Learning to Write My Name

By ERIKA YAMAUCHI, EXCHANGE STUDENT AT UTOKYO (2018-2019).

Photo by Green Chameleon | Unsplash

 

We grew up just half an hour away from each other, in places equally deserving of the label “the middle of nowhere.” But when it came to politics, he told me quite adamantly, “I can’t think the same way as you. I’m not like you.” We both came from communities that voted conservative for every election in waking memory. As kids, we spent a summer together at the same Christian day camp. But in his eyes, I was very different–a woman, a racial minority, and a lesbian–an amalgam of factors suggesting a perspective radically different from his own. In an identity politics world, the influence of gender, race, and sexuality on personal politics is often emphasized by people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. But in spite of being a minority, a belief in equality for all people, including those like myself, was not embedded in my genetic code.

 

As an undergraduate student, I’ve been taught how the principle of equality functions in a diverse world. Avoiding the deterministic assumption that history moves linearly toward justice, my professors have described the transnational development of a belief in the equality of all human beings. Amongst factors driving this movement, they suggest, is the advocacy of people who experience injustice. The reasoning behind this argument is self-evident, that people who face injustice will naturally advocate against it. But when we are taught that the world is just, learning to recognize injustice, even against oneself, is a complex process. My own fight against inequality began not on a picket line, but in my own mind, confronting the prejudices I held against myself.

 

Growing up in small-town Michigan, I “didn’t see color,” including my own. My mother was a recent Japanese immigrant, and my American-born father was sansei (third-generation Japanese). But through my eyes, Asia was an abstraction, as exotic to me as it was to my white peers. I wasn’t a poster-child for non-assimilationist “salad bowl” multiculturalism, but rather, the type of person for which the word “banana” was invented. Japanese was just the language my mother spoke on the phone, and the tongue my father never learned. Traditions, meanwhile, were like the calligraphy set in the basement, undusted and untouched.

 

Far-removed from my heritage, I felt like your average, all-American girl-next-door. I never faced racist bullying, making it easy for me to feel at home in the land I cut my teeth on. But as the only non-white kid in my grade for every year of my K-8 education, there was a natural curiosity about where I really came from. In good faith, friends asked if I could translate their names, or tell them about China. Their inability to correctly remember my ethnicity made little difference to me. To both myself and my friends, China and Japan were far-off worlds of which we knew little.

 

Beneath the thin shield of my prejudices was a deep shame for knowing nothing of either Japanese language or culture.

 

As I got older, my innocent lack of knowledge transformed into an outright rejection of my heritage. I wanted nothing to do with Japan. Through the Western media, I learned to think of Japan as a dying country, a place where niche sexual subcultures thrived while the birth rate plummeted. Smug in my Christian superiority, I saw Japan’s decline as the consequence of its apparent lack of religion, an attitude that would appall me if I heard it today. I was further repulsed by the kawaii mannerisms and fashion choices of some Japanese women. I felt that their behavior constituted self-infantilization, undermining feminist victories for all women. This observation, in the context of reports on gender inequality in Japan, led me to blame Japanese women for their own subjugation. I further internalized the Western media’s hyper-fixation on the exotic and bizarre and saw the focus on otakus, lolita, and Japan’s legal child porn, not as outliers, but as representative of Japanese culture as a whole.

 

So, when my Japanese grandparents invited me to stay with them the summer after my senior year of high school, my answer was a definitive no. I already had plans: working at Baskin Robbins, going to field parties, and hunting through thrift shops for band t-shirts. But as it turns out, when the grandparents you haven’t seen in over a decade ask you to visit, no isn’t a socially acceptable answer. I soon arrived in Japan with a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. In the eyes of my friends, I’d been blessed with the graduation trip of a lifetime. But I struggled to feel grateful, for being in Japan meant acknowledging the heritage I preferred to suppress. Beneath the thin shield of my prejudices was a deep shame for knowing nothing of either Japanese language or culture. Feeling comfortable in this ignorance was easier when I could convince myself that the things I didn’t know about Japan weren’t worth knowing anyway.

 

Under the 40-degree heat of the summer sun, my pretenses of superiority quickly faded. My grandparents and I crammed like sardines into their one-room apartment. We communicated through a pocket-sized English-Japanese dictionary and an elaborate system of hand gestures. I expected them to berate me for my lack of Japanese knowledge, but instead, they became patient teachers. We pored through old photo albums, and I learned that our family descended from a long line of fishermen. While cooking breakfast with my obāchan,[1] she taught me that dashi[2] is the key to good miso soup. The TV was on twenty-four seven, and I soon found out that my obāchan was a big supporter of women’s causes, who never missed a chance to yell at politicians on the screen. Meanwhile, desperate to communicate, I found myself memorizing a beginner’s textbook of Japanese vocabulary and writing. As I put pen to paper, my ojīchan[3] hovered over my shoulder, correcting stroke order and character proportions. After learning katakana, I began to write my name. My grandparents were aghast. A name as Japanese as my own, Yamauchi, they told me, should never be written in katakana. Promptly they brought out the calligraphy set, and I learned how to write my full name, 山内恵梨香 (Yamauchi Erika) for the first time, in the kanji I never knew were chosen when I was born.

 

I saw that it was possible to expand my self-concept to recognize my Japanese heritage, without mitigating my American identity.

 

My grandparents’ willingness to share their world with me began the unraveling of my prejudices. I saw that embedded in my ideas of Japan were blatant falsehoods that devalued a group of people, which I came to recognize, I was a part of. While one trip away could not eradicate a lifetime of misconceptions, the experience sparked a long process of questioning my beliefs, both about Japan and about myself. I saw that it was possible to expand my self-concept to recognize my Japanese heritage, without mitigating my American identity.

 

This ongoing confrontation with internalized prejudice is why I reject the idea that as a minority in multiple respects, I am naturally imbued with progressive ideas of equality. Surely, many people are already cognizant of this reality or recognize that racism is capable of existing in minority communities. But my message is for my friend, who felt that his privilege precluded him from being able to see the world in a different light. While people of a different background naturally have different experiences, no one is born with a moral compass that is perfectly aligned. Living my life has forced me to expand my perspective to one in which I have value, but this process is one that everybody is capable of.

 

 

[1] Grandmother

[2] A common Japanese cooking stock

[3] Grandfather

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