Kintsugi — the Gold In Between
More Than Asian or American, the Hyphen Defines Me
I was suddenly put in my place by a random stranger when he said to me, “Hey you stupid Jap.” This was my first time hearing this particular ethnic slur and it cut. I was walking on a college campus with a friend as we headed to the parking lot discussing something our world history class had sparked when a very unassuming white guy walked past us and casually said those words, “Hey you stupid Jap.” He said it at low volume so my friend kept talking as he strode past. My first thought was that he knew my friend because I didn’t know him and, ever the optimist, I thought maybe he was making a joke at her expense. When I asked if she knew the guy that just passed by she was completely unaware of what happened and no, she did not know him. As we looked behind us to see where the guy had gone, we saw him looking back at us with a huge grin on his face just before he disappeared between the two humanities buildings we had just come from.
To say that I was angry is an understatement largely due to the fact that I didn’t respond. Why didn’t I react quicker, put him in his place? In addition to this, I couldn’t comprehend how I could spend twenty something years never hearing those words and then have my very first experience happen on a university campus. That shiny beacon of light set on a hilltop that’s supposed to bring people out of ignorance and lead them toward something more generous and open. Apparently, my fellow collegiate stupid Jap guy was not interested in that climb but simply had stayed the same as he ever was.
I realized then that I was not safe from being “othered” no matter what the setting. This experience threw me off my carefully calibrated balancing act of looking different from the mainstream, and yet being in most ways as American as they come. If you talked to me on the phone at that time your mind’s image would have been of a blond haired, blue eyed girl next door. Not a tinge of an accent except occasional slips into Valley Girl with too many “likes” and “ums.”
Aside from not being white, my American creds are above reproach. My history is true blue. I was born here. My parents were born here. My dad and uncles fought the Germans in WWII. While my grandparents came from the east side and did not pass the lady (“mother of exiles”) with the torch on their way in, what remains true is that the poem inscribed on her bosom was written for them. They were among “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
There is no other place I have known as intimately as this place. My country, in all its struggles and growing pains, has given me context and shape. Before I was aware that there was a larger context beyond my neighborhood, it didn’t occur to me that I was different from anybody else even though what I saw on TV, movies, in magazine pages, and in crowds were, for the most part, white people. I didn’t think I was white. Because I was born in Hawaii I thought I was Hawaiian. In addition, I had the same birthday as King Kamehameha I which meant if we still lived in Hawaii my birthday was a public holiday. I was certain you couldn’t get more Hawaiian than that.
Without my knowledge and consent, because I was three, my parents uprooted us from Hawaii and planted us in Los Angeles, California. We lived in an area that was quite diverse but for a long time I didn’t see race. The only division I understood at the time was kids or non-kids. Like all children before and after me, I made a beeline to the kids. The only delineation I made was between the friendly ones that were easy to strike up some kind of play with and the mean ones I gave a wide berth to. It was so simple then to form friendships and mine were of all stripes. I even had a little person friend, but since we were all little and not even close to our final heights, she didn’t seem much different from the rest of us.
It was only as I grew older that I realized I was living two lives. My upbringing was an amalgam of things American and Japanese: twenty pound rice bags lugged into the house, McDonald’s Happy Meals picked up on Saturday, Japanese songs sung by my mom at the kitchen sink, the Monkees playing as loud as I could get away with on tv. Like most other American households we watched The Wizard of Oz every Christmas. We also joined the millions of work-weary families during the summer as we hit the road in search of rest and relaxation in some national park: Yosemite, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Kings Canyon. Since my mom was cheap, we carried our own traveling food. Out of the fully loaded ice chest was pulled: onigiri, takuan, Vienna sausage cooked in sugar and soy sauce and Coke to wash it down. Once we reached our destination, my parents would often rent a boat to catch some poor trout minding its own business. Mom would take it back to our vacation abode to fry up and serve with soy sauce and rice. Rice accompanied all our meals. Even spaghetti.
English was spoken in my home since my parents were Nissei, or the second-generation living in America. They were both born and raised in Hawaii. Their parents were Issei, or first generation, who left Japan to do back breaking labor in the Hawaiian sugar and pineapple plantations in search of that elusive better life. Japanese was spoken in their homes. Once my parents stepped outside into the rest of Hawaii, English was mostly heard (or a variant of it called pidgin English) with a smattering of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and the tongue of whatever other foreign nationals found safe harbor in the islands.
Over time my identity was formed but I’m not sure how. My childhood is now just impressions pressed into the outer banks of memory that return with blurred edges and softly focused. But all those lived moments accumulated into the container of myself and somehow, here I am. A hybrid. A hyphenate. Some parts all-American, some parts Japanese. I never felt entirely one or the other, or that I was instantly recognizable and easily accepted into either setting.
I learned early what my differences were once I ventured out in the wider world beyond my family. I felt a deficit because my upbringing didn’t prepare me for the highly social, extremely vocal American norm. What I learned from my parents is that they held greater value in quietude and being mindful of others. I am great at reading a room due to all those non-verbal skills I grew up with, but not so great at entering that room and making myself and others comfortable with effortless small talk. Because that’s not how my parents entered a room. Even at a young age I saw that they were more at ease with their Japanese-American family and friends where everyone held social cues in common. Even into their second generational American life their ways of being more closely resembled how a person from Japan would operate in a social setting.
I have thought a lot about, and lived a long time with, this dichotomy inside myself. Being bicultural is similar to being bilingual. I learned over the years to use the appropriate behaviors depending on where I am. In my American life I speak louder and am more assertive. When I am among other Asians I lower my voice and speak indirectly.
Simplicity was not my fate in the forging of my identity. I have great empathy for people who are caught betwixt and between. I understand being made of two things, but not entirely one or the other. Biracial, bisexual, bicultural — it’s all the same teetering on the border between the two places where you may or may not be understood or welcome.
Even now when most Americans see my face, they won’t see an American. They probably wonder if I speak English. Although I must admit, Asians are having a moment. I have seen more Asian faces in the past five years in entertainment, business and politics than I have in the past six decades I’ve been alive. Having representation is vital for all but especially for the generation coming up behind us. My kids need role models. They need to see how wide open the horizon has become and set their dreams accordingly.
As an American coming of age on the cusp of the 60s and 70s, my most fervent desire is for an unashamedly diverse, open, tolerant and unafraid America. A more perfect union. For some, this is too big of an ask. For others, we’re getting tired of asking.
Stupid Jap guy made it clear what he saw when he saw me, and how much it meant for him to reduce me to something he could feel superior to. As he put me under his thumb and squashed his version of me down little did he know, as Maya Angelou wrote, “I rise.” I can’t help it. I am buoyant in spite of, or maybe because of, those who wish it were otherwise. Like all the others before and after me who have ever been reduced and pushed to the margins, we know which way the arc of justice bends.