Content Warning

The following post contains disordered eating and self-harm.

Content Warning

The following post contains transphobia and racism.

Essays
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I take a serious pride in being a Naruto fan from the very start. Five years old, fighting exhaustion on late Friday nights, I witnessed Naruto’s evolution from outcast to leader, the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village. As he and his ninja friends were Naruto Running on their way to village outskirts and battlefields, arms out and dangling behind their aerodynamic bodies, I was doing the same thing running laps around the school gym, proud that I was watching something all the other kids weren’t. I didn’t let myself get tired because Naruto never did. I didn’t let anyone tell me shit because Naruto never did. He couldn’t perform a basic cloning jutsu spell, so he learned a more complicated multiple cloning jutsu instead. He had a demon fox sealed inside of him and was known as the ultimate bad omen to his village, but he was going to become the Hokage. Because that’s Naruto’s ninja way—to choose goodness no matter what and succeed because of it. And even though I didn’t necessarily have the words to describe it at age five, I wanted to become my own hero as well, my own Hokage. I wanted to become the highest, most enlightened version of myself, a ninja legend.

I take a serious pride in being a Naruto fan from the very start. Five years old, fighting exhaustion on late Friday nights, I witnessed Naruto’s evolution from outcast to leader, the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village. As he and his ninja friends were Naruto Running on their way to village outskirts and battlefields, arms out and dangling behind their aerodynamic bodies, I was doing the same thing running laps around the school gym, proud that I was watching something all the other kids weren’t. I didn’t let myself get tired because Naruto never did. I didn’t let anyone tell me shit because Naruto never did. He couldn’t perform a basic cloning jutsu spell, so he learned a more complicated multiple cloning jutsu instead. He had a demon fox sealed inside of him and was known as the ultimate bad omen to his village, but he was going to become the Hokage. Because that’s Naruto’s ninja way—to choose goodness no matter what and succeed because of it. And even though I didn’t necessarily have the words to describe it at age five, I wanted to become my own hero as well, my own Hokage. I wanted to become the highest, most enlightened version of myself, a ninja legend.

I was always set up to be a ninja villain instead—in Naruto terms, a hero who never made it, a hero who never found comrades or friends, and an outcast. I was one of three Asian kids at my Catholic kindergarten through junior high school in Ossining, New York, a quiet suburb whose only landmark is Sing Sing Prison. Everyone else was white, including our teachers. The most ethnic school lunches available were tuna sandwiches and pasta with meat sauce. The few times I dropped three dollars on tuna, I was met with pinched noses and claims that Chinese people smell, fart, and shit unlike any other race because there’s something inherently different and disgusting about the way we eat food. It wasn’t until after I graduated that the school added vegetarian options other than frozen pizza and grilled cheese. Last time I checked the menu, it even included a vegetable. Even when I was drafting my valedictorian speech, I had the condescending, white eyes of my grammar teacher tell me that normalcy isn’t a real word. Naruto, however, would have had the courage to talk back. I didn’t. I let my speech do all the talking and dropped the mic on 500 white people, all shocked that I ended up as the representative of the Class of 2012. 

The bullying at home was somewhat predictable—a side-effect of first-generationness. It was just harder to accept. I’m the only child of two Chinese immigrants who grew up and achieved the absolute most in Shanghai and still came to New York City for more. They grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, which only hardened their drive to struggle, survive, and overcome anything. My mom’s first gig in New York zapped her from a shared Brooklyn basement to a three-floor Westchester townhouse. My dad spent his childhood begging for scraps in Szechuan and ended up thirty floors up on Fashion Avenue. China’s hyper-nationalism shaped my parents’ lives and ended up shaping mine more than I would have liked. Since elementary school, my parents were taught to call the Japanese guizi, or devils, for the bloodshed and tragedies committed during the Japanese invasions of China.

I remember sitting across from my mother, asking for historical clarification, as she recited “qi, qi, lugouqiao”—seven, seven, Lugou Bridge—like a Chinese proverb. The Lugou Bridge Incident ramped up already existing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese armies and marked the bloody start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. 

So from my parents’ anti-Japanese childhood to their hyperproductive adulthoods, it came naturally that they resented their golden child for dedicating hours of her life to watching Naruto. While I was honing my ninja run, both at school and home all I heard were high-pitched mockings of the Japanese language, of Naruto, of my only friends.

