The cost of striving for “model minority”

Learning silence as a second language

JT Nakagawa
Feb 24 · 6 min read
Photo credit: CBS News New York / The Atlantic

have several memories of people blaming me for being out of touch with my Japanese roots. One was a gym coach, the classic kind with a buzz-cut who wore sunglasses on our indoor basketball courts, carried a whistle around his neck and chewed gum as he told me, at 11 years old, that I didn’t “seem” Japanese. Another was a geeky college teaching assistant who, after unsolicitedly sharing his infatuation with anime, told me I should learn Japanese because “it’s actually quite a beautiful language.” Another was an online date, a casino card dealer who looked like a vampire and said my last name was interesting to him, but that he was disappointed I wasn’t “more Japanese.”

I think there are more memories, but like any good, model minority, I’ve repressed most of them so that I could continue to ogle white men without feeling affliction.

Now with increasing anti-Asian violence, my good ole American sadness and rage are bubbling up and winning over the motherland quiet. How’s that for patriotism?

“Love this country for its promise, not its practice.”

Photo credit: Dorothea Lange

In 1942, my great-grandparents, grandparents, and aunt were sent to internment camps for being of Japanese descent. Like many nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, my grandparents did not talk to their children or grandchildren about the war.

In his late 30s, my father developed a passion for digging up untold histories of Japanese American internment and became a historian. I recently had a conversation with him about Japanese American identity. He explained, “Many nisei didn’t talk about the war with their children because they didn’t want to burden us with hate.” They wanted to raise good, American children who could be proud of and contribute to their country, not resentful rebels who felt victimized. My father likened the attitude to an older friend of his who was beaten and nearly set on fire for being Black, then withheld the incident from his children until he was on his deathbed as an old man. “Love this country for its promise, not its practice,” he told his kids.

“Jap Woman”

Photo credit: Hikaru Iwasaki

So, it happened that most Japanese Americans in my parents’ generation never learned the details of how their families suffered during World War II. The majority also did not learn Japanese, as very few traditions were passed down that could be considered “un-American.” By the time I was growing up, my grandparents spoke so much English they were forgetting Japanese. Our households were primarily English-speaking, with peppering of Japanese phrases for various food, traditions and, for humor, random slang. I went to Japanese language school as a child, mostly for the community, and brought exotic treats (from the orient!), mochi, to share with classmates at my real school. I was not Japanese, but distinctly Japanese American, which is everything my grandparents would have wanted.

I first started learning about Japanese internment when I was in the fifth grade, and was tasked with a history project. At my father’s encouragement, I focused my project on life in the internment camps, and interviewed my grandmother.

At the age of 82, my grandmother spoke into a tape-recorder about her experience living in the desert for four years. Not looking at me, she peered down at her wrinkled hands and recalled how her mother passed away while she was in the camp. She started to cry. They sent my grandmother home with an old coffee tin containing her mother’s ashes. The label on the tin read, “Jap Woman.” This is how I learned about my family’s history.

Burying the past

Photo credit: Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community

During a screening for one of my father’s documentaries about internment, a nisei woman stood up and, in tears, told her family and the rest of the audience her story of being sexually assaulted as a child in the camp. She thanked the film-makers for giving her the space to share her story, and described the Japanese concepts of tatemae and honne. Tatemae, or “outer face,” is what we show and express to others publicly. Honne, or “inner truth,” is what we truly feel or know, which may be contrary to social expectations and therefore remains hidden in order to preserve oneself. The elderly woman described her trauma as honne, kept a secret to avoid shame.

When Fred Korematsu was reunited with his family in the horse-stalls of a relocation center, his parents told him that his refusal to be interned brought their family shame. When our family friend, then a young mother, mopped the floors of their soon-to-be abandoned house just moments before evacuating to the camps, she said she wanted to leave the house clean to avoid the shame of being considered a dirty ethnic minority. Those who were interned, therefore, held the collective honne of internment closely, and burying the past became as Japanese American as California rolls.

The rejection of pain and suffering as somehow weak or dishonorable is not uniquely Asian, but we do find this trend among Asian cultures. The Asian, persevering attitude to avoid victimization combined with the American tradition of erasing history to create generations of Asian Americans who might say nothing in the face of racial violence. In striving to uphold an image of a ‘model minority,’ fearing loss of social status, I can see how my culture has championed hard work and the American dream while also encouraging silence about racial disparities.

The cost of striving to be a ‘model minority’ has been ignoring America’s practice for the sake of loving its promise.

Having allowed our own cultures (and those in the U.S.) to define “shame” for generations, it is our responsibility to hold our past and present and examine what it is that truly makes us proud. I do not think my grandmother holding her mother’s coffee tin of ashes, moving to California, opening a pool hall, and becoming a successful business owner carries with it a hidden narrative of shame. I can only admire the resilience of those who face unimaginable discrimination and teach their children to love instead of hate. There is a rawness to how hard immigrants are willing to work so their children can have greater opportunities. There is beauty in how communities can come together to support one another, how we can be determined for equality even while under attack. These are aspects of our cultures we can embrace.

The cost of striving to be a ‘model minority’ however, has been ignoring America’s practice for the sake of loving its promise. It is striving for a cure at the cost of healing actual wounds. In the face of anti-Asian violence, I am trying to remind myself that violence is the result of fear, which is often produced, and desperation, caused by a collapse in our safety nets and communities. I understand former generations did what they had to do to survive. Now, two generations later, we have the civil liberty to denounce hate- and fear-based politics.

Author Note

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JT Nakagawa

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Physician, Writer, Humankind Enthusiast

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

JT Nakagawa

Written by

Physician, Writer, Humankind Enthusiast

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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