I was born in Japan to Japanese parents. My parents and I immigrated to the United States when I was a baby. We had obtained permanent resident status, but remained Japanese citizens. About five years ago, I became a naturalized American citizen.
Becoming an American citizen was a conscious decision, which took me many years to make and to feel completely confident in doing. What did being an American mean to me? What did this change mean in light of the culture in which I was brought up? How does this political act of renouncing the country of my birth and pledging loyalty to the country where I live affect how I define myself as an individual?
My parents and I came to America with the hope for the proverbial land of opportunity. At the time we had left Japan, my father had been working in theatre and in film. He had felt that the government had too much control in the production of the parts, and wanted to escape to a place where ideas could be freely expressed. He told my mother, shortly after I was born, that life would be better for me growing up in America, that the educational system would allow for more creativity and individuality than in Japan, where rote memorization of facts and strict conformity were the norm.
My parents have said that I didn’t talk at all for the first two years of my life. They were worried that I was having difficulty comprehending both the Japanese spoken at home and the English spoken elsewhere, and had decided to speak only English to me, albeit broken English, so that I would understand the language before I started school. To their relief, when I was three years old, I began to speak in whole sentences-in English-but unfortunately, I was robbed of an opportunity to learn my parents’ language during my formative years.
In school, the hardest lessons had to do with socializing with my peers. From the beginning, that I was not white was made blatantly obvious to me. I endured countless chants of “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” and “Chinese people never curse, ah-so, ah-so.” In second grade, I remember trying to reason with these kids. “I’m not Chinese,” I said. “My knees are clean,” but to no avail. I couldn’t understand why anyone would tease me about being of another race. What was so strange about being Japanese? I wondered. But in a town where my family was one of only a handful of Asian families, I must have stood out in school. I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me.
At home, my parents continued certain Japanese customs. We said Itte kimasu (“I’m leaving”) when we were leaving the house and were sent off with Itte irasshai (“Go then”) by those who stayed at home. Coming home, we announced our arrival by saying Tadaima (“I’m home”) and were greeted with Okaeri-nasai (“You’ve returned”). Before every meal, we said Itadakimasu (“I’ll eat”) and ended the meal with Gochisou-sama deshita (“Thank you for providing the food”). Our meals were either traditional Japanese foods or Western foods, so I grew up eating somen noodles and spaghetti, tonkatsu and pork chops. And always rice with every meal.
My father was the breadwinner, my mother the homemaker. My mother handled the finances and was largely responsible for bringing up the children. My father was often away for long periods of time for his job. If we kids acted up (and we often did), my dad would be the one to mete out the punishment, but then he would chastise my mother for not keeping us in line. It was a very traditional Japanese patriarchal family structure, and I chafed under it and rebelled against it every chance I could. I grew to see the Japanese culture with this perspective-an oppressive father figure, a submissive mother figure-and I was determined not to perpetuate this structure when I grew older.
As traveling to Japan was expensive, I did not have the opportunity to return to my birth country very often. The last time I was able to visit was ten years ago. All of my relatives live throughout Japan, and I was able to spend time with most of them during that summer.
Although I grew up hearing Japanese spoken between my parents, my own skills in speaking were poor, my reading skills deplorable. I had resisted learning Japanese when I was in elementary school, and had tried to cram a lifetime’s worth of learning on my own only a couple months before leaving for the trip. Most of my older relatives spoke no English at all, so conversing with them often consisted of their simple Japanese sentences that I understood, but with my broken, infantile phrases in response. They were polite and nodded their heads, but I knew from the awkward, silent pauses that I was not conveying my thoughts clearly.
I tried very hard to connect with everyone, however, and they were very eager to learn everything about American from me. Is it true, one of my uncles asked me, that everyone in America carries a gun? How can Americans eat such big portions of food? a cousin asked me. I thought all Americans ate hamburger, an aunt exclaimed, after I tried to politely explain that I didn’t eat meat. I want to speak English as fluently as you and work in America, another cousin wished fervently. Despite my blood ties to these people, I was viewed as a foreigner in my homeland.
And yet, I saw that the culture perpetuated by my parents was not necessarily the culture of my relatives. Many of the customs I grew up with were the same customs here, but the strict familial structure seemed not as apparent. There was more equality in parental responsibility among my aunts and uncles. Some of my older cousins are what the Japanese called DINKs (double income, no kids). Some of the women have already decided that they don’t want to marry, and would rather remain independent and self-sufficient. I began to think that my parents’ Japanese culture was frozen in time, from when they had left the country to start new lives.
When I returned to the States, I was welcomed by a customs official who said, “You speak English very well.” I found I craved the fresh vegetables and fish I had at my grandmother’s house, and took to drinking miso soup for breakfast instead of eating cereal as I used to do.
After my summer visit to Japan, I realized two things simultaneously: one, that I felt more at home in the United States; and two, that I wanted to learn as much about my Japanese heritage and culture as possible.
I think that one’s ties to a culture and community are strengthened by the knowledge of its history and language. Having grown up in the United States, I was immersed in English, immersed in American history. English is the language that serves as the vehicle for my expression of thoughts and ideas. But even though I am fluent in this language, there will always be situations in which I will be pre-judged as a foreigner of this country, just by the slant of my eyes and the shape of my face. Although I fully endeavor to learn more about Japan and the Japanese language (and I have since taken formal classes), the fact remains that it is not my primary language. I suppose I have an advantage over most students in that I grew up hearing it spoken, for the words and inflections sound familiar to me, but my American accent is indelible, my facial expressions and gestures betray more Western mannerisms.
When I took part in the naturalization ceremony five years ago, it became very clear to me: by taking the oath, I may be renouncing any political ties to Japan, but I am not foregoing my family or my heritage, nor am I denying that part of me which is Japanese. In pledging my loyalty to the United States, it is not out of blind patriotism that I do so; it is out of desire to learn, and to educate others in learning how many cultures can co-exist side by side in this country.
Someday, I want to immerse myself in Japan, learn more about its past and present, and let it enrich me further. I want to be able to express my thoughts as fluently in Japanese as I am able to in English. As I grow older, I find I have become a blend of cultures. I am not American, I am not Japanese. I am Japanese-American. That is who I am.
originally published 2004