This is Mistranslate , a monthly column by Nina Li Coomes about language, self-expression, and what it means to exist between cultures.
At dinner parties or barbecues, when asked to tell the story of our relationship, my partner and I usually trade off, alternating who gets to share the script and the anecdotes we treasure. Our stories are mostly identical, trading voices and not plot points. But there is one place where our versions diverge: the nearly three years of long-distance dating between Chicago and New York that we shared. If Jack tells this part of the story, the experience is one of hardship, something we endured together. If I tell it, our separation was one of freedom, anchoring us in love while giving us space to wander and grow.
It’s not that I didn’t miss Jack, or that I didn’t have days when I sorely wished to come home to someone I loved, to hear a friendly voice call out from the kitchen. I too shared that unique and specific dread of the day before a goodbye, when you’re trying to enjoy the precious time you have left while still helplessly fixating on the countdown. But I was used to long-distance relationships because I’m familiar with them, and always have been.
When you live between countries, you are always leaving behind one set of loved ones. There is no way for everyone you love to share one continent, much less in one place. My particular bicultural, biracial experience means I am constantly in a long-distance relationship with family members. Sometimes I joke that I was raised in an airport terminal, so familiar to me are the plasticky upholstered chairs, the moving walkways—at times I feel as if the transit itself is my home. Even the friendships and found family relationships I have cultivated beyond the circle of my immediate family seem prone to similar distance.
Right now, the people I love are scattered like a bag of upended marbles, residing in New York, Tokyo, Chicago, Hong Kong, a rural village in Morocco. There is a shared understanding among us, an unspoken code that allows love to prevail despite the lack of physical presence. After all, we are all enduring the weight of distance.
Simply put, 温もり or nukumori means warmth. It does not act as an adjective to describe something that emanates warmth; something cannot have the quality of nukumori. Instead, the word functions more as a noun, closer to the physical manifestations of heat, like something one might encounter in physics. Nukumori is tangible. Consider a blanket’s warmth, but as an object, something that takes up space—a thing separate and bounded with its own qualities—and you get nukumori.
But I am not concerned today with the simplest definition of 温もり. Instead I am thinking about nukumori in its most poignant form, when it is attached not to objects, but to people. When discussing human nukumori, an English definition becomes more obtuse. Certainly, a person’s nukumori can be the warmth of their body, but frequently it is more than that. Nukumori, when applied to people, references a sort of existence-hood. In the same way that nukumori allows us to think of warmth as its own entity, nukumori also defines a person’s presence—the signature of their physical existence—as something that stands on its own. It is not invoked, but just suddenly is, as if you’ve walked into a room where someone was just baking a loaf of bread and it is no longer there, but you can smell, feel, almost taste that the bread existed.
A person’s nukumori can exist without the person’s physical body being nearby. For example: When my sister explains something to me, her hands become sparrows; her thumb and forefinger barely touch, while the rest of her fingers curl toward the palm. They flit and peck, punctuating her sentences with small, jabbing motions. Sometimes, when I see diminutive brown-capped birds chattering and hopping in bushes and puddles, I feel almost as if I’ve walked into her hands: the negative space they create; the swooshes of exclamation; boughs of proclamation; laughter wreathing their gestures. From there, it’s not so hard to fill in the rest of the picture—the smooth warmth of her forehead, the pursed crinkle of her mouth, the hawkish gold flashing in her eye. I envision her small feet, her bald knees, her hair hanging like a net of fish down her back. I think about her gait, her easygoing shuffle that when angry turns into a furious, compact storm. All these things and more—all her characteristics, all the moments we’ve spent together—add up to a kaleidoscopic composite, something almost as heavy and real to me as her physical self. When I feel my sister’s nukumori, I am experiencing the thumbprint of her person, a frisson of personhood in the air, and it is as if she is right there beside me on the sidewalk.
Perhaps this will happen to you soon, only now you will have a word to describe it. You will be walking to the train, or home from work, or just to the corner store, when suddenly you will feel as if you have walked into the escaped shell of warmth that a person you love has left behind. It will cause you to pause, perhaps to stutter. I hope you are able to hold that someone in your mind: Allow yourself to pore over all of their traits, the flight pattern of their gestures, the slope of their walk, the jut or frizz of their hairline. Consider their scent, the many visages they’ve inhabited over the years, the bellow of their laughter. Imagine the sound of their feet, the swish of their clothes, whether they barrel along or tiptoe. Consider them loosed from the realities of time and space; think of them at their youngest, imagine them at their oldest. Layer the many ways they’ve touched you, the particular slant of their hand in yours, the warmth of their body under a shared sheet. As you move on down the street, will you feel as if they’re coming along with you? Won’t that metaphysical imprint of existence amount to something warm and glowing and real?
This is why 温もり and the flexible understanding of a person’s presence it entails is imperative for someone like me, my family members, my friends. It gives us a way to appreciate and linger in each other’s company when that might be logistically, physically impossible. Nukumori is permissive, a caveat under which love can exist despite the strain of distance. Perhaps if you think of it next time you are missing someone, it will give you reprieve—some room to wallow and breathe in the joy of another’s existence, even if they aren’t within your reach.
In my first installment of this column , I wrote about the difficulty of conveying someone’s dearness across distance, and how I had decided to write letters to my baba in Japan to bridge this gap. Since then, I have sent her a letter as close to weekly as possible. With every postcard, every letter I sent, I worried that I was betraying my constant mistranslated nature, failing to express my love and care for her because my words were lacking. I pressed lilacs between pages on which I described how happy I had been to see them bloom, signaling the end of the Boston winter at last. I printed photographs of Jack on cheap paper, so that she might have a mental image when I wrote to her about him. I tried to compensate wherever distance might make the other feel thin and two-dimensional.
Recently, my baba has started to write back. What started off as a trickle, a short letter once a month, has increased—last week, I opened my mailbox to find not one but two purple envelopes. The first missive was standard, telling me to enjoy my youth; to work hard, but not too hard. The second, written only a few days later, described the onset of the rainy season—my baba had gone out for the daily grocery shop and forgotten her umbrella, the wound up drenched on the ride home. Of late, she told me, she has started going back to the karaoke cafe once a week. Soon, she writes, the summer vegetables will be coming in: the tomatoes and eggplants, beans and lettuces she grows in her garden. She wishes I could sit in her room and watch them grow with her.
As I read her words, it is as if I have turned the creaking metal knob to her room and walked in to find her there. I feel as I have on other days, lying idly on the floor next to her chair in mid-summer, the machine-lace curtains at her window blowing in the breeze. I can smell the slight mustiness of the carpet and see the exact angle of her hair, how it falls in two layers over her ears as she leans forward in her wicker chair, elbows on her knees, to look intently at the garden. I can even sense the aftertaste of the lunch she prepares every day during the summer, thin wheat noodles in cold water with a few floating ice cubes, sesame seeds cracking between my molars from the soy-based dipping broth. I can see the pattern of her ceiling; can see her feet in socks, round and croquette-like. Even though I am standing in the foyer of my Boston apartment building, I can feel the imperceptible shift in the air when she suggests that I eat a condensed milk popsicle, and while I’m at it, bring her one, too. We are far apart, but her nukumori is right there with me. The miles and miles that separate us are gone.