Revealing I’m part Japanese to other Asians is an exercise in patience -- sometimes it results in pleasant surprise and increased (sometimes condescending) friendliness; half the time it results in bewildered stares, like I’m a zebra with six legs. I experienced it in spades the first time I visited Japan as an exchange student in 2010. After taking language classes for two years, I hoped to meet my foreign relatives, and thus the sense of balance and belonging I lacked as a “tragic mulatto.”
History class taught that my family never belonged: Black folks were enslaved until nice white folks granted their freedoms; Okinawans were slaughtered and colonized; Japanese-Americans, interned; The Southwest was wrestled from Mexico and Latinx are currently treated as day-laborers. My Blaxican father and Blackanese mother faced institutional discrimination their entire lives. Because of this and my parents’ immigrant heritage, the accident of jus-sanguinis was often on my mind. During the Olympics, I was just as likely (perhaps more so) to root for Japan or Mexico. The United States did not deserve my loyalty. I may live in the U.S., but that does not mean I belong or that I must lovingly call it “home.”
Ironically, my time abroad made me feel more American and more Japanese than ever. The other U.S. students and I were louder, and more gregarious. As much as I saw myself in certain Japanese traditions, I felt isolated by their beauty standards. And I desperately missed the days when my brain and tongue were in harmony, when I could grasp how to fight the passive-aggressive racism I experienced.
While there, I got to meet my relatives; The first time I spoke to one of them on the phone I could barely breathe, stammering in broken Japanese: “Hello -- It is your cousin from America. I am here. I want to meet you.” I feared rejection, but to my surprise they welcomed me with open arms. They threw me a “homecoming” party, took me on trips to parks and castles, showed me baby pictures of my mom. My Japanese relatives are pretty petite, so I felt like a giantess next to them. I did not look like I fit in. To my surprise, they showed me off like they were proud of me. They were proud of me.
My second trip to Japan was more fulfilling than the first. My mother, sisters, and I visited relatives over the summer, and I saw my family undergo the same balancing act: How American are we? How Japanese? How Okinawan? It was enlightening. Viewing this, and talking with my younger sister about her experiences of isolation, helped me let go of the overwhelming desire to fit in. I wore black and white striped shorts that drew attention to my ass, and glared back at the group of girls snickering at me on the train. I gave up trying to squeeze my black, curvy body into slender East Asian aesthetics, embracing the eye-catching summer-wear I preferred back home. It wasn’t that I ignored cultural norms -- I just realized nothing I did would make me acceptable, so I might as well wear what felt nice. Perhaps Japan became more welcoming since I left...or maybe I had just stopped caring.
On this trip, I basked in my mother’s rediscovery of her birthplace. Our cousins told mom she looked like her mother, the eldest ones said they remembered her as a baby. Again, they showed us around Japan with gusto. Once, I forgot to remove my rainbow Pride bracelet before going to meet them. They never mentioned it, and might not have known what it meant, but being openly queer among my family was freeing. We’re connected now. One of my cousins might come to the States for college, and my mother wants to help sponsor her.
On the last leg of our trip we traveled to Okinawa, and through the aid of my little sister’s friends and some lovely city officials, learned more about Koza during the time of my grandparents’ meeting. We visited museums, saw a rice pot similar to the one my family uses to this day, and my mother ate andagi (Okinawan donuts) for the first time since childhood.
Most importantly, I’ll never forget being there and learning about Black and Okinawan solidarity, and the story of PoC agency was healing. We went to an izakaya and mom remarked on the similarities between Okinawan bar food and Black soul food. In Okinawa, I was not the part-Japanese zebra with six legs. In Okinawa, we were seen. No condescending friendliness, no bewildered stares.
The response we received from everyone on the island when we told them we were Okinawan? It was: “welcome home.”
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