Most people don't know the half of it
“Do you think you are more American or more Japanese?”
This is the most frequent question I am asked, and definitely the hardest one to answer. I find myself shrugging and responding, “I don’t know … half of each?” questioning my identity.
My father is American and my mother is Japanese. I was born in Andrews Air Force Base, Md., but my family and I immediately moved to Japan when I was 2-years-old. Up until high school, I attended school at Yokota Air Base under an American education system.
Yet, while I studied in English, I also grew up surrounded by the Japanese culture, especially from the strong influence of my mother and her side of the family. I soon became equally attached to both cultures from a young age and embraced the fact I was a “hafu.”
The word “hafu” is a term embedded in Japanese society that literally means “half.” It is used to describe a person who holds two different cultures, the most common hafu in Tokyo being half-Japanese and half-American.
I had never thought there was anything wrong with presenting myself with the term hafu, but my perspective quickly changed when I started my freshman year of high school.
I would say I had a fair amount of friends in high school, some of them infamously hafu and others who were full American, Filipino or Korean.
High school naturally placed everyone into cliques, and I found myself being closest with the half-Japanese half-American group. Yet, many of my classmates would joke around and label us as the “Asian” or the “Japanese” group, which left me feeling confused and irritated.
One memory I will never forget is when my best friend, who is also a hafu, and I were having our yearbook photos taken. We were voted as “Best Friends” for the yearbook superlatives and had thought of various poses to do for the picture.
Before we could even pitch in our ideas for the pose, we were told, “Do the peace sign, like an Asian pose!”
And, “Pretend like you’re eating lunch with chopsticks!”
I remember feeling all sorts of emotions but mostly anger. My friend and I might be Asian, do the peace sign, and eat our lunch with chopsticks, but that has nothing to do with our relationship as best friends, which was the whole purpose of the photo shoot.
We fought back and said, “We have a better idea for a pose,” and simply smiled to the camera.
Now, fast-forward 3 years.
I am currently attending a Japanese international university in Tokyo where all of my classes are taught in English, but the majority of students around me are full-Japanese or some exchange students or hafu like me. But as soon as I entered university, I was judged as the “American girl.”
People I met for the first time would say, “You are so American – very open and loud,” or “You seem like you party all the time!”
I was truly devastated.
Being judged as the “Asian girl” throughout high school genuinely made me believe I was somewhat more Japanese. I thought I would be happier and would fit in better if I attended a Japanese university. For the first couple of months, I felt more lost than I ever was before.
“Where do I belong?” I was constantly trying to figure out the answer.
Yet, the perks of attending a Japanese international university are that many students hold various different backgrounds. Over time, I came to realize many of my friends were struggling with their identity, too.
I became close friends with a full-Japanese girl who grew up in the Middle East. Although her parents are both Japanese and she can speak Japanese fluently, it was her first time to live in Japan for university. She feels like she cannot truly fit in with the other Japanese students because of her international background.
Becoming friends with people of different backgrounds and hearing their struggles made me come to a realization: I am not “more Japanese” or “more American” – I am made up of both cultures equally.
Each person is unique based on his or her individual personalities and life experiences. We should all stop having expectations and judgments about how a person should be based on their ethnicity.
Let’s start seeing what’s on the inside.