reprinted from Words of a Melody
Let me begin by telling you a little about me. I am Chinese American. I was born in America. I realize that I’m stuck in this perpetual limbo between two cultures. Most Asian Americans (or Asian Canadians, Asian Australians, etc.) struggle with a kind of identity crisis when being in either country of origin. For me, I’m not quite American in America and I’m not quite Chinese in China. Not being accepted for what I am naturally is quite common. Coming to Japan, I realized that I’m neither Chinese nor American. I’m Japanese!! It’s nice to be recognized as part of this population, but when I pronounce that I am actually Chinese American, I get one of several responses:
- I’m lying or some sort of disbelief because I look Japanese.
- I must be half Chinese and half Caucasian (American = Caucasian).
- I’m Chinese from China.
Of course, looking Japanese has its perks. I blend in with the crowd and I don’t get harassing stares from nationalists. I don’t get the occasional stares of wonderment that most non-Asian people get while walking down the street. Nor do I get the random shouts of, “HELLO! NICE TO MEET YOU!” When I’m among other foreigners in a place dealing with Japanese service people, I get more attention from the service person even if the other foreigners are responding in Japanese.
Then, there’s the down side. Due to my lack of Japanese speaking skills, I get ousted by the sea of people who can speak the language. I’m looked down upon because I can’t speak, even if they don’t mean to make me feel that way. Occasionally I’ll get laughed at when people find out I need a Caucasian person to translate Japanese to me. I don’t get the attention that other non-Asian looking foreigners get. You know, the swarms of Japanese girls or boys going up to you like you’re some kind of celebrity. Also, since I’m a “Japanese woman,” I am involuntarily immersed in the Japanese chauvinistic ways: I don’t get handed business cards from new people when other foreigner men do, the men usually get served first, the men walk through the door or elevator first, the men get seated first, etc. So, I do as the Japanese women are expected to do and keep my mouth shut. Of course, the Japanese women are, in fact, Japanese women so they are accustomed to this culture. I, on the other hand, am not, so I internalize this fury inside until I can poop it out somewhere else.
This isn’t something new. Most of my friends around me know about this dilemma and I appreciate the sympathy. Yes, I know that I’m in a very rural area and most of these people have never left my small town of Kibichuo so I should be more understanding, right? I shouldn’t take this stuff personally, right? Trust me; I really don’t want to take this stuff personally. However, when I’m constantly exposed to situations where I’m indirectly ridiculed for looking Japanese but not speaking Japanese, or being among other folks who are not Asian-looking but speak Japanese fluently, it takes a toll on my self-worth. It’s hard enough to embrace a completely new culture, language, and environment, let alone be judged for what I am or, in this case, what I am not. Granted I know I am in a place where it’s not as bad as how Americans treat the foreigners in America. I just wish that I didn’t have to face this kind of adversity so often here, in a place that I love.
Is there a simple black and white solution? Perhaps. I could learn Japanese as fast as I can so I can impress Japanese people when I say I’m not actually Japanese…in Japanese. So I can stand up for myself and look smart when people try to look down on me for not being able to speak, read, or write in Japanese. So I can really blend in and assimilate. If only this were a perfect world.
I guess I should look on the bright side. At least I’m accepted somewhere, even if it’s not for who I really am.
I was going to end it there, but….
In my defense, JET didn’t accept me as a candidate because of my Japanese speaking abilities. It’s because I have the qualities and experience that make a good English teacher along with the strength and individualism to survive on my own in a foreign country. I came here not to find a husband/boyfriend/soul mate or to be admired like a celebrity by adorning Japanese teenage girls. I came here because I want to make an impact on the lives of students and to share my knowledge of the English language and culture while embracing theirs. I am proud of who I am, even if it’s questioned by others every day. ◆
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