Featured Image designed by Alice Katindig
“I can eat that because I’ve grown up with it,”
is a common expression I use when someone asks me about natto, tsukemono or pickled vegetables, raw fish, and other typical Japanese or Asian foods. This idea of “I grew up with it” does not only apply to food, but it’s also relevant in terms of my mannerisms, and overall outlook on life. All of these things tend to prompt curious questions from my coworkers (both Japanese and those of a Western background). Trying to explain why I am so accustomed to aspects of Japanese culture in particular, doesn’t exhaust me but it does often leaves me questioning my identity. I am expected to behave as a stereotypical American (whatever that means) because I am from America. However, my upbringing doesn’t seem to fit the preconceived notion of “Western-ness” in Japan and it has left me feeling uncertain about where I stand in this world.
I recently had a bout of homesickness, which I can usually cure with a dose of “let’s do something that will make me happy.” However, this time was different. I went out with friends, I ate the foods that I wanted to eat (smaller portions because I’m still working off those holiday cookies), exercised, and called home. Nothing worked. This left me feeling even worse and I started to become really depressed. I started to feel hesitant if I would ever shake off this spell, but it suddenly hit me when one of my coworkers said, “For a foreigner you act more Japanese than Japanese children do.” I was acting the way my family raised me, but this short quip made me think, “Am I supposed to fit an image? If so, what?” As an Asian American I understand the struggles of identity crisis, but living in Japan has really made me think about who I am and where or how I am supposed to fit in.
Asian Americans make up 5.6% of the US’ population, but are believed to hit 10% in the year 2050 (“Asian Americans in the US”). We are one of the largest growing populations in the US, but often share a similar predicament, which is “although [we] may feel, think, and act American, [we] are routinely treated as though [we] are foreigners and do not belong in America to the same degree as other Americans” (Cheryan, 717). This idea also extends to other western countries as well, but rather than fighting this perception, I feel as if Asian Americans often find humor in it which allows us connect and bond over shared identity issues. We enjoy laughing about this idea especially on social media formats–a big shout out to Subtle Asian Traits (SAT)–and it gives us comfort in knowing that we are not alone. However, many still struggle in finding ways to cope with a lack of belonging while also balancing other familial or filial expectations (e.g. trying not to bring shame on our households, getting our parents to love and accept us, etc.). This consequently can produce issues such as the denial of one’s identity or a social situations where, we as Asian Americans, we may not be recognized as a complete member of a group despite feeling like one (Huynh, 1).
Basically, most of us are Mulan looking into the mirror and questioning “who is the [person] I see, staring straight back at me?”
As an American, I was taught that individuality is important and that is where job recruiters look, but I learned from my studies in psychology that it is in our nature as humans to want to be accepted into a group. Our rate of survival dramatically increases if we have an in-group because we feel mentally and physically safe (Dewall, “Social Acceptance and Rejection: The Sweet and the Bitter”). For example, in high school quite a few of us most likely didn’t want to be a student without an inner circle. During that time, many of us probably tried to find groups we like through other means like clubs, sports, and elective classes. We do what we need to do in order to maintain an optimal status in or groups; for example, changing our appearances, mannerisms, behaviors, and so on. However, in the end we cannot change our fixed upbringings or cultural backgrounds.
As Asian-Americans, we are constantly rejected by the land many of us we were born and raised on, but we try to find solace elsewhere. Solace can come in many forms such as taking the time to learn our parents’ native languages, meme groups like SAT, or studying abroad, etc. I was raised in Hawaii so I was influenced by a variety of cultures: Asian, Hispanic, Polynesian, Caucasian, and many others. I was raised in an environment with predominantly Japanese influences, so I grew up eating natto, I was scolded for wearing shoes in the house, I behaved under the assumption that my actions will always affect the group, I was constantly lectured about how education should come first, I forced myself through unfavorable situations or just gaman suru-ed and so on. However, when I arrived in Japan despite anticipating a smooth transition due to familiarity with the culture, I once again faced rejection in the country half of my family originates from.
I’m now forced to deal with a dual-type of rejection: I grew up feeling alienated in America and now that I am living in Japan in my twenties, I am feeling similar frictions with my cultural identity here too.
Living in the motherland as an Asian American, there is a heavy emphasis on the American aspects (i.e., Asian AMERICAN). I may have grown up with a similar belief system as some of my current Japanese coworkers so I initially assumed I would have a slight advantage to making friends or blending in. However, I still find myself still struggling to adjust to living in Japan. There will always be a language barrier and when it comes to languages and there will always be various phrases or words that cannot be adequately expressed through another language. Communication is one of the biggest foundations for making connections. I am not always able to express myself in a way I want to and I am not able to always comprehend those around me. Some Japanese people I’ve met seemed conflicted over the fact that I am not a natural-born Japanese citizen, but perhaps due to my upbringing, my mannerisms and skills with chopsticks seem Japanese to them in nature. I look ambiguously Asian which confuses many people because an American individual is supposed to have “blond hair and blue eyes.” These differences have not only confused others, but I find myself confused by their ideas of “American-ness” as well.
Trying to explain why I look, act, speak, and use chopsticks the way I do and the confused reactions I receive from others has prompted me to write this article. I do not mean to sound negative towards any party, that is not my intention. I am writing out my thoughts as to where I stand in this world. When I started this article (and after many revisions), I came to realize that having one foot in and one foot out of many worlds is actually an extraordinary idea. Not many people can say they are made of many different worlds, but here we are – living proof of how differences can be amazing. I may not fit in with one place, but I can relate to many different people and my view of the world is similar to that of a child in a handmade candy store—each piece is special, unique, and tastes amazing I know that some pieces (or aspects of other cultures) match my palate, but others may not. Either way, I am glad to have the opportunity of learning about them or trying them.
At the present moment, I might not know where my “home” is, but that gives me an even greater opportunity to make my own home wherever I am. There will always be challenges of who I am or if I will ever be accepted into a group, but the more I explore the more I learn about this world and the more I discover parts that I want to incorporate into my everyday life. I will always be loyal to my upbringing because without it I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I am proud of my Asian-Pacific Islander American identity and I am honored to have such diversity in my life.
“Asian Americans in the U.S.” NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health. Undated. Web.
Cheryan, Sapna. Benoit Monin. “Where are you Really From?: Asian Americans and Identity Denail.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2005. Vol. 89, No. 5, 717-730. Web.
Dewall, C. Nathan. “Social Acceptance and Rejection: The Sweet and the Bitter.” Association for Psychological Science. 2011. Aug, 12. Web.
Hyunh, Que-Lam. “Identity Denial.” The Encyclopedia of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 2013. First Edition. Web.