“So, how does it feel to be half Chinese and half Japanese?” I asked my kids one day. My husband David is from Hong Kong, and I’m from Osaka. Though our kids look generically Asian, they are of mixed heritage. Chinese and Japanese cultures are quite distinct and different from one another. I wondered what it’s like for our kids to grow up in such a multiethnic home.
“I feel more half Japanese,” answered one child.
“I am AMERICAN,” chimed the other.
I can’t remember which child gave me which answer, but the fact is that while both of them feel slightly more familiar with the Japanese culture with me as their mom, they mostly identify themselves as simply American. David and I celebrate that concept wholeheartedly.
Thanks to our many trips to Japan and their growing interests in anime and J-pop, the kids feel like they know my culture somewhat better than David’s. Nonetheless, Japanese is a foreign language to them. I tried to teach them my mother tongue by taking them to a Japanese school once a week for many years, but they got bored with the language lessons. “When can we quit?” became their mantra. Finally, at the end of school last year, I let them “graduate.” I couldn’t very well force a high schooler to continue with something he despised, and Meg certainly wasn’t going to keep attending if her big brother wasn’t. Besides, they really weren’t learning a whole lot, and David got tired of spending money on classes they neither enjoyed nor benefited from.
They did learn a lot about many Japanese traditions at the school, however, as the teacher worked her lessons around every conceivable holiday on the Japanese calendar. They also got a good peek into the culture just by learning about the language itself. The way we phrase sentences and use honorific words explain much about the Japanese society: We defer to those above us in societal hierarchy, we do everything in our power to save face, and we never directly say “no.”
While I worked hard to lose my Japanese accent, I worked even harder to think and to behave more American — to try to speak my mind, to be honest with my no’s, and to be assertive when I needed to be. My husband David might argue that I’ve gone too far in my efforts, but I think I now operate at a pretty healthy level in this country.
I’m sure David wishes that our kids would learn Cantonese, a language also steeped in its own cultural traditions. To me, two people calmly having a Cantonese conversation sounds like they are bickering. In fact, there is no mincing of words in Chinese, and they tell it like it is. It took this Japanese girl some time to get used to the straightforwardness of most Chinese folks. But then I began to actually appreciate that they are so real, because I know exactly where they’re coming from. There’s no guesswork involved, like when I deal with Japanese folks. It’s actually much more refreshing!
When David and I announced our engagement many years ago, both of our parents had to overcome major obstacles to accept the other culture. We tried to explain that the war ended half a century ago, but memories linger, and it is nearly impossible to turn around the big ship of cultural preconceptions. Kudos to both sets of families for eventually accepting us and delighting in our mixed-blood children.
I’m glad for our kids that they don’t have to overcome these difficult cultural barriers. They are a product of my Japanese and David’s Chinese heritages, but they’re operating just fine in this modern society as distinctly American children. My hope is that they each take away the best of both my and David’s backgrounds and make something even better out of their lives.
That, after all, would be the ultimate American dream.