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February 4, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Black and white and Japanese all over

Mario at my friend's home on Doll's Day

Mario at my friend’s home on Doll’s Day

(July 23, 1998)

Our son Mario, 17, attends George School, a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. Following is part of a telephone call we received from him last winter.

“Papa, what am I?”

“What do you mean, what are you?”

“Well, am I African-American or Jewish or what?”

“You’re all of that.”

“But people ask me all the time. What can I say?” Sometimes I have to fill out forms. What can I put in the box?”

It’s never been easy, but it’s getting harder all the time to put real people in those boxes. I’m asked all the time too: “How do your children see themselves? Black? White? Japanese? American? Do they have an identity conflict?”

I have long, convoluted answers to these questions, but mostly I say: “That’s an interesting question. You should ask my children.”

In his “Health and Human Spirit” class, Mario was asked to write about identity. “I never thought about it,” he told me, “I didn’t have anything to write.”

But it was a class assignment so he had to write something, and was astonished (I wasn’t) that once he began, a lot of thoughts emerged, there was a lot he wanted to say. “I could have gone on, but the teacher said it should just be 10 pages.”

“When I was really young, like 3 to 5, I never thought about being different from all my friends. Elementary school was when I realized I was different because people looked at me differently. I was used to it because whenever I went with my mother shopping or rode my bicycle, kids would say “gaijin, gaijin!

“Being the only foreign kid in school and in the neighborhood was never a problem for me. I realized the real difference more once I went to boarding school in the U.S. When I was in Japan I’d thought about it, but never as much as I do now.

“At home I always spoke Japanese but my parents answered me in English so I never had a problem understanding English. People always ask me “How did you learn Japanese if your parents spoke to you in English?” It’s simple: My surroundings were completely Japanese, so Japanese became my first language. My parents never taught me English — just by understanding what they were saying I learned little by little.

“When I got to George School I was overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the campus, the trees, the grass. Everyone was surprised I was part of the ESL orientation, especially when I told them I’m from Japan. Whether I’m in Japan or America, I notice people look at me differently when I say I’m from Japan.

“In America, people can’t tell I’m from Japan by my outside appearance but they can tell I’m different from my inside appearance. In Japan, people can’t tell I’m different from my inside appearance, but can tell I’m different from my outside appearance.

“I had a hard time at first socializing with American friends because it’s just different. My best friend is my roommate Nathan Peasley. When I first saw him I thought “Oh no!” because he looked like a person I could never get along with — spiked yellow hair, punk. But he happens to be the funniest and best person to talk to and we’re just like the same person. This summer vacation he’s coming to our house for a month.

“As I got closer to my American friends, my relationships with my Japanese friends got weaker. Especially this year when I had so much schoolwork and activities and could not write letters to them like last year. But when I come home, we go back to our good old days and have fun just like we were never apart.

“Sometimes in class I felt I couldn’t say things I really wanted to say because I was embarrassed about my English even though I was already pretty good. I also have a hard time listening and writing at the same time — and when teachers write on the board it’s not the like the perfect penmanship our teachers in Japan used. Another thing is sports. Most people don’t understand how much talking goes on in sports. I had a lot of trouble in the beginning asking the coach questions and communicating with teammates.

“One of the biggest problems was talking to girls. When I was in junior high school in Japan of course I never went out with girls, but I could always make them laugh or could talk seriously with them. At my boarding school, the people who don’t know me think that I’m really shy and that I don’t talk much. I am shy, but I do talk and I really wanted people to know that.

“I started to question myself:  What am I? My parents are both from New York City. They moved to Japan in 1975. Two of my sisters were born in Japan — my eldest sister was born in Denmark. My father is Jewish and my other is African-American with half-Jamaican blood. That makes me almost five different bloods, not including the Japanese culture.

“In Japan, I was culturally Japanese, but a black boy from the outside. Most people did not even know that I’m half white.

“In America, some people tell me that I’m American and some people tell me that I’m Japanese. Some of them say I look Japanese! I always thought I was American because both my parents are American. But if you forget about my looks, I am totally Japanese. I’ve been in America for two years, so its difficult not to pick up American culture. There will always be stuff I don’t understand, but I’m already much more American than when I first went there.

“I think it’s important for me to recognize myself, but it really doesn’t matter if I’m black or white or Japanese. I lived all my life around Asian people and listening to my parents speaking to me in English. I listen to hip-hop music and love Japanese comedy shows because I think they’re really funny.

“People ask me all the time: In the future, are you going to live in Japan or America?” I always think why does it have to be America or Japan? I could be happy wherever, and that might not be America or Japan. It could be a country I never even thought about. Ultimately, I want to be myself and be happy.”

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POSTSCRIPT

I’ve always thought of my children as black and white, in alphabetical order. And while it’s clear they are American (because of the arbitrary laws that determine nationality) — obviously too, they’re Japanese. They’ve been socialized as Japanese, being born and raised in Japan.

It is interesting — well, actually baffling — to me, that U.S. President Obama labels himself black. I think I understand all the reasons why he chooses to — but I do not understand why he would choose a term that negates the role of his mother in his life. She gave birth to him, raised him, cared for and educated him.

I totally reject and abhor the U.S. definition of who is black. I am surprised that intelligent people continue to accept definitions that are based on the historical bigotry of racial classification. “One drop” of “black blood” meant you were black. Oh yeah? How do you figure that?

Black. White. Japanese. American. Mixed. Half. None of these words capture the complexities of who we may be as human beings.

Mario speaks Spanish and has lived in Ecuador and traveled throughout South and Central America. He now lives in Kyushu. When he visits home and hangs out with his friends here in Shizuoka, he says “We pick up right where we left off.”

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2 Comments

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  1. Nicole Watanabe / Feb 22 2013 11:28 am

    Karen,

    I LOVE this essay! My boys, ages 12 and 7, recently bring this up to me… “I am Japanese, no, American, no half, no, BOTH! Mommy, what am I? My friends here say I am American, but I am Japanese too, WHICH is it?” “Mommy you are white but I am Asian? Am I white too or Asian? Are you Asian?” I encourage them to reject any premise or label that is too simplistic or small to fit who they are, and offer an answer that feels right to them. I encourage them to speak their own definitions, not to force themselves into the boxes presented to them…. And I often wonder, what sort of “definitions” of identity, race, nationality will their generation build?

    Like

    • Karen Hill Anton / Feb 22 2013 11:36 am

      Nicole, hi!

      …ohisashiburi 😉

      Well, I think you got it right — telling your boys to reject labels that are “too simplistic”.
      Personally, I do not have a problem with ambiguity — and think we do not yet have words/names/titles/labels for everything or everyone.
      It will be interesting to see what future our children will create.

      Like

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