What would you do if you had a time machine? The future would no longer be a possibility, but a reality. And the past would not be just a path to the present, but the present that could still be acted upon. Imagine all the actions and outcomes that you could change and the mistakes that you could correct with your 20/20 hindsight. I usually don’t think much about time machines; I practice mindfulness (or at least try to), and jumping away from the present moment is the opposite of my practice. That all changed recently when a blue robot cat arrived on a time machine and jolted me out of my sleep.
The blue robot cat’s name is “Doraemon” (pronounced Doe-Rah-Ay-Mon). You may not have heard of his name, but you may have seen him in gift shops and comic bookstores, especially if they carry products from Japan. Doraemon is a robot in the shape of a cat, a manga and anime character created by the prolific manga artist duo Fujiko Fujio. He is blue, with a red nose and a red ping-pong-shaped tail, and distinctively without ears. Doraemon is from the future – 2112 to be exact. A boy named Sewashi sends him to Tokyo in the 1970s to change the course of life of a boy named Nobita, who is to become Sewashi’s great-great-grandfather and leave behind huge debt for his descendants to pay off more than a hundred years later. Sewashi wants a smarter, more responsible and more capable great-great-grandfather, so his own life will be better.
Doraemon is a household name. Doraemon to children and adults in Asia is Mickey Mouse to children and adults in North America. I grew up reading about Doraemon, Nobita, their friends and their adventures. When the anime series came out, I watched it, too. We children waited impatiently for a new volume of the manga and a new episode of the anime to see what trouble Nobita got into and what gadget from the future Doraemon would pull out of his 4D (fourth dimensional) pocket to help Nobita out of his trouble.
My days of waiting for the next Doraemon episode have faded into the past. The stories remain in my fond memories, but not necessarily at the forefront of my mind. Not until Doraemon came to visit me.
I was recently traveling in Japan, my first time in the country. One day towards the end of the trip, a change in the itinerary gave me a free day, and with the last minute’s planning, I was heading to the Fujiko F. Fujio Museum in Kawasaki, a suburb of Tokyo. Informally referred to as “the Doraemon Museum,” the museum collects, researches and exhibits the work and life of Fujimoto Hiroshi. Fujimoto, together with his manga artist partner Mooto Abiko, worked under the psydonyms Fujiko Fujio and created Doraemon and other influential comic series. Fujimoto’s work became popular beyond Japan, as evidenced by the many Asian languages one could hear among the museum visitors. Being one of the artist’s most popular characters, Doraemon took the center stage and was integral to every step to the museum experience. Even the shuttle bus from the train station to the museum was wrapped in his image. After a few decades of not keeping in touch, Doraemon and I had an afternoon of one-on-one quality time. I re-discovered the stories, the magic and the influence of what Doraemon had not only on children across Asia but also on me.
That night, Doraemon arrived in my dream on his time machine. He asked: So, it has been a few decades. Has life been worth living?
I jolted out of my sleep, my body cold and my clothes and blanket soaked in sweat.
I was on vacation, and a blue cat on a time machine just asked me a loaded question! Was I now to evaluate my life over the last few decades in the darkness of the night only lit by the neon light in a foreign city? Even if I had an answer, could I ask him to take me on his time machine back to the past and pull out his gadgets to help me right the wrong or make the difficult more doable?
I chose to sleep that night, but on the next day and many days since, I have not been able to sleep on the question. I have been asking myself: if I could go back to the past, what would I do?
First on the list were the mistakes, the regrets, or the unpleasant outcomes, both from my own decisions and actions and from those of others that had impacted me. We do not have to go over them, but trust me, I have quite a few big ones on my list. Maybe I could get rid of them or change their outcomes.
Then came the doubts and the what-ifs. I chose one path, but the alternatives still lingered on my mind. What if I had moved to Tokyo for college instead of the United States? What if I had studied biology and not economics? What if I had settled in London after college? What if I had stuck with that job or that other job? What if I had tried harder to keep in touch with this person or that person? What if, what if, what if?
