Asian-ish

Interracial marriage has a long and storied history in the United States. The arrival of white colonists hailed in an era of violent settler-colonialism, but it wasn’t until 1619, when the first enslaved African people torn from their homes arrived on Virginia’s shores, that race was cemented in the very constitutions and laws of the colonies, and status was tied to race (St. John). Maryland was first, passing anti-miscegenation laws in 1664 to prohibit white men from marrying black women, and punishing white women who married black men by forcing them into slavery (Fitzgerald).

Virginia was up next, enacting a more comprehensive law that declared any child that was a result of a mixed-race marriage automatically illegitimate, that the mother of the child should pay a fine of fifteen pounds within one month of the child’s birth or be imprisoned, and that the child would be sentenced to a life of slavery for being an “abominable mixture and spurious issue” (Dierks). This law additionally criminalized mixed race marriage on all levels, decreeing that those who broke the anti-miscegenation law would be banished, which essentially acted as an execution in the 1600s, and that clergy who officiated interracial marriages would either be imprisoned or fined, ensuring that no mixed-race marriages could occur in the first place (Dierks).

Other colonies followed suit, and anti-miscegenation laws became a dark inheritance that would be passed down for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia in 1967 (for context: this was one year after Star Trek aired on televisions for the first time) ruled that interracial marriage was fully legal in all fifty states. But even if it was legal, the legacy of anti-miscegenation, and race tied to status, still remains to this day: upon moving into their home in Burbank in the late 1990s and looking at the deed, my mother was shocked to see that one section stated that no Asian person would be allowed in the house unless if they were a maid or servant, and that’s just one example among millions. Interracial marriage is one thing, but multiracial children have a completely different experience growing up and living in America, because they spend their lives both straddling and existing outside of racial categories.

The only Asian person I saw growing up other than my mom and my Asian relatives was Mulan, or the occasional glimpse of Lucy Liu during a rerun of Charlie’s Angels. It was completely fine because I didn’t understand. For context, my dad is as white as they come, with skin that burns within 0.00001 seconds’ contact with the sun, and naturally platinum blond hair. He was called Kilimanjaro growing up — they both have white tops. My mom is Japanese American, and hasn’t aged in the past twenty years (Asian women are immortal — it’s science), and growing up, I looked so similar to her that she would call me her “mini-me”. Her sentences were composed of mostly English, but littered with Kumamoto slang throughout. When my mom picked me up from school, no one would bat an eye, but when my father did, people would pull me aside and hiss into my ear, “I didn’t know you were adopted!

baby me (circa 2005)

I grew up in a WASP-y neighborhood, and I was and am privileged enough to never really worry about money: having three square meals a day, having a roof over my head, and going to college was a given. I am incredibly lucky to have had that kind of life, and I have my mom and my dad to thank. They shielded me from that economic stress, but outside the realm of our idyllic house (a white house plopped in the middle of the suburbs, a trimmed lawn in the front and a backyard to run around in the back, with two kids and a golden retriever on the way), they couldn’t protect me from something I didn’t even understand, but would have to eventually confront — racism.

The racial difference between my predominantly white peers and I didn’t set in until later, but even before then, I had to deal with the offhand comments and experiences that came with being one Asian-ish face in what was essentially a sea of white. In first grade, I gravitated towards the only other Asian girl in my class because I felt more comfortable around her, but she left after only one year. In second grade, we went around the table and named the religion we practiced out of curiosity, and I was promptly told that I would burn in hell when I proclaimed myself a Buddhist. It wasn’t until third and fourth grade when the typical examples of microaggressions started: the staple “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”, the constant “You should ask her for help on your homework, she’s Asian!”, being hailed as something exotic by students and parents alike, and the classic, ever-feared lunchbox moment, played over and over again as soon as I unzipped that holy grail to reveal curry, mabudofu, miso soup, onigiri seasoned with wakame seaweed, depending on the day — but it was like the cafeteria exploded with disgust every time I pulled out my Tupperware.

“Why does it smell like fish? Gross.”

“That looks like you’re eating vomit.”

“You know, you don’t have to eat that if you don’t want to.”

I learned to hate being Asian. I soaked self-hatred into my being like a sponge. One day, walking down the hallway with my classmates, after we had started learning about U.S. history, a boy asked me something along the lines of, “Do you wish the Japanese won World War Two? Since you’re Japanese?” I don’t remember saying anything but “No,” and continuing to walk in mute horror, but my attitude regarding my own Japanese ancestry shifted from one of hate, to crippling fear.

From then on, it mattered more than ever that I fit in, that I could squeeze and force myself into that mold that was only made for half of me, because I thought that being Japanese was inherently bad, that there was something wrong with me. Being half Japanese was a mortal sin that I needed to repent for. Every single time someone turned on AMC, there was yet another movie where the quintessential White American Macho Good Guy™ shot up or tossed another grenade at another pesky “murdering Jap”, in the words of an American World War Two propaganda poster (Library of Congress). There was no one that looked like me on TV except for the bad guys (which is why representation is important, but that’s another story for another time).

