God Loves Ugly

Let life be a bowl of melted ice cream. — Sean Daley

I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, right on the corner of King and Normandie, the heart of the ‘hood. Hollywood and the media likes to portray my old neighborhood as a land of gang violence and drug wars, and admittedly, there is a lot of truth in that. However, that’s not what I saw. That’s not what I experienced. South Central LA, for better or worse, is just one of many communities around the world caught up in the beautiful struggle.

Without a doubt there is an ugliness to urban life (and life in general). Some cities are worse off than others, everything from street drugs, to prostitution, disease, unemployment, to systemic disenfranchisement. Yet mixed in with all this ugliness are some genuinely amazing people. Most of them are just trying to get by, building lives out of what has been offered.

I grew up next door and played video games daily with two brothers. The younger being a crack-baby. We never once spoke about that little detail and it in no way changed how we felt about each other. We are still good friends to this day. The older brother has pretty much spent his entire life slogging through 50+ hour workweeks at a supermarket to pay rent and medical bills for his younger brother. He’s still single and as far as I know never had a serious girlfriend. He’s dedicated nearly every waking hour to making sure his younger brother has some semblance of a normal life. There is a sadness here, but also something so extremely beautiful…

My elementary school was approximately 90% Hispanic, I was part of the other 10%. My classmates were mostly all first generation Mexican-Americans. I remember visiting their homes and meeting their families. My Spanish was terrible then and remains so now, but that’s how we had to communicate. Just more details we never spoke of, but they probably didn’t enter the U.S. according to government protocol. They went about life as normally as they could, taking jobs as house cleaners, gardeners, cashiers, fry chefs, construction workers and mechanics. They loved, fought and prayed the same as all catholic-American families do, but at any moment, it could have all been ripped apart. Living illegal always carries such threats, but the rewards may indeed be worth the risks. I’m very proud to say that all of us from that inner city, immigrant-populated elementary school have gone on to make very good and stable lives for ourselves. And now a second generation of South Central Mexican-Americans are building upon the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. Roses are growing up through the concrete of Spanish LA and it is truly a beautiful thing. 

It may not be perfect, and there is a lot of pain involved, but even an ugly existence can be enjoyable. And in some ways sweeter.

Perhaps my tastes are a bit perturbed, but a bowl of melted ice cream is a lot more appetizing than a perfect scoop. There’s no frosty bite and the silkiness is more pleasing to the tongue. It’s not how ice cream is meant to be consumed, but it still tastes great.

I moved away from my beloved Los Angeles to sojourn the world and now find myself stranded on the island of Japan. My life here convinces me that the tale of Odysseus and the island of Ogygia may actually be rooted in fact. I too am surrounded by playful nymphs who have done a marvelous job of binding me to an enchanting and sinful land.

Japan is not the U.S., not in the slightest. It is a culture and people completely unique in their ways and philosophy. There is no city here that can compare itself to the likes of LA or New York. The ugliness of Japanese urban life is not associated with drugs, violence or crime, though those things do exist. There is an altogether different kind of beautiful struggle. It is a struggle of the soul, mind and heart.

A tension, strong and ever present, is always felt — a tug and pull between personal desire and social obedience.

One of the first pieces of Japanese wisdom I was forced to wrap my head around is the notion of 本音建前 (honne tatemae). There are many interpretations for this expression, but for today we’ll define it as, “The Truth and The Facade”. We all have a face we show to the outside world, which according to social norms, must at all times be beautiful, elegant and clean. Then there is the face only our family and closest friends may know — the face which shows our many hideous scars.

A wealthy Japanese friend of mine is trapped in a loveless and some might say cruel marriage. She won’t even consider divorce. She was married at 20, has never held a job, and has never lived on her own. She says the very thought of being a single, middle-aged woman is too scary to contemplate. But when she’s out and about she always looks very nice in her Gucci blouses and seems contented driving her Ferrari 360 Modena to the international supermarket.

Another friend of mine travels to China quite frequently on business, but also to see his second family, which his first family knows nothing about. He married his Japanese wife out of duty, because his parents had arranged the marriage and told him he must. He married his Chinese wife out of love. He’s certain the two families wouldn’t get along so it’s best he keeps them apart.

One might say I’m a very bad judge of character and I like to hang out with unscrupulous types. That might be true, but I mention these stories because they are indicative of an ugliness that isn’t uncommon here. It’s entirely different from what I saw in my youth. Yet, they share the same foundation. These folks are making the best out of what life has given them. It may appear abhorrent to many, but there is some enjoyment to be had. It’s all melted ice cream.

If you believe in a divine entity, we might agree that it is responsible for creating all that is beautiful in the world. And if this is true, then it is responsible for all that is ugly too. And I’m sure we can all agree, a divine entity is inclined to love all its creations. So, let’s be like the divine. Let’s love ugly.

These concepts of ugliness, beautiful struggle, the truth and the facade combine to create the theme of my debut novel, Chizawa Bay, As Ugly As I Am. The story is set in rural Japan with a cast of quirky townsfolk and through them, I hope to reveal a little bit more about what is truly beautiful in a seemingly ugly life.

*I draw a lot of inspiration from the musical stylings of the band Atmosphere and the title of this post references their 2002 album God Loves Ugly.