And finally came the yearnings. My grandmother’s crab soup with lemon grass and milk. Her secret recipe for what she called “chilies and salt” that no one in the family got from her; all I know is that there were no chilies involved. My childhood’s neighborhood as it was not as it is. If only I could meet a loved one who had passed away, relive a fond moment, or experience something that was no longer there …
The list started to get long and overwhelming, and my emotions started to go everywhere. The voice in my head said, “Help!”
What ended up saving me was Doraemon. I brought back from Japan a 10-volume English-Japanese set of the Doraemon series as a souvenir. I flipped open the first volume, “All the Way from a Future World.” Right there in chapter one, when Nobita met Doraemon for the first time, I found my answer. If I could go back in time, I would give myself a hug.
As an adult reader, if I have to summarize the Doraemon series in one word, I will say that the series is about validation. In each episode, regardless of the trouble that Nobita has gotten himself into or the challenge that he is facing, Doraemon is there. As a kid, I saw Doraemon being there with his cool gadgets from the future. As an adult, while I still love those gadgets, the more important thing that I see is Doraemon being there with his presence. Whatever trouble it is and however annoyed Doraemon is with Nobita, he remains there as a constant. His presence reassures Nobita that everything will be okay despite the process that Nobita will have to go through.
What I also see as an adult reader is that despite his 20/20 hindsight and his futuristic gadgets, Doraemon is flawed and makes his own mistakes. As readers of the series would know, Doraemon is a manufacturing defect and consequently fails to perform at the robot school. He is saved from the scrap pile because the young Sewashi somehow bonds with him and Sewashi’s cash-strapped family can only afford a defective product. The evidence of Doraemon’s imperfection is there even on the first day he meets Nobita in chapter one. Doraemon shows up unannounced in the drawer of Nobita’s desk, forgets to introduce himself, causes confusion, gets sidetracked by a plate of New Year rice cake, and injures Nobita after a false application of the Take-Copta, a gadget that is supposed to help, not hurt. Even Nobita ponders, “I wonder if he’s really that reliable…” as Doraemon is musing to himself, “Everything I do is right. Just relax! Leave everything to me,” not knowing that he has just lost Nobita midair.
Who am I to assume that my present self is more perfect than my younger self? I might be older and wiser, but I am still flawed and make mistakes (hopefully less than I used to). If I could go back to the past, can I rely on my wisdom today to change the course of life for my younger self? As Nobita wonders about Doraemon’s reliability, I have the same concern about myself.
As I continue reflecting, I actually don’t think that I want to change the past even if I could. Despite the mistakes, the regrets, the undesirable outcomes, the doubts and the yearnings, these experiences have become part of me. They inform my perspectives, my decisions and my actions. I don’t know what life would be like without them. I am slowly coming to terms with the past.
That doesn’t mean that I no longer welcome a time machine! If I had a time machine, I would go back to the past and give my younger self a hug. With a hug, I can reassure my younger self that despite the challenge, the uncertainty or the unknown of a situation, of the future, or of a process through which I have to follow, I am here for me and it will be okay at the end. I can’t tell my younger self what to do or what to decide. After all, I am still an imperfect individual, so my imperfect wisdom will likely lead to another set of imperfect outcomes. I believe, however, that the power of validation will help my younger self be more at ease, that whatever decision or action I would take as a younger person would be done with less doubt, more confidence and more self-acceptance, with the ability to move on regardless of the outcomes. While I hope that my younger self would make fewer mistakes or face fewer regrettable outcomes, I would not rob myself of an opportunity to experience life and grow.
As much as I would like to meet Doraemon and ride on his time machine, I know that Doraemon lives only in the realm of my fond memories and not the present reality. While I do not have access to a time machine to go hug myself in the past, I can still hug myself today on behalf of my future self. But I won’t stop there. I can also hug other people around me who may need a hug now: friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, mentees and mentors, those who follow me and those whom I follow. We all experience those uncertain moments at one point or another, and a little hug, figuratively or even literally, can be a gift of validation. Regardless of the situation, the hug can make the uncertain feel more certain, the uncomfortable more comfortable, and hopefully can lead to a better outcome. With validation, we can mutually enable each other to learn and grow. Even though I won’t live to 2112 to reflect back, I hope that one day in a closer future, I can still look back and say that I have been there for me and that I have been there for others.
Have you given yourself a hug today? Have you given a hug to someone who needs it recently?