I want to begin by saying I am American. I was born and raised in America however my father was not. His mother was full Japanese (Grandma Yoshi) and married my grandfather (Grandpa Boyd) who was Hawaiian. My father is half Japanese and half Hawaiian and was born and raised in Japan for most of his childhood.
Trying to understand my own identity has been a journey in itself. Characterized by a series of twist and turns. Sometimes I feel I’m not quite ‘American’ in terms of what a stereotypical American is usually represented by to most people around the world. Usually this stereotypical image consists of blue eyes and blonde hair with fair skin.
Yet, in contrast, I’m not what one would consider full Japanese either even though I’ve been using chopsticks since I was six, celebrating New Years differently with my Dad, my mannerisms are different from most stereotypical Americans and having features that are Asian enough in America to separate me (especially in my hometown of Tennessee) make me appear to be very different from the majority that surrounds me.
Someone once used the term ‘ethnically ambiguous’ to describe me. But the truth is, I’m not ‘ethnically ambiguous’. I am Japanese/ Hawaiian from my father’s side and American from my mother’s.
I grew up not having a box to check on standardized testing when asked to specify what my race was. There was ‘white’, ‘pacific islander’, and ‘asian’ but not one for all of these unless one checked ‘other’ that is if there even was an ‘other’ box to check. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve been allowed to check ‘all that apply’.
But I bring up this experience because I recall being in middle school and looking around wondering if any of the other kids in my class felt confused like me. Our teacher at the time said that we had to pick one. But I felt ashamed that I would have to pick a side of me to denounce or rather, not acknowledge.
Fast forward a bit and some boy on my bus wanted to be mean and as an insult said something like, “What are you? Chinese or something?” While smooshing his face so as to mimic my slanted eyes and make fun of them. That was the first time I felt someone try to use my difference to belittle me or make me feel less than.
I thought to myself, “First off, I’m Japanese!” And secondly, “wow this kid must really be stupid, we really all don’t look alike. And even if I was Chinese, why would that be an insult?”
He continued, “Do you eat rice every day?”
And again I thought, “Even if I did, why would that be an insult?”
You see, my father raised us to be proud of who we are and my mother always reaffirmed us through her unconditional love for her mixed Asian babies.
I never experienced ignorance about who I was at home but it definitely was a different story in the real world.
I remember in high school that one time I was hanging out with my non-Asian friends and us all trying on the same outfit. But to my dismay, when I looked in the mirror I felt something wasn’t right. The ‘look’ wasn’t the same on me.
Maybe it was my face? My Asian features? My “chink eyes” (as people often joked, “I can’t even tell when your eyes are open!”) Or my flat Hawaiian nose? (“You have a big nose people often said.”)
I started to question my own confidence in my physical appearance. Being a girl in high school can already be tough enough. But I tried to change myself to look less Asian. My eye lashes are long but would naturally point down at a slant. So I started to try and curl them so they would flow up like my friends.
I cut my bangs straight across once and was told by multiple people that they liked my hair parted on the side better because I looked less Asian. Or further, that I didn’t look like other Asians because I had naturally pretty light brown hair.
Why were these insults though? Why was looking less Asian considered a good thing in their minds? Or why was having beautiful thick jet black hair a bad thing? I thought both were beautiful.
Boys weren’t any better. It was assumed by boys in high school that I was naturally more promiscuous because I was Japanese and Japanese girls are ‘freaks’.
“Really? Is that all you’ve ever associated with my culture?” I thought.
Or worse being told by a boy that something was wrong with me because I was more reserved, not loud, assumed not competitive but rather submissive in a negative sense and told I needed to work on expressing my emotions overtly.
Some boys assumed I had to like white men too. As if it were to be expected that I would want nothing more than to be some white man’s token Asian just in virtue of him not being Asian. God forbid he earn my love because he treated me well. God forbid he instead expect that I had a brain and could think for myself or aspired for more than to just be his.
As I got older, I think what I hated most was how I started to see how my ‘being Asian’ was really regarded. I remember going to a restaurant and eating rice with chopsticks and everyone staring at me. Asian food is the cool thing to do until an actual Asian is eating it the way they do.
I remember all the racist comments like someone seeing an Asian person while we were out and finding it funny to say, “Look Lauren! It’s your long lost sister!” Even though at the time I could see way more white people around us so the likelihood of us seeing her sister was higher.
I remember thinking, she will never know the feeling one gets when someone jokingly says something like that but it’s not actually funny. I bit my tongue.
I remember hearing all the, “I don’t find Asian men attractive.”
“But why?” -This question beginning from the understanding that you’ve actually had a conversation with an Asian man.
But then again, maybe it’s because they’ve always been portrayed as nerdy and never as the subject of someone’s desire. You don’t find an Asian male as the attractive desirable lead in a Hollywood film unless the movie is about Karate or another martial arts.
Do Asian kids know they too could be Superman or Batman? Probably not because they never see their likeness on screen.
I remember hearing, “Wow, now after traveling to Asian countries I know they’re not all the same!”
I would hope so since now that your experience of them extends past the few times you see them every time you get your nails done. Never knowing what kind of responsibilities they have like providing for their families and so they opt for servicing you and doing your nails. Rather than try to have a conversation with them you make fun of their accent and mimic them instead.
I remember being asked by a boy in school how ‘THAT’ worked because I was Japanese and Hawaiian as if to be proud of my identity meant I should pick sides since in war they were enemies. Or thinking when I heard about Japanese-American concentration camps, “That could have been my family.” And wondering, “Am I actually welcome here?”
I remember thinking I actually felt horrified that America would kill so many innocent Japanese people. What are their lives really worth in the end? Is it too much to say not much has changed when we keep our nuclear weapons regardless? So how would he have felt if I had asked him how ‘THAT’ worked? Should he apologize for the Native Americans, Blacks, or Middle East in disarray?
I remember wanting to model and being excited to look up Tokyo fashion magazines to find only non-Asian models on the majority of their covers. This accompanied by a sorry excuse by a high fashion Asian designer who said that they chose European looking models for their clothes so that buyers who are not Asian will not think their clothes are only for Asians (like this would be the actual reality if this Asian designer had picked all Asian models instead).
However, I have yet to see a European fashion designer choose all Asian models for fear that if they didn’t, buyers would only think that their clothes are for Europeans only. If this was truly the case, wouldn’t both markets of buyers be prioritized in the same way?
I despise how Asian things are “strange” or “weird” until one starts using their exotic clothing and vacation destinations and then suddenly Asian things become unique.
Or further, how for many, using the term “Asian” apparently only includes Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans as if all Asian countries respective inhabitants shouldn’t be included just because they don’t share similar physical features that people stereo-typically associate with being Asian.
And lastly, being made aware by others how apparently learning Asian names is such an inconvenience to certain individuals so instead of for example, an American making the effort to know a Chinese person’s real name, they either ask them to change it for the sake of making it easier for them or the Chinese person does it themselves adopting a name like ‘John’ that they have no connection with because it’s not who they are at the end of the day. Maybe instead, their name means something like their parents wanting good fortune for them for the rest of their lives yet they are forced to lose that at an inconvenience of the non-Asian person who doesn’t even bother to first try and understand who they are without changing something about them first.
The worst is probably those who think we aren’t aware. As if our usual passiveness means that we are incapable of seeing what is really at work..
I have slanted eyes. But I see just fine.
This piece was put together by Lauren Boyd.