For me, the sentence “I’m Asian and American” is true in the simplest sense: I am from Asia and I am also from America. Despite being Asian and American, I am not Asian-American.
The phrase “Asian-American” may bring to mind the image of families from across Asia journeying to the United States in search of opportunity, navigating life in a new country, building careers to save for their children’s futures, rising through the ranks to pursue the American Dream, and proudly taking on the mantle of American identity. There are many people who would certainly claim some version of this story as their own, or that of their family.
When people hear “Asian-American”, they should also recall the many historical injustices faced by Asian immigrants to the United States, ranging from racial quotas against Asian immigration, to the unjust internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to hate crimes targeting Koreatowns and Chinatowns across the country. These experiences have left painful wounds for many Asian-American families, and should be taught in schools, reflected upon, and learned from.
These experiences, however, are not my own. Although I am Japanese and American, I am not Japanese-American. No one in my ancestry was even remotely affected by the internment of Japanese-Americans or racial quotas against Asians. This is because no one in my ancestry was or is an Asian immigrant to the United States.
My father is an American of European descent, a mix of early English colonists and more recent Italian-American immigrants. My mother is Japanese, born and raised in Tokyo. Like most Japanese, her family has its roots exclusively in the islands of Japan as far back as anyone can remember. I have spent almost exactly half of my life, or twelve years, in each of the two countries —I was born in the U.S., moved to Japan at age two where I attended kindergarten through middle school, and moved to the U.S. again for high school and college. Thus insofar as I am American, I am European-American. Yet the Asian half of my identity is just as important and meaningful to me, despite being separate from my American identity and lacking any elements of the immigrant experience.
When I speak to a Korean-American friend from Los Angeles or a Chinese-American friend from New York, we discover commonalities. We talk about keeping our languages alive. We discuss anti-Asian discrimination, a problem that has more to do with race than nationality. We talk about our relatives in Asia, whom we all miss and hope to see again soon. Yet these interactions also make me aware that I don’t belong to an Asian-American community, an ethnic diaspora, a group with a common narrative of generational migration and knowledge of the subtle balance between assimilation and cultural preservation. The triumphs and injustices that they and their ancestors have encountered are compelling, inspiring, and also largely unfamiliar to me.
Another factor contributing to my internal dissonance is that unlike most Asian-Americans, I cannot separate my identity as Asian and American from my identity as mixed-race. Being multiracial has meant sometimes passing as white, sometimes being seen as fully Asian, and never quite knowing which one it will be. I’ve had people express surprise when I show a family photo and they see that my father is white. Yet I am also often treated as a gaijin, or foreigner, in the country where I was raised. The solidarity I feel with other members of the so-called “mixed-race community” is not an ethnic or cultural solidarity. It is abstracted one layer higher — not the shared experience of a heritage but the shared experience of navigating the boundaries between heritages.
Things were once simpler. Growing up in an international school in Tokyo, the phrase I would always use to describe myself was “half-Japanese, half-American”. Within the limited context of my school, the meaning of this phrase was plain and easily understood. In fact, a significant percentage of my peers would describe themselves similarly, or by using other combinations such as “half-Japanese, half-British” or “half-Japanese, half-French”. As a child, I never questioned the idea that you could be half of one nationality and half of another. It seemed so obvious: you have two parents, your parents might be from different places, and if so — voilà. Having parents not only of different races, but different nationalities seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and never something that I needed to explain to teachers or peers, who all knew many people like me.
As soon as I moved to the United States for high school, however, I completely ceased to hear the phrase “half-American”. After getting quizzical looks the first several times I tried to introduce myself, I found other ways to explain my origin. Sometimes I would just say I’m from Japan, because that’s where I grew up and where my parents lived. True in a sense, but not the whole truth. Sometimes I would say “I’m an American citizen, but I grew up abroad”. Now being an expat, that’s something people can wrap their minds around! Gradually, I recast my upbringing in convenient terms, and left behind the simple and authentic explanation that I used as a child.
