Chi discusses her relationship with her mother, shifts when forming American friendships, and the importance of her fabrics.
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Chiharu Roach. I’m from Japan, and I’m 45 years old. I graduated from a university in Japan and then I came here. I was studying education, specifically children’s psychology. I came here to help artists who paint murals. I applied for a working visa, but I couldn’t get it so that why I started to go to school here.
Why couldn’t you get a working visa? I’m not sure how it all works.
It was a long time. I was waiting in Japan to get the interview, but they even said no to the interview. I had to find some way to stay here, so I said, “I don’t speak English well, so maybe I will go back to school.” Then I got the student visa. At that time, I was already in my 30's, so they didn’t want to give me that either, but they gave me the one-year student visa. I tried to extend it, but they declined. I was waiting for a year to get that. I already had an apartment, and finally, I got another student visa here. I didn’t visit Japan for eight years because I didn’t want to get in trouble.
Wow! What was it like moving to a completely different country?
[Laughs] I had no one when I came here. I am the only child, and my parents are still in Japan. It is still difficult sometimes. When I came here 17 years ago, Birmingham was very different, and there were not many Asian people, so everyone looked at me like a strange animal. There were not many people open to me. It was especially difficult to make friends. I think finally I have some good friends so that’s why if I have a problem, I can ask them and of course I can ask my husband to help me too. But it was totally different.
How often do you go back to Japan?
Once a year and I stay for about three weeks. I’m from Nagoya. It's a pretty big city, and it’s too fast. We have so much responsibility. One mistake and everything goes into a big mistake.
What do you mean?
For example, We have to take a big exam to get into college. We have to pass that exam, and then we can get in. If we do not pass, we have to change our program, and some kids cannot handle that.
Did your parents put a lot of pressure on you to succeed?
Yes! You know, I’m the only child, and I'm not a boy. I can’t keep my family name. It makes my parents feel disappointed, and it’s already one thing that makes me feel bad. My parents never said to me, “You did a good job!” They never said that. The just said “You did good, but you can do better. So that was a lot of pressure.
Do you still put that much pressure on yourself or were you able to move past it?
I’ve moved past that, but my husband is American, and sometimes I think that his mother tried to make me feel better by always telling me how great I was doing. I don’t like that. It makes me nervous. But if someone told me that I did good, but that I could do better, that makes me feel better. I can always do more.
In Japan what would a successful person look like, specifically a successful female?
I try to be a professional artist. I have some art shows here, and some people are getting to know me, but for my parents, don't see me as a success. For them, if I can have a big art show, they might say “Oh! You’re doing good!” But still, they are thinking that I’m not good enough. They want me to be — not famous —but well known. Then they will believe that I am good.
My friend Doug met my parents in Japan at his art show in Tokyo. They came with me to see his art show, and Doug told them that I am doing good for the art field in Birmingham and that I should have an art show in Japan too, but they said, “No, she’s not that good.” But that’s the culture. They never say good things about children. We don’t do that. They always told me don’t be snobby or think that you’re too good. Be humble.
I feel like that’s so different from American culture. How do you balance staying humble while also recognizing that you are a good artist?
I can tell where my level is in the art field, so I just try to do my best little by little whether that means the art I try to make or getting my work in art exhibits. I always try to get better and better. I don’t want to jump in my abilities. You know, nobody can jump up like that. It is a process.
Can you tell me more about your artwork and your style of work?
I’m so happy that you asked me that. In Japan when we pray, we would say so many things over and over. For example, we pray and make wishes for people to get well. That is the traditional way to pray. The hairlines in my artwork are acrylic paint. I use a tiny brush and make those lines over and over and over. This is my prayer. So when I paint my pieces and when I make the hairlines, I pray for the people who commission or buy my piece.
What do you do when you fail?
There if you fail, I don’t think people know how to try again. That’s why so many young people or people my age stay in their house with no social connections, but the internet and don't keep a job. They are so scared to make another mistake. It’s a very big problem in Japan because you’re not given another chance. But here, so many times you can make a mistake or fail, and you just say, “Okay! Try again!” I think Japanese people are too sensitive about it, but here it is very laid back. That part, I really like about America. Nobody cares when you make a mistake.
Did you fear failure?
I didn’t really fit Japan well. You know, I had friends, but somehow I was a little bit different, especially my tastes. I like skulls [laughs]. Japanese girls are not like that. Some people think that I am crazy. Over here if I have a dead bird or insect in the freezer, there are people here who would say, “Oh! I have one in my freezer too,” and that makes me feel like I am not that bad. It’s not that way in Japan.
In some parts, I fear failure. First, I was not a boy, and I can’t take the family name. Second, I am here. I probably broke my parents’ heart. I feel a lot of pressure to succeed here. My mother has a little bit of a control issue. She is a mathematician. She also has five brothers and sisters. Her parents had a big noodle shop. Because she didn’t get enough love from her mother and her older sister was lazy, she doesn’t know what the typical mother is like. So I guess that's why she wanted me to be a good daughter somehow, and she doesn’t know how to be a good mother. We struggled for some time.