Even a few episodes of Naruto itself messed with my head. I found out that my favorite character, Sasuke, my first ever crush, had his whole clan massacred, and as a result, he went rogue and left the village to avenge his bloodline. I think this is where my villainhood arc got juicy. I was so absolutely devastated by this plotline I stopped hugging my pillow pretending it was Sasuke—never mind the distress that my first crush wasn’t even a real human.

By the fifth grade, the original run of Naruto ended after 220 episodes and was becoming another aspect of my life I couldn’t exactly keep up with. My Sundays consisted of language classes, PSAT prep, finishing up regular homework, piano practice, and parental screaming. I didn’t have the energy for Naruto anymore.

In the meantime, Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto had moved on to developing a new series, Naruto Shippuden, which follows Naruto’s teenage and young adult years. The last time we see kid Naruto, he vows to bring Sasuke back to the village, and embarks on four years of hard training. For Shippuden, Naruto comes back as a battle-hardened man, and I came back streaming on VIZ.com, unaware that the business trips my dad was taking to China maybe foreshadowed his leaving the house like Sasuke left the village. 

Shippuden also came back with a bang, teasing Naruto’s reunion with Sasuke. His hard training was finally about to pay off—except it took another 50 episodes before we actually chronologically made it to that moment. For context, the diehard Naruto audience had to wait two years, ten months, and nine days to see Naruto and Sasuke back together in any meaningful way, grown and now hating each other. From age seven to twelve, I waited, mourning the way Sasuke violently knocked out the girl who loved him and tried to stop him from leaving. And, fuck, Sasuke still doesn’t come back.

My dad didn’t come back either. My life felt like an anime where I was now a full-fledged villain. The ninja way I had inherited from Naruto, the determination to achieve, enlighten, and never give up, had gotten completely warped. The vigor with which I once had pursued goodness and Hokage-ness I was now misdirecting into self-harm and eating disorders. 

I was always set up to be a ninja villain instead—in Naruto terms, a hero who never made it, a hero who never found comrades or friends, and an outcast. I was one of three Asian kids at my Catholic kindergarten through junior high school in Ossining, New York, a quiet suburb whose only landmark is Sing Sing Prison. Everyone else was white, including our teachers. The most ethnic school lunches available were tuna sandwiches and pasta with meat sauce. The few times I dropped three dollars on tuna, I was met with pinched noses and claims that Chinese people smell, fart, and shit unlike any other race because there’s something inherently different and disgusting about the way we eat food. It wasn’t until after I graduated that the school added vegetarian options other than frozen pizza and grilled cheese. Last time I checked the menu, it even included a vegetable. Even when I was drafting my valedictorian speech, I had the condescending, white eyes of my grammar teacher tell me that normalcy isn’t a real word. Naruto, however, would have had the courage to talk back. I didn’t. I let my speech do all the talking and dropped the mic on 500 white people, all shocked that I ended up as the representative of the Class of 2012. 

The bullying at home was somewhat predictable—a side-effect of first-generationness. It was just harder to accept. I’m the only child of two Chinese immigrants who grew up and achieved the absolute most in Shanghai and still came to New York City for more. They grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, which only hardened their drive to struggle, survive, and overcome anything. My mom’s first gig in New York zapped her from a shared Brooklyn basement to a three-floor Westchester townhouse. My dad spent his childhood begging for scraps in Szechuan and ended up thirty floors up on Fashion Avenue. China’s hyper-nationalism shaped my parents’ lives and ended up shaping mine more than I would have liked. Since elementary school, my parents were taught to call the Japanese guizi, or devils, for the bloodshed and tragedies committed during the Japanese invasions of China.

I remember sitting across from my mother, asking for historical clarification, as she recited “qi, qi, lugouqiao”—seven, seven, Lugou Bridge—like a Chinese proverb. The Lugou Bridge Incident ramped up already existing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese armies and marked the bloody start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. 

So from my parents’ anti-Japanese childhood to their hyperproductive adulthoods, it came naturally that they resented their golden child for dedicating hours of her life to watching Naruto. While I was honing my ninja run, both at school and home all I heard were high-pitched mockings of the Japanese language, of Naruto, of my only friends.

Even a few episodes of Naruto itself messed with my head. I found out that my favorite character, Sasuke, my first ever crush, had his whole clan massacred, and as a result, he went rogue and left the village to avenge his bloodline. I think this is where my villainhood arc got juicy. I was so absolutely devastated by this plotline I stopped hugging my pillow pretending it was Sasuke—never mind the distress that my first crush wasn’t even a real human.

