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Identity, ethnicity, and me

Art by Sumiye Allen

Identity is a tricky thing. It’s what makes you, you. It’s all of your beliefs and values and personality traits and physical traits and any other characteristics put together, forming one whole person. It’s not just the way you perceive yourself. I don’t think it’s possible for you to know yourself fully, especially because your identity will always be changing. Yet it’s important to have a sense of identity because that influences your sense of self, which is important for your ability to make decisions, self-worth, and self-acceptance. For me, that’s not so easy.

When someone asks for my ethnicity, I say that I’m half Japanese. And it’s true, in that I am a Japanese descendant. I’m certainly half-Asian.

But I’m a Gosei (fifth generation; my great-great grandparents were immigrants), which means my claim to any cultural affiliation is debatable. My family has been in America for over a hundred years—since before the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always assigned the label of Japanese-American to myself, but whenever I say that I’m half Japanese, it feels like a lie.

For reference, a visual of what exactly being Gosei means. Image credits: Sumiye Allen

I suppose, in a way, it is, because to be completely accurate I’d have to say half Japanese-American, but it feels like adding the -American is unnecessary here. More so, I’m just never sure that my family's traditions count enough for me to call myself Japanese-American, especially when I’m so far removed from those first-generation immigrants.

I can’t speak Japanese; that was pretty much lost after the second generation. My grandparents know more than my mom, my brother, and me, but that isn’t saying much considering we know all of a couple words. That alone is a large part of me feeling invalid; I feel like being able to speak Japanese would make me feel more legitimate. One particular memory often comes to mind; a teammate’s dad shamed my mom for not being able to speak Japanese (obviously he was wrong, but the sentiment remains). On the other hand, I feel like Japanese is off limits, like speaking it would be trying too hard to connect to a heritage that doesn’t belong to me. Still, we do use some Japanese words around the house, mainly to do with food: hashi for chopsticks, shoyu for soy sauce, gohan for rice, for example. Sometimes, in conversation, I have to mentally translate those few select words back to English before speaking them aloud.

I grew up with little things like that. I was taught to say itadakimasu (thanks) before eating. I was brought up eating Japanese food—not primarily, but definitely more than the average American household. I learned how to use chopsticks early on. My family has a tradition before New Year’s to gather at my grandparents’ house for Mochitsuki, where we make a bunch of mochi. On New Year’s Day, the first thing we eat is mochi. The only church services I’ve attended (of which are few) were at my grandparents’ Buddhist church. We have a small shrine to my mom’s grandparents that sits on the piano. I know a lot about the Japanese internment camps during WWII because my grandparents lived in them.

The traditional mochi my family makes for New Years. Every family takes some, and the rest are distributed amongst family friends. Photo credits: Robin Sakahara (my mom)

That’s all part of my identity. I can’t easily separate my heritage from my identity because it influenced the way I was raised, but at the same time, I can’t trust in it as concretely as I did when I was younger. It didn’t always feel like a lie to say I was Japanese-American.

Part of it is that I’m more conscious of my appearance. My dad is white, and I arguably look more like my dad than my mom in terms of facial features; at the very least, my nose looks a lot like his. And especially in recent years, my hair has contributed to that difference. I look back at photos from early elementary school, and my hair is straight. Anyone who looks at me now will say that is definitely not the case. Now, I love my hair, but it’s definitely not the stereotypical Asian hair. It’s also several shades lighter than my mom’s. It doesn’t help that I have other Japanese-American friends I can compare to.

The other part is that everything is simply more complex than it was as a little kid. I knew I was half-Japanese because that’s what I learned. There was no doubt in my mind; it never occurred to me that I might not be considered Japanese enough to label myself Japanese-American.

Now, that doubt is ever-present. Whenever I correct someone about my name (which happens especially often at the start of the school year), I wonder if I myself am pronouncing it properly. Whenever someone asks what it means, I say I don’t know, because all I have is what my parents say they chose from a book, and I don’t feel confident in that. Whenever I hear someone pronounce a Japanese word differently than the way I pronounce it, even though that’s how I was taught to say it, I question myself. I’ve searched up words I’m very familiar with a number of times just to reassure myself that I’m not wrong.

And like I mentioned in the beginning, I can’t comfortably answer questions about my ethnicity. Racial questions on surveys or forms are easy; I’m at ease with my racial identity. It’s the Japanese part that gives me trouble, but while that part of my identity is a source of uncertainty, it is a part of my identity, and one I don’t think I’ll be giving up. If someone told me tomorrow that I can’t call myself Japanese-American, it would definitely amplify that insecurity, but it wouldn’t change my mind.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, especially for anyone who faces a similar struggle, some parts of your identity can be defined by you only. And if it takes some time to come to a resolution, that’s okay.

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1 Comment

Reda Rountree
Reda Rountree
Oct 20, 2022

This is a really moving article — and the art is incredible. You are a talented writer ❤️

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