For the first time since arriving in Japan, I got properly frustrated at my non-existent Japanese ability. It was early Wednesday morning, and I found myself frantically pawing at a Suica (commuter pass) machine, trying to get it to accept my ¥1000 bill. I kept looking over at the clock on the wall, aware that I only had 5 minutes until my train left the station. At this point, the machine had spat my card out five times, telling me earnestly in Japanese that I was doing something wrong. The restless line of people behind me started peering over my shoulder, wondering why I was taking so long to complete a simple transaction. The red kanji characters spilling across the screen for the sixth time nearly brought me to frustrated tears and I ran to the train manager window to explain to them my problem.
I slid my card across the counter and whimpered, “wakarimasen (I don’t understand).”
The man gave me a quizzical look and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Charge?” the man asked.
“Yes! Yes!” I said quickly, trying to formulate a sentence—any sentence that would convey my problem. But, nothing came to mind. All the grammar points and vocabulary words that I had learned in the past two months were suddenly unavailable. I didn’t remember a single helpful phrase except, “wakarimasen.”
Thankfully, he was able to recharge my card for me, and I squeezed into the train car just moments before the doors closed. But, the heat of embarrassment still lingered in my cheeks.
When people ask me if I speak Japanese, I usually explain that since my grandmother was born in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, it was considered important to be as American as possible. So, she never fully mastered Japanese, and as a result, the language died within our family tree. What I don’t tell people, however, is that I’ve had many chances to learn the language. I took French in high school, and Mandarin in college. Truth be told, I’ve steered away from learning Japanese at every junction of my education.
I have always had this irrational expectation that I should be able to master Japanese, effortlessly and flawlessly. As if faltering meant that I wasn’t worthy enough to call myself “Japanese.” So, in order to prevent shaming my ancestors, I chose to learn other languages to avoid such a scenario.
Before coming to Japan, we were told to master the basics—hiragana and katakana, before the program started. When I came to Japan unprepared, I laughed with the other level 1 Japanese students about how I totally forgot to study. But, honestly, I did try. I perused elementary-level hiragana workbooks, and when I couldn’t pick up the characters with ease the first time around, I got discouraged. Now, I know this feeling is irrational. Objectively, I understand that. But to me, it often feels like understanding the Japanese language is the only way I can effectively gauge how “Japanese” I really am. I expected myself to be good. I expected myself to master the basics with ease, as if something in my DNA was primed to comprehend the language innately. To be anything less was to prove just how out of touch I was with my heritage. By failing to understand even the basics the first time around, it only seemed to solidify the fact that I have no right to call myself “Japanese.”
After all, how do you come to terms with your heritage. What makes me “Japanese-American?” Is it my physical features? My family tree? The blood that runs through my veins? Or is it something deeper? My lifestyle culture? My mentality? The family traditions I hold dear?
I’m still searching for the answers to these questions because being in Japan has made me question every facet of my identity. I am so used to introducing myself as: Emi, born and raised in Hawaii, a fifth-generation Japanese-Filipino with American nationality. But if I still can’t buy ice cream from the grocery market without holding up the line with my inability to comprehend the question, “do you need a plastic bag?” then do I have any right to claim this as my heritage?
A lot of my IES Abroad classmates who do not have any sort of Asian ancestry complain about being treated as a gaijin (foreigner). But, sometimes I think it’s worse to be Asian-American. People are not as forgiving of your mistakes when you don’t look the part of “tourist.” Instead, I am expected to understand—and to be able to communicate on a basic level. They are confused by my silence, and offended by my inability to assimilate into a culture I wasn’t born into. I am not given the patience and understanding afforded by blonde hair and blue eyes. It’s been hard to come to terms with that.
In America, I am part of the minority. I’m an outsider because I look different. Here in Japan, it’s frustrating to still feel like a foreigner despite sharing the same bloodline and physical features as majority of the population. But, perhaps, the greatest lesson is learning that my culture is more than skin deep. I can be Japanese-Filipino and American, and that’s okay. I do not have to choose. I am free to be myself, and to create an identity that doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of what an Asian-American should be. Ultimately, this experience has helped me to navigate an ever-evolving identity and to remember that I am greater and more complex than my ancestry, and that’s okay.