My family doesn’t really have heirlooms. It’s not that we don’t care about culture, our identity just isn’t tied to materialism. Plus, we don’t have any.
My father decided to create a new family tradition when we were in Hong Kong. He disappeared into a market for about ten minutes and reappeared with two small boxes. One for me, one for my brother. Inside were two sets of beautifully crafted black onyx chopsticks with shell inlays.
Just like that, he created a family heirloom. I’ve never known him to be sentimental. The chopsticks were more than a present, he explained. They were a celebration of our visit to our ancestral homeland and the beginning of a multi-generational gift-giving process. This would be our way of passing culture from parent to child.
A few days later, I was hanging out at my girlfriend’s apartment still quite jet-lagged. She went with us to Hong Kong and witnessed our heartfelt exchange.
My girlfriend was a bubbly sprite who wore her identity on her sleeve. Every action and object was carefully evaluated for its “Japanese-ness.”
We were talking about how identity is formed through cultural practices. While she was growing up, my girlfriend’s mother constantly refined her chopstick technique. Being so intentional and holding them the “Japanese way” validated her identity. What else, other than tradition, defined a person?
She stopped mid-conversation to offer me some feedback.
“You know, you hold your ohashi (chopsticks) like a white kid. Your white aunt uses them better than you.”
I gawked at her. She was dead serious.
“So, you’re saying my white aunt is more Chinese than me because of the way I hold chopsticks?”
“Well… I mean… I have to use ohashi correctly because I’m Japanese. Authenticity is important.”
This sparked a bitter argument across the dinner table. Unlike her, I didn’t have many transnational connections. But I did have my father’s clumsy chopstick technique. It suited us and it suited me.
But it wasn’t authentic by her cultural standards, my girlfriend argued. Experience is apparently meaningless. My aunt was objectively better at wielding authentic cultural artifacts. Thus, by rigid logic, I wasn’t Chinese. This must be how otakus are born.
My aunt married into our Chinese family. She’s the most amazing woman, but she wasn’t raised with our values. She’s never been called Oriental.
I thought about the onyx chopsticks with the shell inlays. We all have to start somewhere. It’s never too late.