Growing up half-Japanese in America
Growing up, I lived in a bubble. It was a sanctuary of sorts, one where I wasn’t different and skin tone didn’t matter. As ignorant as I know I was, it was a really great bubble.
My father is Japanese. He moved here when he was fifteen and never left, getting his bachelors and masters here, meeting my mother here, and eventually becoming a citizen of here. My mother’s white. I realize now that, had I been at the mercy of normal circumstances, that small sanctuary of years 3–7 (I can’t remember further back than the age of 3) would never have existed.
I have severe asthma, the result of a resection of half my right lung at birth. I was too sickly to go to school, so my mother homeschooled me. Worried about my sister and I getting along if we spent all our schooling apart, she ended up homeschooling her too. We lived in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago and one of the main train stops for the Metra, the Chicago rail.
By some miracle, around the same time my memories of childhood started, another young family happened to move in behind us. They had a daughter, right around my age, and she was also half-Japanese. It was her mom in her case. She was also homeschooled. Soon enough, a younger sister came along, and the four of us, my older sister and I and our two back-door-neighbors, became like cousins.
Then, when I was seven, my father got a new job. We moved to Texas for his work, picking out a nice house in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It wasn’t long after this that people started poking needles at my bubble.
My sister and I had been taking supplementary Japanese classes since we were small. This continued in Texas, where the classes were every Saturday, and conducted with a structure similar to that of a Japanese classroom. The classes were held in real classrooms, in a school the group had use of on Saturdays. They even did a yearly sports festival, where I single-handedly lost our team relay. It was a good school.
For core academics, my mother joined a homeschool co-op, where parents broke up subjects to be taught to ease the load. The classes were frequently non-traditional, both in subject and in nature. It was an interesting design, barely held together, but mostly functional.
Out shopping one day with my mother, a store clerk approached me and asked me to leave. I hadn’t done anything. I’ve never stolen a thing in my life, and I wasn’t more than nine years old at the time. Still, without any perceivable reason, the store clerk asked me to leave.
The needles were pushing harder on the bubble.
I played outside a lot at the co-op. The space we used had a medium sized courtyard with a playground, and a lot of us spent our free time outdoors on warmer days. I don’t remember what caught my attention on that day, but a friend of mine had had her purse grabbed from her, and was chasing after the boy who’d taken it. I ran over and chased the bugger down, but, in all the commotion, an item had fallen out of her bag. It was a small arrowhead, a real one. We spent a long time looking for it, but classes resumed and we both had to go.
Some time later, I was pulled aside by my friend’s mother. She sat me down and said “Tell me where the arrow head is.” I didn’t know. I told her I didn’t know. But she was insistent. There was no way that I hadn’t stolen it. Up until this moment, this woman had been my favorite teacher among all the teachers at that co-op. But in that short moment, a needle thrust its way through the remaining ignorance I had, and the bubble popped.
There was another teacher at the co-op, whose class my sister and I were both in. The class was geography, and, whenever there was a question, my sister and I would raise our hands to answer. We were the only non-white students in the class. Not once, were we ever called on. Eventually, we quit the co-op. I don’t remember when, but it was definitely a result of what had happened while we were there. At the age of ten, my dad transferred offices and we moved back to Arlington Heights.
The grass is always greener on the other side.
I’d spent over two years in Texas and, what had been a clear memory of my hometown had taken on a glamour glow of sorts, rising itself further and further into a fantasy of perfection the longer it was left behind. When we got back, I expected things to be the same as before, although I’m not sure I remembered things well enough to know what that meant. We moved into a new house, just over a mile away from our old one, and life went on. The stress of the discrimination in Texas had caused me to gain a lot of weight, and a new word phrase became common to my ears: “Fat”.
In Texas, a common misjudgment that doubled as a go-to insult was calling my sister and I Chinese. The first few times it happened, it was easy to dismiss; maybe people aren’t used to our faces, maybe they haven’t seen many Japanese before. But, as it continued, sometimes from the same people, a thought festered: what if they just don’t like me? In the multicultural atmosphere of suburban Chicago, this kind of blatant racism wasn’t acceptable. In its stead, I experienced something many more people can identify with: body shaming.
It started with two guys I supposedly knew before my family left for Texas, but who I didn’t have any recollection of. When we got back to Illinois, the first thing my mother did was get us back into our old homeschool group. I slowly reconnected with a lot of people that I hadn’t seen for a long time and I was faced with a harsh truth: people change. The fat jokes weren’t limited to the two boys. An old Karate buddy of mine, the younger brother of a friend of my sisters, did the very same. The bullying was so frequent, it became part of my routine: when I see that kid, I’ll get a fat joke; when I see this kid, I’ll get a fat joke and a punch to the gut.
Years passed, and I ended up leaving behind the Illinois homeschool community that I had once called home. It had been a harsh break, partially a function of a break-up, and I was lonely. I was fifteen, my sister had left for college, and I didn’t have any close friends. Around this time, my dad got a new job, and we moved to Spokane, Washington.
I’d thought I was lonely in Illinois; in Spokane, without so much as my sister to talk to, lonely took on a bigger picture. There were no academic Homeschoolers in Spokane, and no people like me either. With no community to rely on and nowhere to go, I decided to go to public school, for the first time in my life. I started as a high school Sophomore, but to no avail.
On my first day of high school, during an orientation breakfast for newbies and freshman, the so-called ‘Student Leaders’ thought it would be funny to sit me at the Yellow table. Within the first week, I’d dropped five classes and transferred most of my curriculum to another school. But the problems didn’t end there. It became a game, among the other students, to see how they could bully me. They had catch phrases, like “Is it because you’re Chinese?” and “When did you get here (America)”. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of crowd’s father was a member of the KKK. Once, as a prank, he pulled a chair out from under me, slamming my head into the wall.
I decided I was pretty done with high school. Luckily enough, there was another option.
In Washington State, there’s a program called Running Start. It allows Juniors and Seniors to attend Community College for free. This sounded much more pleasant than continuing my career as school punching bag, so I left to attend Community College. It turned out to be the sanctuary I had hoped for. While the classes were harder, the students were also more serious. I was engaged, I was challenged, and I had freedom. But something was missing. While I did have friends, they didn’t quite understand me. That feeling didn’t go away until after I finished my Associates of Arts and moved on to University.
Here, where I am now at Washington State University, I happened to meet someone like me, someone for which being half-Japanese had resulted in facing adversity. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to explain to be understood.
There’s nothing lonelier than not being understood. Every time I was forced to explain a discriminatory experience to someone, I didn’t feel like I was understood. Sure, people can objectively understand, but only those who have gone through similar experiences can empathize. We all look for a place to belong, somewhere where we can feel that we’re truly able to be ourselves.
I think many of us are misguided in believing that we’re looking for actual places. Without a doubt, some places are better for some people than they are for others. But that isn’t a function of the place; it’s a function of the people. Don’t get lost in looking for a location. You aren’t looking for a nice place: you’re looking for a place where you can be understood.