Are we Japanese or American? A conversation with my sister
NOTE: This is from a monthly column about life in Trump’s America for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon. This particular column came about because I wanted to explore identity.
Since the Japanese economy began taking off in the 1970s, many of the largest Japanese companies established overseas units and sent their best and brightest to work in them. Their offspring — like my sisters and I — are known as kikoku shijyo, which literally means overseas returnee. Kikoku shijyo occupy an uneasy place in Japanese society. We are heralded and valued because of our ability to navigate comfortably in English and in Western society, but we can be ostracized and bullied for not fitting in. Sometimes we are targets of jealousy. Rarely does anyone think about the challenges we may have experienced as a stranger in a foreign country. By writing about me and my sister’s experience growing up, I wanted to take readers inside our childhoods and our struggles with identity then and now.
As always, I wrote it in English for a Japanese audience, and editors translated it into Japanese. It was published on May 18, 2017 here.
These days I’ve been thinking more about race and what it means to be American than I ever have before.
Like many other “kikoku shijyo” stories, my family came to the U.S. because our father was transferred here on business. I went to American schools from pre-school until fourth grade, but we always had one foot in Japan because we didn’t know when we would have to go back home. Most overseas assignments lasted for two or three years, but we stayed for seven.
When my dad was transferred back to Tokyo, we thought we would never leave Japan again because that was how it usually was. But five years later, he was once again sent to America, this time to Maryland. My sisters and I went to high school and college in America, got jobs and stayed.
Whenever we went back to Japan for visits, most of our friends and relatives saw us as American. But I was never sure. Growing up, I suffered the typical identity crisis of anyone who has straddled multiple cultures. In America, I felt Japanese. In Japan, I felt American. It was easiest to tell myself that I was part of both cultures and both countries without committing to either.
But at some point as we grow older, we have to make a choice. We have to set our roots down somewhere. I have to commit and plan for my future. A few years ago, I realized that, for me, home was America. This where most of my people are — my husband, most of my family, my writing community, my friends. I also accepted that I was probably more American than Japanese at this point. That has changed everything for me as we deal with so much uncertainty under Trump.
Being a kaigai shijyo is a funny thing because our mindset is almost as if we are guests in America. From elementary school through high school and college, I felt detached from politics, partly because I couldn’t vote. Now, however, I feel a personal stake in the future of this country. The hate and discrimination that has bubbled up post-election concerns me in particular. While the Japanese aren’t a target like the Muslims and the Hispanics are, I don’t have one iota of doubt that we could as easily land in the crosshairs if there is an opportunity. An intolerant country is as bad for us as it is for any other minority group.
The dejection and fear I feel is uncomfortable, strange and new. It’s also brought up a lot of questions. What does it mean to be an American in a country where so many people will never accept me as American? Does that change how American I feel? Do I want to go back to Japan? Do I still belong here?
I called my sister to talk about it. Mayu was born in Chicago. She was in first grade when we moved back to Tokyo, 6th grade when we moved to Maryland, and 10th grade when my father was transferred to Southern California. She stayed in the area, went to Los Angeles for college, got her master’s degree in social work, and is now a public school administrator, who deals with child welfare, attendance and counseling services.
The following is an excerpt of our conversation:
Me: “Hi Mayu! I wanted to call you because I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity, whether I’m Japanese or whether I’m American. I really struggled with that growing up because in Japan I felt American, and in America I felt Japanese. But then when I moved back to Japan for work to be a foreign correspondent, I realized that I was more comfortable in America and the American culture. But now, these last few months since Trump got elected, I’m conflicted again. I’ve been more aware than ever before about my race. I was wondering if you were experiencing the same.
Mayu: Oh yeah, of course. But it’s not really that new for me because I’ve been struggling with that my entire life.
Me: Are you serious? You seem so American to me.
Mayu: Well we weren’t immigrants.
Me: Right. We didn’t leave our country behind. We were here because Dad was transferred here for work.
Mayu: Yeah, it wasn’t our plan to stay here forever. When we moved to Maryland, it was so white and black, with a speckle of other people. I was trying to be white because I didn’t know where else to fit. I don’t know if you felt the tension of being in a border state between the North and South.
Me: I guess I didn’t. My friends were pretty diverse. Ericka was black, Stacey and I were Asian and Caroline was white. But then again, you really wanted to hang out with the popular crowd, which I never did.
Mayu: You know how I used to pretend that I didn’t know how to use chopsticks or that I ate sushi? I was trying to fit into a place because I didn’t have a place. We didn’t fit in with people from Japan because we weren’t born and raised in Japan. When we moved to California, I thought I’d fit in because there were all these Asians, but I didn’t. I thought of myself as Japanese-American, but the Japanese Americans have a whole different history here.
Me: Like being put in internment camps during World War II.
Mayu: Yeah. All through the moves, I was very much aware of not fitting into any group.
I remember a Fourth of July celebration in Irvine. I was with my friends at a stadium with fireworks. I wasn’t singing or cheering, and a guy next to me turned to me and said, “If you don’t love this country, why don’t you go back where you’re from.” It was another reminder that I didn’t fit in and that I didn’t feel like I had a place to go back to even if I wanted to.
It made me hate the Fourth of July for awhile.
Mayu: More guys like him have a voice now in the current political climate.
Me: So when you hear all these hateful comments, you see that face?