I feel like that’s a universal kind of tension. I have first hand seen and experienced that kind of thing. It was almost like this weird tension of the things that she didn’t have the opportunity to do; she wanted that for me. There’s sometimes can be a tension between what our mothers want and what we want for ourselves.
Yes. Yes and there’s so much pressure. I was thinking that it doesn’t matter where I’m going to move in Japan because she was going to try to move in with me. She’s a great person, but a little bit different in my world. She thinks that education is great and good for me. She spent so much money — it didn't matter. She’d spend it. I never got a Barbie doll. She never bought it, and I don’t know why. I think she wished that I was a boy. From my view, that’s why she didn’t get me a lot of girly things. She’d put me in clothes like a boy. Everyone was thinking that I was a boy.
Have you ever talked to her about that?
Ohh no. No. Now I call her and then she calls me. We have a great relationship, but it was not that great when I was younger. It was very hard.
Do you think that you’ll ever talk to her about it? I guess the big question is how do you resolve family issues?
I don’t know. You know, my father is not the first son. His older brother was going to keep the family name, but still, probably my mother wanted to keep our family name. Since we didn’t have a male child, we can't.
How do you think your parents feel about that?
They don’t say anything, but they are probably so disappointed.
How do you feel about that? Was it your choice not to have children?
Yes. I don’t think that I can be a good mother. I don’t want to be like my mother. I studied education, and I saw a lot of kids who had problems but usually the problem is from their parents. Some kids cannot go to school because of so much pressure from their parents to do something else. The kids are not the ones with the problems. Actually, it’s the parents who have the problem, but parents believe that their children have them. I see that a lot and I feel so sorry for them because they don't have a choice.
Why do you think that your parents never said anything to you about not having children?
Yea, they used to say things a lot, but being now far away by phone, if I want to hang up, then I just hang up [laughs]. I think that they may have given up.
What’s your relationship with your dad like?
My father just listens to my mother. If my mother is right, it’s right. He’s a sweet guy, but he never is on my side. So that’s why I just feel that I try to do my best to study so hard and make my parents happier. They are now 69 and have a vegetable garden. I guess that makes them feel better because they have something to take care of and it’s much easier than raising kids.
How did you meet your husband?
I was painting a big mural at my client’s house. He was a carpenter, and that’s where I met him. We’ve been married for almost eight years. We are totally different. He loves the outside — hiking and camping. I like to go to the museums, watching movies, and drinking tea. Total opposites.
That’s so cute. My husband and I are like that, too.
Oh really! How do you do deal with it?
Well, it started out with yelling matches, but now I’ve gotten to a place where I realize that sometimes you have to show your love by doing things that you’re not necessarily interested in, but that you know your partner enjoys. You find your happiness doing those things by seeing that the other person is happy. You give 100% hoping and trusting that they will also give 100%. We’ve learned to pick our battles and to let things go. What about you?
We used to fight a lot [laughs], but now he bucks up, and I buck up too. [?? 38:45] Now I try to do things that he likes, and he tries to do things that I like too. Eight years is long enough to figure things out, but it's still hard. I told you that my parents never gave me praise, so that’s why I don’t do that to my husband. But he grew up that way, so I try to do that for him. It’s very difficult.
What do you value?
Of course, I value friendship. Friendship is so important. Me and my husband — our relationship is very important too. Also, creating time — my own time — is so important for me. I also like food [laughs].
What were your first friendships here in the United States like?
It was different. Very Different. My friendships in Japan, I don’t see them many times when I’m busy over there, but somehow I can still tell that I’m connected. If something happens or if I say something, then I can tell that they care and that they know how to care for me. Here, it is very different because people, even between friends, say “That’s not my business." Sometimes I can see that even when they don’t say anything back. In Japanese friendship, we are so honest and open.
Have your values shifted since moving here from Japan or would you say that they have stayed consistent?
When I was in Japan, my own time and my friendships were important because I had so many friends supporting me, even the neighborhood people. There, every neighbor was involved in my life. The community was honest. Truth is important. I cannot be fake. Here, Southern girls, they are not close, but they act as if we are best friends. I cannot understand. Do you have any experiences with that?
Oh, yea. I try to be very open and honest. I enjoy deep conversations about things so I kind of struggle here. I was actually just talking to a friend who drives back to her hometown often. She has people that she was friends with in high school. They’ll see each other once a year and be like, “Oh! It was so great seeing you! We should hang out soon.” But no one ever follows up on that. It’s just very surface level a lot of times. That’s difficult for me to deal with. It’s hard to find good friends that are open.
When I came here, it was so difficult to find good friends. Some American girls would say, “Let’s go out this weekend on Saturday!” I would agree and be so excited, but they would call me and say, “Oh! We found something else. We have to cancel.” What does that mean? In Japan, we don’t do that. A promise is a promise. So that’s why it’s so different. Being myself is so important.