I am Japanese American.
There’s no disputing that. My Japanese mother and white American father places me smack dab into that category even if my second grade teacher couldn’t answer my race question when I asked her as a small student filling out her standardized test form.
But I don’t always feel so identifiable. Sometimes I feel more American than Japanese, like when I buy my groceries at my local Japanese store and the most I can understand is the welcome and leaving greetings. Other times I don’t even think about it and just feel like, well, me.
For most of my life, though, it hasn’t been something I could ignore. The relentless taunting in elementary school, and later the odd comments about blood purity percentages and the selective deafness from strangers never left me doubting just where I stood.
I read a lot of books, but rarely do I read books that strike so close to who I am. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, however, struck hard and quick.
It’s a very complicated story, in that I would be doing it a great disservice to try to condense it here. Trust me when I say that this is truly a tale that crosses boundaries – with time, ethics and age. It weaves a tale that forces you to question existence, self-identity, and perception. It questions what it means to be “noticed” and to “not notice” or be forgotten. It taps into how we view our own agency and what gives our lives value.
I was moved many times during this book and it was the first time when a novel touched something so deep within me that I rarely want to face.
Race has always been up front and center for me. When your father is American and you’re living in Japan, you get noticed. When you’re back in America but you’re still the only Asian kid in the school, you don’t forget it. Every time you go to visit someone’s house and realize just how different their home is compared to yours, you don’t invite them over. It wasn’t shame, exactly. It was more playacting – trying to separate who I was at home from what I was beyond my front porch.
It was, for the longest time, my way of dealing with being different.
It wasn’t fulfilling.
In fact, it made life even more difficult. Nao, the teenage girl in the book, lives a double life. She keeps what’s happening to her at school separate from her home. The one time it does cross, it brings the reality of her situation into the light and she’s forced to face it.
While I was verbally bullied at school growing up, I was never bullied to the extent that Nao experiences. However, I can relate to her wanting something that made her special and strong – she developed her “super power” while I did my best to be a “super American”. I focused heavily on studying and being smarter than everyone else, I never brought up my background in a social setting and pretended that my home life was identical to theirs. I did whatever I could to make myself be “normal”.
And while it did give me the strength to get through it all, it didn’t help my self-esteem. I found myself hating what I looked like even more because it wasn’t something I could change. A new pair of the hottest pants and the latest top might make me fit in, but I couldn’t change my eyes or the shape of my face.
The girl with the curly blond haired, hazel eyed hubby.
The girl with the house where you automatically take off your shoes at the door and eat mochi at New Year’s.
The girl with the slanted eyes, quirky skirts, and dark brown hair with natural red tints that’s a bit dad and a bit mom.
The girl that’s part Japanese and part American.
I still haven’t fully come to terms with my dichotomy. Even as I type this, I remember everything and it’s difficult to contain it all. I want to talk about everything all at once. There are days when those evil words come and haunt me right back in the mirror. There are even days when I still encounter people who feel as if they need to remind me of what I am. I still struggle.
But I have discovered that it’s also okay to be me. In fact, without the other, I’m not me.
It’s that realization that helps me get through the tough moments.
(Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a bit graphic and a whole lot of sad, but it’s a wonderful book about learning to build your life on your own set of rules. I highly recommend it and would love to hear from those that have read it.)