Mayu: Yes, absolutely. I recently had a guy who judged me when I joked about wearing a Canadian pin when I travel. He said to me, “Aren’t you proud of being American?”
It’s completely ignorant to people who have multiple experiences and backgrounds. You know when you live in between two cultures like we do, we have pride for various parts of our cultures as well as awareness of our weaknesses. We’re not blindly in love.
Me: That’s true, though I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and how I used to put my hand on my heart to say the Pledge of Allegiance even though I wasn’t a citizen. “I pledge allegiance to this flag of the United States of America. And to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I knew how to sing all the patriotic American songs like “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” or “My country ’Tis of Thee.” I didn’t know any of the words to “Kimi ga yo,” but I could sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I don’t think I was aware of being different when I was small. I assumed I was the same as everyone else. I even sang that Chinese, Japanese rhyme. Remember? I think it went something like this: “My father was Chinese, my mother was Japanese, and I turned out like this.” The kids would pull their eyes up for Chinese, down for Japanese, and then to finish, they’d pull one eye up and the other one down.
I can’t believe how oblivious I was.
Mayu: See I’ve always felt like I didn’t belong. Even when we moved back to Japan, I had such a hard time. I was bullied for being different, “too American.”
I went to a conference this weekend where there was a presentation on micro-aggression and implicit bias, people who judge and discriminate against certain people by who or what they are without realizing it.
What has happened now is that people’s implicit biases are coming to the surface and
growing because we have a president who says things that are empowering those views.
Me: So do you think of yourself as Japanese or American?
Mayu: I tell people I’m Japanese American.
Me: I don’t know what I am. When I go back to Japan, I say I’m going home, but when I come back to the U.S., I say I’m going home too.
Mayu: I don’t feel like I have a home. Home for me by default is where I happen to be living.
Me: I guess for me, home is here because it’s where my people are. I know that there is all this hatred, and that there are people who will never accept our place here, but the people around me do, and that’s what matters right?
Mayu: I think that’s true. Home for me is definitely where “my tribe” is too. But I don’t trust that history won’t repeat itself. The hatred that’s coming out… In my job, I listen to parents every day, coming to me and wanting their child to be in some other district, and the reasons often have a racial element.
They’ll say, “My child is white and Christian and she doesn’t belong in this school,” because there are a lot of Latinos, implying their child would not be safe among Latinos. Or they’ll say, “We’re Indian, education is important to us,” as if it’s not to everyone else.
These comments that are culturally driven, it’s gotten louder. They feel empowered to say these things out loud.
Me: Is that new?
Mayu: No, but before, at least you knew it wasn’t okay to say these things. Now parents feel empowered. They think, “The President is saying it. Why can’t I say it?”
Me: How do you deal with that?
Mayu: When they start explaining their reason for a transfer with “my child is white,” I ask, “What do you mean by that? Tell me more.” I hope that if I make them say it out loud, they’ll realize how racist they sound.
What’s funny is that it’s not just the white race against another. I had a black family who wanted to move their kid because the school was predominantly white.
It feels like we haven’t really moved forward. It’s discouraging.
Me: Did you vote for Hillary? Have you always been a Democrat?
Mayu: I’ve probably always been a Democrat, but there was a time when I’ve been a conservative Democrat. I believe in social services obviously, but I don’t always believe in the system in place. I think the system could do a better job in helping families become self-sufficient versus crafting a culture of co-dependence. There was a period when I was wavering because I understood why the Republican party wasn’t supportive of some of these programs.
Me: If you had to choose one country, Japan or America, which would you choose?
Mayu: I’d have to give up Japan because everything in my work and life is here. But when we go back there, I do feel like it’s home. There is a sense of being with your roots. The funny thing is that if I took a tally of things I’m proud of, I’d say more things about my Japanese side, but there could be a bit of bias in that since I haven’t lived there for so long.
Me: I’m with you. This is where more of my people are, so I feel like this is home right now, but with Trump saying all these hateful things, I don’t know. Where does this leave us?
Mayu: At the end of the day, I don’t feel fully accepted as American or Japanese. If there was a default, I’d say that I feel Japanese. But that could just be perception. If I lived there, maybe I would feel differently. But I also don’t feel completely safe here. I don’t think the words “I’m fully American” will ever come out of my mouth.
I live in a community where most people voted for Trump, and I admit it’s giving me implicit bias. I assume every older white person I see is a Trump supporter and have biases towards me.
Me: We were in Michigan last summer, and Patrick’s (my husband) mom and I were about to walk into a butcher that I like, but I knew he was Republican, and I was scared to walk in for a second. And then I saw all these other white guys in there. I think they were waiting to hold a veterans’ meeting or something. I looked for Trump’s “Make America Great” hat and there it was in a corner of the store. But the guy was as nice as can be, so go figure.
But it did make me think that I couldn’t live in a place where people always see me as different. I love San Francisco because everybody is from somewhere else or has had lots of international experiences. No one expects you to be one thing.
Mayu: The worst thing the election did to us is that it made us not trust each other. It made everyone question each other, even our neighbors and colleagues.
Me: So how do we move forward?
Mayu: When I remember those moments of distrust following the election, I remind myself the way we overcome this is to come together more than ever. It’s their strategy to tear us apart, and the way to fight is to find our commonality in each other and stick together. It’s like Hunger Games. They’re trying to turn us against each other, so we have to turn towards each other.