This word “heritage” has been floating around my life a lot lately – mostly because May was APAHM, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I attended two events centered around celebrating Asian Americans, specifically in the creative world, and I would be lying if I said it all resonated deeply with me. I’ll be honest, It didn’t.
Over the past few years, more times than not I have found myself wanting to be able to identify with and relate to a large portion of my Asian American friends, but not being able to. This actually came as a bit of a shock to me. Growing up, I’d say about 90% of my friends were Asian American (maybe perhaps more specifically, Japanese American). I never had a problem relating to them. We had similar upbringings, and we’d always grown up acknowledging our Asian-ness and poking fun at ourselves at times. I grew up with that “azn pride”, had my big group of Asian friends, played in an all-Asian basketball league, and being Asian was pretty normal, perhaps even cool. (And yes, the majority of my AIM screen names over the years consisted of “aZn”, “bALLeR”, “gRL”, etc…in fact, I’m sure one of them was, literally, aZnbBaLLgRL5..or something. So original, and really set me apart from my 30 other Asian, basketball playing female friends. Ha.)
So when I finally left the safety net of my friends at home and started making other Asian friends, who hadn’t grown up where I had or like I had, I started to notice that I was different.
For the first time, it hit me that I’m a fourth-generation (could be fifth, depending how you calculate it) Japanese American..and what that meant. One of my great grandmas was born in America. 3 out of my 4 grandparents were born here. Both my parents were born here, and all of their siblings. I was born here. English was my first and only language. None of my grandparents spoke Japanese to me..because they all speak English. Good English. Sure, I grew up with some Japanese slang, but the first time I had ever learned the Japanese language was the 3 years I took it in high school. I’ve never been to Japan. I don’t even know if I have family there. As far as heritage goes, I’m really disconnected from my Japanese heritage. But to be honest, I’ve always been pretty content being the super Americanized “whitewashed” Asian that I am. So was my “azn pride” genuine, or was it just a trendy saying amongst my friends in the early 2000’s?
Perhaps it’s because all of my Japanese American friends were the same way. Maybe it’s because we have just been here in America for so long. And somewhere in our history, namely the Japanese American interment of WWII, we were trained to be ashamed of our Japanese heritage. The Japanese Americans at that time felt they had to prove their allegiance, their American-ness, to show that they weren’t terrorists or undercover spies for Japan.
Then I started to make friends who came from immigrant families. I heard of the sacrifices of parents and struggles of children. I saw language barriers between parent and child, grandparents and grandchildren. Along with it comes a unique tension between their Asian and American heritage..but also a connection and compassion for people whose stories were similar to theirs.
These are the Asian American friends that raved about Fresh Off The Boat, and how they could really relate to some of the situations depicted..and I was reminded how much I couldn’t relate. And all of my friends who are really passionate about Asian American social issues and representation etc., and I sit here barely fazed by a majority of these same things. It makes me sad that I am so disconnected from my Asian heritage that these issues don’t even really feel like my issues to care about sometimes.
Though I’m ethnically fully Japanese, and culturally mostly American, I don’t feel like I can totally relate to either side. Part of me is ashamed of that, but to put it in perspective, I must acknowledge how truly privileged and blessed my family is. My family has been established and have worked hard, they are educated and their sacrifices all those generations ago have paid off. I don’t want to feel content with being out of touch with my Asian heritage, but I also don’t want to place shame on being assimilated into American culture – I can and should embrace both, because both are beautiful. I can’t demonize the country that my family chose to immigrate to for a better life, but I also can’t forget where I came from, because it’s a part of me.
Heritage isn’t just about race. It’s about passing down something valuable from generation to generation. As we get farther and farther away from our family’s first generation in America, we must be more and more intentional about relaying the importance of our Asian heritage. I hope I will continue to be curious about my family’s past, to educate myself, and learn how to integrate that into my life today. I hope to instill a similar curiosity and appreciation in my children one day. And I hope I will never take for granted the life I live as a Japanese American.
If you’re new to my blog, #WVW (Word Vomit Wednesday) is a fun little weekly challenge my friend Brian and I started to encourage more consistent and authentic writing. The point is to write down, or word vomit, whatever comes to mind, with lots of vulnerability along the way. Many have joined in on the fun, and you should too! 🙂