Library of Congress

There was a thorny, sticky need to constantly prove myself to everyone, instead of doing something for myself, something that I still grapple with today. But no matter how hard I tried, it would never matter — even if I was half-white and made sure everyone knew it, I was still always “the Asian girl”. I would never be white enough for them. Even though I didn’t have the knowledge, tools, or language to describe my experience then like I do today, I still knew that whiteness is the default in America from a very young age.

But suddenly, I went to middle school, and it was like the world turned upside down (Lin-Manuel Miranda reference unintended). I was accepted into the International Baccalaureate Program, and suddenly I was surrounded by Asian people, and I had no idea what to do with myself, but I was delighted. I felt some part of me sigh with relief on the first day as I sat down next to an Asian girl (who is still one of my best friends — hi Brittany), and saw people that looked like me! Sitting all around me! Talking! Being normal people, talking about normal things! The sudden revelation and visual confirmation that there were more Asians out there than Lucy Liu, Mulan, and my mom was ridiculously close to a religious experience. But the feeling didn’t last long, as the cemented idea of me being undisputedly Asian that had been hammered into me during elementary school, no matter how hard I tried to convince people (and myself) otherwise, came loose and was flipped on its head as well, as suddenly, my experiences as an Asian didn’t count: “You’re half-white, you don’t get it.” This is where the common conundrum of being half Asian, half white sets in: too Asian for your white friends, too white for your Asian friends. And if you’re not either, then A) where do you fit? and B) who are you?

For so long, the answer to both questions A and B were “I HAVE NO IDEA.” I couldn’t reconcile one with the other, because I had no vocabulary, no tools, no idea how to describe my experience because I didn’t fit with one, and I feared the other. “I’m just American,” I would insist, but staring at college applications on my laptop screen asking me to choose my “primary race”, I wasn’t so sure, and I still didn’t know which box to check. But one experience set me on the path to realize exactly who I am.

My bachan (colloquial Japanese for grandmother) had kidney cancer for as long as I can remember (it was like she died over and over again), and her oncologist was in San Francisco. During my freshman year of high school, she began to have crippling headaches, and had surgery to alleviate it, but Murphy’s Law took hold — everything went wrong. She had to have an emergency tracheostomy and was in the ICU for what felt like years, and my mother went to stay with her.

When she was in the ICU, this was one of those times. Unable to speak and having barely enough energy to hold up her own arm, much less stay awake, it was too much to speak English, and she wrote on a whiteboard in trembling hiragana, struggling not to rustle her IVs. “Daijoubu. Shinpai shinaide.” I’m fine. Don’t worry. I could read Japanese and my mother couldn’t, but I struggled with vocabulary whereas my mom knew it since it was her first language. My mom translated for me, and as soon Bachan fell asleep, I burst into tears, couldn’t take seeing her suffer, couldn’t take knowing her first instinct was to comfort me when she was in so much pain. But that experience solidified the fact that I’m not just half white or half Asian, but a something like a bridge between both, and I could no longer push aside my Japanese American heritage at risk of losing a huge part of myself.

It was and still is difficult for me to reconcile and grapple with the two sides of my family: one side was fighting against the Japanese in WWII, and the other was downwind of Nagasaki or imprisoned in Tule Lake for the crime of being Japanese. It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself to learn about the Japanese American side of my family’s history, shaped with pain and resilience, that something clicked into place — being “just American” wasn’t enough for me, not enough to describe my experience and my family’s in the United States, not enough to define or decide who belongs and who doesn’t.

Throughout history, the idea of what it means to fit in and be American has completely shifted, and so has my identity as the descendants of Japanese Americans and white Americans. I used to view the two ethnicities and how they shape me as starkly juxtaposed — and in most ways they are, especially in their attitudes of what it means to be American, and what a patriot is. But I’m not just half white, or half Asian — I’m both at the same time, the intersection between two worlds, a whole person, something that took me a long time to learn and subsequently accept. It’s not two sides of a coin, it’s one experience, and I couldn’t be more proud of who I am.

Updated as of January 12, 2018: I have changed my usage of “Japanese-American” to “Japanese American”. I believe that the usage of hyphens in this context implies that someone is half-something, instead of a whole person and a whole identity.

Sources:

Dierks, Konstantin. “H105, American History I.” Virginia laws 1643–1691. Accessed June 08, 2017. http://www.indiana.edu/~kdhist/H105-documents-web/week03/VAlaws1643.html.

Fitzgerald, Michael R. “An act concerning Negroes and other slaves .” In Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland. Baltimore. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1664. Accessed June 8, 2017. http://web.utk.edu/~mfitzge1/docs/374/MDlaw.pdf.

St. John, Rachel. “Boundaries of Freedom and Belonging: Slavery, Servitude, Captivity, and Kinship.” Lecture, HIS 017A Lecture Series at UC Davis, Davis, CA, April 18, 2017.

What are you going to do about it? — Stay on the job until every murdering Jap is wiped out! 1944. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office. Accessed June 8, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90712749/.