By the fifth grade, the original run of Naruto ended after 220 episodes and was becoming another aspect of my life I couldn’t exactly keep up with. My Sundays consisted of language classes, PSAT prep, finishing up regular homework, piano practice, and parental screaming. I didn’t have the energy for Naruto anymore.

In the meantime, Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto had moved on to developing a new series, Naruto Shippuden, which follows Naruto’s teenage and young adult years. The last time we see kid Naruto, he vows to bring Sasuke back to the village, and embarks on four years of hard training. For Shippuden, Naruto comes back as a battle-hardened man, and I came back streaming on VIZ.com, unaware that the business trips my dad was taking to China maybe foreshadowed his leaving the house like Sasuke left the village. 

Shippuden also came back with a bang, teasing Naruto’s reunion with Sasuke. His hard training was finally about to pay off—except it took another 50 episodes before we actually chronologically made it to that moment. For context, the diehard Naruto audience had to wait two years, ten months, and nine days to see Naruto and Sasuke back together in any meaningful way, grown and now hating each other. From age seven to twelve, I waited, mourning the way Sasuke violently knocked out the girl who loved him and tried to stop him from leaving. And, fuck, Sasuke still doesn’t come back.

My dad didn’t come back either. My life felt like an anime where I was now a full-fledged villain. The ninja way I had inherited from Naruto, the determination to achieve, enlighten, and never give up, had gotten completely warped. The vigor with which I once had pursued goodness and Hokage-ness I was now misdirecting into self-harm and eating disorders. 

My story is really not too uncommon. It’s a meta-type microcosm of the experience of first-generationness. You think you’re some type of unicorn pariah, but you’re really just living the average first-gen Asian life. The morality of Naruto isn’t complicated, yet it’s realistic. Every villain is convinced they’re a unicorn, that they were so uniquely wronged nobody could ever understand the pain. And the kicker of every episode is that Naruto does understand that pain. He knows it’s nice to seem different, even if negatively. He knows it’s nice to bask in solitary darkness, plots of revenge, and marked unicornness. But, at the end of the day, he always chooses good, chooses comrades and love and positivity. Young Naruto spent 220 episodes over the four-year run of the original Naruto explaining his pain to every villain and forcing them to abdicate their own.

I didn’t watch anime at all throughout high school, so I was not afforded the enlightened luxury of encountering, battling, and losing to a personal, real life Naruto. I battled my eating disorder instead. I was threatened with inpatient and foster care, forced to gain weight, and all the while, I was still playing into the villain arc, choosing negativity and misery at every turn. My parents stoked my unicornness and let it simmer endlessly in pure ignorance, giving no second thought to my daily post meal trips to the bathroom, to my insistence to wear hoodies in 90° weather to cover my slit wrists. If a villain secretly craves being saved right as they drop the big bomb, my parents didn’t even know I had a bomb in the first place. 

It has something to do with the perceived Asian aversion to expressing love. I grew up in a family of three with a three-floor townhouse. It was always quiet because quiet meant good. My mom bitterly resigned herself to housewife duties, and my father roamed around between so-called business deals and streaming old Chinese spy movies. No one really ever hugged. No one ever kissed. No one ever said bless you after a sneeze. The way attending a Catholic school around white families conditioned me to seek and need love, to my mom, this was laughable and somehow inelegantly naive. I was always called “dia”—a sticky brand of needy and trying to be cute—accompanied with a patronizing laugh. It’s honestly still hard to tell if my mom was a tiger mom or slightly emotionally off. She would yell and scream, and once threatened me with scissors, but she’d approach me an hour later with a bowl of fruit.

The bowl of fruit is apparently such a universal experience for kids of Asian immigrants that there are TikToks describing the cut up apples and oranges as the closest an Asian parent can get to a real apology. It’s media like this that de-unicorns the Asian kid experience and shows us that we all grew up the same way. I recently went to 88Rising’s Head in the Clouds music festival, a gathering of 30,000 people, mostly Asians, with strikingly similar fashion tastes and all singing the same songs written by and for Asian people. I am not a unicorn. There were 30,000 more of me in the Rose Bowl alone. How many bowls of fruit is that?

My junior year, my unathletic ass surprisingly started training martial arts with absolutely no remembrance of Naruto. My home gym full of huge men and one hyper-athletic Wonder Woman became my first real comrades. In some ironic twist of fate, through oblivious kicks and sparring sessions, I remembered Naruto when my mom snarkily compared me to him. You could say I was now honing my martial arts and qi defense for her instead.

