Invisible Habitat explores the sense of belonging and collective memories.

Home for Me Is Wherever My Mom Is — Manako Tamura

Home for Me Is Wherever My Mom Is — Manako Tamura


NAME Manako Tamura
ROLE Experience Designer at CallisonRTKL
CITIES LIVED IN Tokyo, Lexington, Austin, Portland, New York


When and why did you move to New York?

I first arrived in the States when I was twelve. It was a week before I turned thirteen. After many years of my dad altering work between Tokyo and the States, my family had finally decided to move here. While growing up, I didn’t really see my dad much because of his work, and I guess my parents felt this wasn’t the best life for us. I remember it being hard for me to tell my friends about it, which had a lot to do with me not being ready to admit it myself. I don’t remember if I was scared or worried but I just mostly remember feeling cheated out of life I was going to have. 

We moved to Lexington, Massachusetts and lived there for six years. The first few years were the toughest. I have memories from that time I really don’t like to remember. At school, I often ate my lunch in the bathroom to avoid having to find somebody to sit with or pretend that I understood what was going on. Language was a big barrier for me as before this all my communications were in Japanese. I had taken just one English class in elementary school where we had learnt how to say “Hi!” At first I thought it was ‘hee’ because that’s how you would normally read it. 

Apart from this, just being a teenager made it harder to adjust to the new life. A lot of the girls at school looked much more feminine and developed than my friends back in Japan. I felt very much like a kid and that’s how people saw me in Japan, and it’s how I saw my friends and myself. But here I was a young adult. I avoided accepting this change as much as I could. I refused to wear a bra until my mom made me. Becoming a woman as opposed to being a child and accepting it was like parting with the memories I had grown up with in Japan. 


When did you start feeling like you belong here?

Sometimes you don’t realize you belong somewhere until you don’t have it anymore.

After undergrad I decided that I wanted to try living in Japan again. I really wanted to experience moving to a place that I perceived to be home. It felt like an experiment. I got a job in Tokyo and started working and living there. But in just a couple of months I started to feel depleted. I was so busy trying to fit in, re-learning all the mannerisms that I didn’t realize it was taking a toll on me. Because of the homogeneous nature of the city, people take a notice if you do something different. As a woman it’s considered vulgar to sit with your knees apart or not wear stockings. In New York, if you did the same, nobody would care. Little by little these things began to weigh on me and made me change my behavior so that I could get by.


After three and a half years of trying to adjust in Tokyo, when I flew back to the States again for the first time I noticed the difference and realized I actually belonged here as opposed to Tokyo. I remember crying on the airplane back to Tokyo because I was shaken at how much I wanted to live in New York. I think a lot of the times in Tokyo I felt I was trapped in a transparent paper box that I tried to poke out of but couldn’t get out.


What is home for you?


Home for me is wherever my mom is. My family right now is all over the world. My dad is in New Mexico, my sister is in Tokyo, my mom just moved back to Japan permanently and I am in New York. It’s been this way for the past few years so whenever we have an event in the house, whether it’s a holiday or a birthday, we all gravitate towards her to be together. It’s not really about the place anymore for me but more about her presence. 


I currently live in an apartment where I lived with my mom until a few months ago. It’s hard for me to think of it as my home any more without her. It’s a little like I am living in an empty shell. We used to go to this park in our neighborhood we liked a lot. We would walk around, chat about mindless things, and laugh. We didn’t really need activities to do, just simply being around each other was enough. Now that she is not here, I almost Skype with her every day. I guess there’s nothing that gets rid of the loneliness, right? I’ve just learned to cope with it.

I am at a point in my life where I need to start building my own home and I am excited about it. I am not sure what it’ll look like but watching the TV show ‘Queer Eye’ has made me realize the importance of surrounding myself with things that embody me authentically; the things that relate to me in a personal-emotional way and allow me to represent myself to the world.


While planning my own space I would want to curate it in a way that represents my cultural heritage in an authentic way. In the past few years I’ve tried to resolve the disparity I have within myself — growing up in Japan and cultivating myself in one way and then completely being uprooted and rebuilding my identity in the States. For the longest time I’ve had these two different selves that I’ve had to live with and reconcile but in the past few years I feel I am getting better at appreciating both of them. So it’s really important to me that whatever home I make for myself represents that visually and spaciously as well.


Do you have any memory from your first childhood home? 

My sister, my mom and I lived with our grandparents when I was in elementary school as my dad travelled a lot. Their house was setup in a very traditional Japanese home style with tatami mats, screens and gardens. The exciting part about the tatami mats was that they needed to be replaced every few years. It was a big deal because every time you got new mats, the setup men would come in, take out the old ones, and put in the new ones making the whole house smell absolutely amazing. It would smell like you were in a field of grass. I remember just rolling around on the new mats with my sister. That’s my fondest memory from my childhood. I guess I remember it because it felt safe with my grandparents and my family. There is nothing extraordinary about this memory, but it’s one that makes me feel safe when I think of it.

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