Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Being American Asian

By Rachel Wolff

After spending my entire life in Japan, moving back to the states was an odd experience

When Gary Locke was elected as the first Asian American governor of Washington State a many years ago, I thought, “Finally, someone from my own community to represent me!” When friends leave, I’m always bowing and waving at the same time. And Japanese words come out first when I’m excited, hurt, or afraid. Asian American, I’m not. More like, American Asian, maybe. Actually, I don’t have one drop of Asian blood in me, although I like to believe the theory that my Finnish ancestors had ancient ties to the Korean people. Still, I grew up for 11 years in Japan and came of age in Seattle’s Japanese community. So in a sense, I am more Asian than American.

I landed in Tokyo just shy of my second birthday, the third generation of my family to call Japan home. My grandfather committed his life to serving the Japanese after fighting against them in World War II. He worked in Japan as a Lutheran pastor for 40 years. My father returned to the U.S. just long enough to finish college and seminary, returning for 11 more years of ministry in the land where he was raised. I quickly made Japan my home. I learned to speak to the other toddlers in the sandbox, ride a tricycle through the narrow streets of residential Tokyo, and eat grilled squid off a stick at summer festivals.

When I turned four, we moved to rural Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most island. There it was easy for me to feel Japanese. In fact, the children in my nursery school had no concept of a foreigner, and one boy asked our teacher why my parents dyed my hair blond. I studied Chinese characters, or kanji, right alongside my Japanese friends in public elementary school, always near the top of my class. Everyone around me was Japanese and I rarely felt any different, except when my American mother would insist that I speak English at home. “Mendo-kusai!” I would answer in frustration, “It’s too difficult!”

When my parents announced that we were “going home” to the States, it felt to me like we were moving to a foreign land. Upon arriving in Seattle, I expressed surprise at how many gaijin, or foreigners, there were in the airport. Gradually, I filled the holes in my English vocabulary and learned to watch MTV, but everything smelled different and looked different. I remember feeling lonely when my new friends took me to see Wayne’s World because I couldn’t understand any of the jokes. I missed the sweet smell of soy sauce and smooth feel of straw tatami floors in my beloved Japan. My adjustment was complicated by the fact that fundamentally, I saw myself as Japanese. I could accept that I would never have a Japanese passport, but I told myself I could never accept an American identity.

I finally found my place in a Japanese ethnic church in Seattle’s Chinatown. With both native Japanese and U.S. born members, Japanese Congregational Church (JCC) is a peculiar mix of Japanese and American, a reflection of my own inner cultural experience. I volunteered to write up Japanese versions of the weekly bulletins and helped sell sushi every Superbowl Sunday. Sometimes it felt strange to hear the Asian kids around us call to each other in English while my Caucasian sisters and I spoke in Japanese. But I learned at JCC that how you look doesn’t have to prescribe who you are. By feeling more comfortable with expressing my Japanese side in the US, I also began slowly to admit that I had a piece of American culture in me as well.

Now, even after ten years back in the U.S., it’s easy for me to keep being Japanese on the inside. When I call Japanese clients, they can’t believe I’m a white American after a ten-minute conversation in their native tongue. And my Japanese friends who know me well seem to forget that I’m not “really” one of them. I like to go to parties where I’m the only non-Asian face. Somehow, I feel more comfortable there than in crowds of Anglos who don’t know the difference between sushi and sashimi.

Jimmy, my Korean American friend, often jokes that I’m much more Asian than he is.

“Which one of us has eaten more rice in their lifetime?” It’s probably me.

“Which one of us can sing the Gilligan’s Island theme song?” It’s definitely Jimmy.

“Do you respect someone as your elder even if they’re only one month older than you?” Ask my old housemate, Jinhee. We’re both 24. We both know she’s the “older sister” in our relationship.

Jimmy wears an Asian identity on his face that I’ll never have. But inside, I know both of us can call ourselves Asian American. Or maybe American Asian.

I have a seven-month old daughter now. Her name Rayna is both American and Japanese, just like her mother is. I speak only Japanese to her, and hope she will grow up bilingual. But more than language, it is my Japanese culture and unique identity that I want to pass on to her. I want her to understand that heritage alone does not guarantee identification with a particular cultural group, and that how you look won’t keep you from being a part of the people your heart belongs to.

Rachel Luttio Wolff spent 11 years of her childhood in Japan and is fluent in Japanese. She worked for Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper, in its Washington, DC bureau, and is now raising her daughter full-time in Wheaton, Illinois.

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