My mom and I still had problems after that point, but when I moved out for college, I really took control of my life. She forced herself into my apartment; I showed her out and called my landlord to take her off my lease, like an adult. I had no interest in her tentacle-like, constrictive antics and eventually grew to hold no frustration or negativity of any type for her at all. I was over at her house doing laundry a week ago. 

I started calling my father when I moved out too. I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen, save for the half hour he spent at my high school graduation. The phone calls started out with me yelling, demands for emotional reparations accompanied by a lot of tears. At some point, through early morning university lectures, I made peace with the fact I don’t have a mom and dad like other people do. Naruto was orphaned too.

I started my official rewatch of Naruto about a year ago, during my junior year of college, bored and locked down from COVID. I’m still only halfway through the saga. I was in tears every time the opening and closing songs changed, shocked that I still knew all the words to Japanese songs I couldn’t even understand. I cried when Sasuke left, but only a little. I still haven’t seen him come back yet, but now almost two decades later, I really don’t care if he does come back. I like to think that I don’t love him anymore because I’ve healed so much and ascended so far above his misery. Nowadays I use antiheroes like Sasuke as checks for myself. I can’t ever be like him again—small, pitiful, and filled with self-imposed misery. Finally, I wish Sasuke the strength to choose good.

A few months after I moved out, someone special brought me a container of pasta. I ate it piece by piece with my hands telling myself I’d eventually stop, but I ate the whole thing, unweighed, unmeasured, uncounted, and I kept eating just like that. I chugged gallons of milk trying to make weight for my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament. I’ve been in four tournaments now and have medaled once. I joke now that pasta and love healed me. Since then, I haven’t had a single unhealthy thought. I eat without thought; I eat a lot; and I eat to enjoy and build my body. My eating reflects my ninja way: I choose goodness constantly, just like Naruto does. In every infinite moment of the present, I choose goodness, and I’ve been doing it for four years.

In martial arts, we call this divine goodness “oss.” It’s actually a tricky thing to define, but you would say oss to bow to a martial arts master. We say oss when we enter the mats for the day, and we say it when we step off. In my circle of martial artist friends, we say oss for the more casual things—it’s a placeholder for anything martial and good. That Naruto figurine looks so oss; this açaí bowl is super oss. I yell oss whenever I perfect a move or land a nice submission in a live roll. I think the path to Hokage is similar to the path of oss, choosing goodness and persevering at any cost.

It’s almost bittersweet seeing Naruto so popular now, but since my little secret joy is everyone’s now, I’m not a unicorn anymore, and that’s great. It all circles back to the premise of every Naruto episode ever: Naruto’s been there, so now that he knows love, joy, camaraderie, and oss, and it’s his duty to extend it to everyone else. I’ve come to learn it’s mine as well.

A few months after I moved out, someone special brought me a container of pasta. I ate it piece by piece with my hands telling myself I’d eventually stop, but I ate the whole thing, unweighed, unmeasured, uncounted, and I kept eating just like that. I chugged gallons of milk trying to make weight for my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament. I’ve been in four tournaments now and have medaled once. I joke now that pasta and love healed me. Since then, I haven’t had a single unhealthy thought. I eat without thought; I eat a lot; and I eat to enjoy and build my body. My eating reflects my ninja way: I choose goodness constantly, just like Naruto does. In every infinite moment of the present, I choose goodness, and I’ve been doing it for four years.

In martial arts, we call this divine goodness “oss.” It’s actually a tricky thing to define, but you would say oss to bow to a martial arts master. We say oss when we enter the mats for the day, and we say it when we step off. In my circle of martial artist friends, we say oss for the more casual things—it’s a placeholder for anything martial and good. That Naruto figurine looks so oss; this açaí bowl is super oss. I yell oss whenever I perfect a move or land a nice submission in a live roll. I think the path to Hokage is similar to the path of oss, choosing goodness and persevering at any cost.

It’s almost bittersweet seeing Naruto so popular now, but since my little secret joy is everyone’s now, I’m not a unicorn anymore, and that’s great. It all circles back to the premise of every Naruto episode ever: Naruto’s been there, so now that he knows love, joy, camaraderie, and oss, and it’s his duty to extend it to everyone else. I’ve come to learn it’s mine as well.