The longer I lived in the U.S., the more I realized that not only was the phrase “half-American” unheard of, it’s also unthinkable for many Americans. Why? Because implicitly, many Americans believe that the American identity is the apex identity. Unlike many countries, the U.S. has an expansive notion of citizenship — anyone born within its borders is a citizen, regardless of ethnicity or parental origin. But Americans also tend to see becoming an American in teleological terms — it’s the final destination, the last evolutionary stage, the fresh start in the land of opportunity. As a result, all prior identities are subsumed within the American identity. You can have any skin color, practice any religion, and still be American, or rather, become American. But whether you’re Japanese-American or Mexican-American or Nigerian-American, the prefix is the past, and the “American” is the present. According to this worldview, the meaning of “Asian-American” is clear but “American-Asian” is nonsensical. This explains my difficulty in getting people to understand that while my mother is Japanese, she is not Japanese-American, nor an immigrant, nor seeking American citizenship.
Many new immigrants, such as my Italian-American ancestors, actually agree with the worldview of American apex identity, proud to join the Melting Pot. The Japanese-Americans interned during World War II would probably have been the first to tell you that they were as fully and proudly American as any of their neighbors. I, on the other hand, grew up considering myself only half-American, and equally belonging to both Japan and the U.S. I count myself lucky that the U.S. and Japan are now close allies, as I’ve never had to worry about divided loyalties in a geopolitical sense. This hasn’t prevented me from experiencing discomfort at overzealous displays of patriotic exceptionalism in either country, whether it be Japanese right-wing nationalist parties decrying immigrants over loudspeakers on street corners or the enforced performance of the Pledge of Allegiance in American classrooms. I understand, in theory, that it is possible to feel unreserved pride and belonging to a single country, but this has simply never been part of my experience and never will be. My Asian identity does not subsume my American identity, and my American identity does not subsume my Asian identity.
In addition to this introspection, the current wave of anti-Asian attacks in the U.S. and around the world has caused me to extraspect — to examine how my Asian identity is viewed by others. I was recently walking with an Asian friend when a passerby verbally accosted us, shouting that we needed to speak English or “get the fuck out”. His ire seemed to be primarily directed at my friend, who is more phenotypically Asian than me, and for the record, we were speaking English. My friend was understandably upset by this incident, and I felt a complex array of emotions. Anger at the man’s willful ignorance. Guilt at not being the primary target due to my mixed features. Sadness to hear from my friend that this was nowhere near his first brush with prejudice. Confusion at how I can speak up in solidarity with Asian victims if I only sometimes pass for Asian.
Through a combination of looking inwards and looking outwards, I’ve realized that one of the most helpful things we can do to build solidarity and counteract discrimination against Asians is to tell our stories. Obviously, my story cannot possibly speak for other Asians, Americans, or Asian-Americans. Telling one’s story should carry no presumption that it’s the only story, or the best story, or the most important story. Yet telling stories challenges the preconceived categories that populate people’s minds. The origami of storytelling folds flimsy and two-dimensional stereotypes into the three-dimensional forms of individual narratives, no two the same. Storytelling forces us to be precise and careful with our words, sizing up each one for what it can and can’t convey, and acknowledging the limitations of the labels we project onto the world.
While I hope my story changes some attitudes, I do not begrudge anyone who, acting in good faith, has made incorrect assumptions about my background. I’ve certainly made my own mistakes and assumptions. One time, while speaking to a Mexican-American friend, I asked “So do you ever go back and visit Mexico?” My friend bristled at the word back, telling me that the U.S., not Mexico, was home for her. Because of my own story, I often speak about “going back to Japan”. It sounds supremely natural to me, because I still consider myself to be from there; my belonging to Japan did not cease when I moved to the U.S. any more than my American citizenship ceased when I moved to Japan at age two. Yet this small moment — just the choice of a single word — taught me that everyone’s experience is different and expanded my awareness. My personal narrative is not the same as someone else’s, and that’s okay. I have taken a turn of sharing, and it’s now my turn to listen. By living and listening, we learn — learn to stop placing people into boxes based on a few data points, learn to allow others’ stories to update our beliefs, and learn to show solidarity and charity to all those around us, especially those who are most vulnerable.