friends all found work in short order, or otherwise went on to grad school, so I quickly found myself left behind. And while this was going on, my mother was away from home for personal reasons, and my father regularly worked late into the night, forcing me into the position of acting as a surrogate parent for my three youngest siblings.

For the better part of a year, I had very little time to be myself—I was either pretending (and failing) to care about every company in a thousand-mile radius in the hopes of turning the obscenely expensive sheet of paper that proclaimed I was Educated into gainful employment, or I was cooking dinner, driving three children I never asked for to all manner of activities, and picking up a seemingly endless supply of abandoned dishes, toys, and clothes to maintain some small façade of order. I enjoy cooking, and to an extent cleaning (organizing, to be more specific), but I derived little pleasure from being forced into the responsibility.

My only source of respite lay in the realm of ones and zeroes. Friends on IRC. My small Twitter circle. Hours watching anime in between filling out applications and writing cover letters. Studying Japanese. And a little game translation project I started on the side for fun.

By the time I was free of my trial parenting duties, I was exhausted, determined never to have children, and drained of motivation. I stopped sending out applications save for the occasional promising-looking opening, but the answer was always the same. My attention shifted from responsibility to recreation. I played more games. I watched more anime. I translated like crazy.

June 2013, a little over two years after finishing college, the project was released, and for the first time since graduation, I felt like I had actually accomplished something. And along with it came two rather unexpected side effects.

One, I found myself the subject of significantly more attention than I was used to. And watching all these people I’d never interacted with before talking to and/or about me, I noticed something curious—a not-insignificant number of them presumed me a girl. I had never paid much attention to how I presented myself online, so it hadn’t occurred to me until then that these strangers beyond the LCD might perceive me as anything other than Another Internet Dude. I wasn’t bothered—in fact, I was a mix of amused and flattered.

The second side-effect of the project… was that it would lead to me finally finding employment—first as a translator with JAST USA, and later as a programmer and translator with MangaGamer. I had found success in doing what I wanted, rather than what was expected of me. I had been me, and things had actually worked out. It was a revelation, and it was a dream come true. I now had the opportunity to work doing both of my favored activities—programming and writing.

About six months after joining MangaGamer, I was assigned to work on a little visual novel by the name of The House in Fata Morgana. At the time, I knew nothing about the game other than it had a unique art style and half the staff were under the impression it was an otome title.

But as I read through it in preparation to begin the translation, I discovered something very different and so much more important than I had ever expected. Rooted in themes of self-discovery, not letting others get in the way of you being you, and finding people who love you for who you are, Fata Morgana struck a chord with me stronger than perhaps any other piece of media I had ever experienced—and it convinced me I needed to give my life a long, hard look.

Was I being true to myself?

Working on games I enjoy was certainly a good first step, but I didn’t think I was all the way there. I’d been forced to suppress myself at every turn for the better part of two and a half decades, so I wasn’t sure I even knew how to be true to myself.

Did I have a direction, then? Something I wanted to be? Something that was more “me” than the person I was then?

At least based on my experiences thus far—the fragments of my past that, amongst the endless sea of memories, have managed to stick with me through the years—there would seem to be a pretty obvious answer.

The Story of a Girl

As a first step, I started growing out my hair. I wasn’t sure what I ultimately wanted to do with it, but it was something I had never been allowed to do growing up. Only girls can have long hair—boys get buzz cuts. And I wasn’t getting another goddamn buzz cut.

I bought a couple ill-fitting skirts with the money I had earned from translating, sneaking them into the bathroom in the wee hours of the night and trying them on in front of the mirror, in much the same fashion I had with my sister’s clothes in middle school. Only this time, these were mine. I was still afraid of being found—the long streak of direct and indirect denials of who I wanted to be, starting from a young age, has left scars that may take years yet to overcome.

Constant affirmations that I was a boy, and thus I must act like a boy, have ingrained those expectations into my very foundation. My father shouting at the top of his voice whenever I would cry, as well as the disastrous impact doing so had had on my relationship with R, had rendered me physically incapable of shedding tears by the time I entered college. At most, even when deeply affected by something, my eyes would get moderately moist. And as I went through the process of reexamining myself, that was something I decided early on I wanted to change. But hard as I tried, nothing managed to break through the two decades of conditioning I had gone through—until this year, the raw emotional powerhouse A Silent Voice shattered that dam and left me a genuinely blubbering mess for the first time in my adult life.

After six years, I’ve finally moved out of my mother’s house—somewhere several states away, where almost no one knows me or has any expectations of me. Somewhere that offers me more opportunities to explore my identity than I’ve ever had before.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, there’s a nagging voice telling me I’ll end up in the same boat as Taiichirou. That I started too late. That my shoulders are too broad and my voice too deep so I’ll never be “convincing” enough. That opening up will push away everyone I care about. But at the end of the day, I’m not going down this path for acknowledgment or recognition (I say after writing 5000 words about my own life). I’m doing it because it’s what I want—it’s what I need.

And as my next step on that journey, on this the celebration of an arbitrary delimitation of the passage of time, I’m casting off the equally arbitrary labels assigned to me at birth.

I’m equal parts terrified and excited to see what awaits me down this new path, and I hope everyone who’s stuck with me this far will continue to accompany me wherever that may be.

One End, Another Beginning

In Wandering Son‘s final stretch, Shuichi decides to take up writing, prompted in part by Jougasaki’s creative writing endeavors and in part by her own experiences writing at a young age.

One of her motivations is to help sort through her own feelings. And another is the hope that maybe, by telling her story, she can give someone else the push they need, in much the same way Yoshino gave her the push she needed to ultimately find herself.

And what a push it was.

3 thoughts on “Wandering Heart

  1. I see you dear, and I feel you. Reading your personal story, I felt a number of clear moments parallel to my own life. Whether it’s that moment of getting painted nails or the painfully obvious signs looking back, you’re not alone in experiencing and feeling what you did.

    I hope that your story will also go on to inspire and push someone in the right direction, as Shu had done for you.

  2. I saw this on my Twitter timeline and I’m so glad I was able to read this amazing piece. Weaving experience and exploration and Hourou Musuko into your own narrative made it that rich and eager for myself and others to root for you.

    And while I do not say this to overlook all of that, I am thankful for the bit about translating, too, no matter how small a mention it was. It led you to better prospects and The House in Fata Morgana, and I work everyday in the hopes of gaining my own success in the field as well.

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