As the only Japanese girl in my tiny, conservative Midwestern town, I grew up fighting for Japan. In discussions about World War II in history class, the attack on Pearl Harbor would inevitably come up, and the boys would tease me mercilessly that the war was my fault. “Your people didn’t play fair,” they would say, and a blush of anger and embarrassment would flare up on my cheeks as I would explain the unfairness of the atomic bombs. They would laugh and tell me to go back to Japan – I was too unpatriotic.
But even as they mistakenly called me Chinese and stretched their eyes with their fingers to mimic the shape of my eyes, I never felt embarrassed of being Japanese. My American father and Japanese mother had instilled in me a great sense of pride in being Japanese. My siblings and I grew up in a bilingual environment. Because my father became fluent in Japanese, the rule was that we could only speak Japanese in the house and watch only Japanese television. My mother urged us to complete nine years of Japanese Saturday School, and her cooking palette included not only Japanese, but Thai, Italian, and Indian cuisine. My father made it a point to counter popular thought – he became an organic and local farmer at a time when this type of agriculture was made fun of as being “hippie” and impractical, for example – and because my father was the world to me, I made it a point to flaunt my uniqueness to my classmates. To think of it now, normalcy was to be white. Thus, I never identified as “white”; in fact, I rejected it again and again.
Yet I never identified as “Asian American” either – I identified as foreign Japanese and melting-pot American. When my friends urged me to date the only Chinese American guy in school, saying that we were both Asian and thus compatible, beneath my polite laughs I felt a tickle of anger. Culturally and linguistically, it is true that China and Japan are similar, but it irked me that they could group us together as one and say that we were the same.
During high school, I discovered that my parents had very much shaped my identity – they had always urged us to be both American and Japanese. But I felt that I needed to escape their protection to find my identity on my own. Thus, during my senior year of high school, I flew to Tokyo alone to spend an academic year abroad. There, it soon became clear that my light skin tone and curly Italian hair automatically allowed Japanese people to pin me as a foreigner, even though I spoke fluent Japanese and knew the culture extremely well. My appearance alone falsified my Japanese identity. One day, my Korean-Japanese friend told me that one of her classmates complained about wearing the same uniform as I did on the train, because I “stood out” and embarrassed her. My suspicion of being rejected by other Japanese was finally confirmed.
I came back to the States knowing that in Japan, I was American, and in America, I was Japanese. I could never be fully accepted by either group, which saddened me. In my mind, the world was conspiring against me.
But after taking a course in Asian American Studies and Hapa (Mixed Race) Studies with the incredible Prof. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, I have come to think of my non-acceptance by any group as a valuable quality. Not automatically being placed in one specific racial group on campus gives me the freedom to skip around, learn about different cultures and people without shame or doubts of being too white or too Asian. I am not white or Asian, or black or Latina, or any race at all for that matter, because in my mind identifying as a specific race cements racism.
All of my life I have searched for a clear identity and a place where I could be fully accepted. But today, my identity is vaguer than ever before. I seem to have multiple cultural identities, and no racial identity. But strangely, this vagueness does not faze me. To you, I might be Asian, white, or even Latina, but frankly it does not matter. Call me what you want, but I am ambiguous and proud.
The components of my ethnicity never made it to American history books, but my appearance was always enough to spark conversation and confusion and an intangible distance amongst classmates, extended family, and those who are inherently of a single ethnic component. I can relate to you here. It is inspiring, the way you approach not being able to fit into a specific group as a valuable quality. And you do so with pride. I thank you for that.
To have someone to relate to my experience is an amazing feeling – thank you so much for commenting 🙂