Cultural identity is a topic that, recently, has become something that I’ve given thought to more now than ever before—after all, it is a topic hard to ignore these days.
Growing up, I thought I was affirmed in my cultural identity but I look back and realize I was always American first, Japanese second. This fact was challenged by a junior high schoolmate who boldly came up to me and said, “do you know what today is?… Today is the day YOU bombed Pearl Harbor“. It didn’t matter how far removed I felt from my Japanese heritage or ancestry, being fourth generation American born. Nor did it matter I had never stepped on Japanese soil. To my schoolmate, my slanted eyes, dark hair and Japanese surname was enough for him to think he knew my story. And now I am witnessing people —daily through social media—testify that they too have felt their history, beliefs, and values have been assumed by others simply based on their cover.
As an adult I had a hunger to discover more of my cultural heritage and I began to embrace my Japanese identity. Having married a Chinese-American man, I made sure to keep my Japanese surname even resorting to using my Japanese first name so that people would not judge my slanted eyes, dark hair and Chinese surname and assume to know my history and cultural identity. I felt comfortable taking hold of my Japanese identity…a freedom that I didn’t want to take for granted especially when just a generation ago my parents were raised having abandoned the language and much of the culture as a way to show their cultural identity or rather their patriotism as being American first. Japanese second. While I used to feel blessed that I could hold onto my cultural identity and still remaining 100% American, recently I haven’t felt the confidence that this freedom still exists as diversity in look, history, culture, religion and orientation is being called into question and the freedom of having pride in cultural identity becomes threatened.
If the struggle that minorities in our country faces to hold onto cultural identity while still maintaining patriotism weren’t enough, I feel new challenges ahead to make sure my children know and take pride in their background, history, heritage and culture from both of their parents. And I mostly certainly don’t want them to abandon their cultural identity like my parents had to.
This idea of cultural identity is a harder thing to balance than I had anticipated. It was so much easier when, as babies, they didn’t recognize physical or cultural differences. Recently my oldest LO who attends a Japanese language school, said randomly one day that she was Japanese and not Chinese. Because of her lessons in Japanese language she is identifying as Japanese but has offended another part of her identity. In subtle ways, my husband and I, have tried to introduce our children to what genetically identifies them (as being both Japanese and Chinese) while still exposing them to the beauty in all cultures that really makes up what it is to be American so I can imagine how confusing it can be.
Just this weekend, while attending a Japanese school function, I sat across an Italian-Mexican American mother whose children have a great-great grandfather who was Japanese but hailed from Mexico. While I am guessing her children are only about 1/16 Japanese, they culturally identified with being Japanese and she has helped them embrace that part of their history by enrolling them in martial arts and Japanese language school. She didn’t seem at all concerned that they weren’t identifying with their Italian or Mexican roots; so perhaps, for now, neither should I be concerned if my LO hasn’t quite embraced her Chinese identity.
All of this has my head spinning and wishing we could all take a queue from our babies who might recognize differences but sees no need in making a big fuss one way or another.