My All American Multiethnic Family

“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.

Foreign Language Speakers in Our Midst

Olympics 2012 closing ceremony, photo courtesy

Do you think it’s rude when people converse in a foreign language right in front of you?  Because I’m bilingual, I know what it’s like to be on both sides of this conversation.

We live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of immigrants from numerous countries — China, Taiwan, Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, etc. — and you constantly hear people speaking in different languages.  Although English is the common thread amongst all the residents here in Irvine, CA, a majority of the parents at my kids’ school speak it as a second language.  As I look around the room during a PTA meeting, I can see that most parents are straining to understand what the principal is saying.  I also notice that many of the principal’s jokes fall flat, not because she’s not funny but because the parents just don’t comprehend the words being spoken.  I help out by laughing extra loud for her.

If there is a Japanese parent in the room, I usually try to give them a synopsis of the dialogue at the podium by interpreting what was being said.  I grew up doing this for my own parents during junior high and high school.  It used to be a source of embarrassment to me as a teenager, but now I appreciate having acquired the ability to translate, because it has become a real marketable skill for me today.  But it took years to get to where I am now.

There were a few Japanese girls in my elementary school who were more proficient in English than I was, so when I had just arrived from Japan as a shy third grader, they were my lifeline at P.S. 24 in Bronx, NY.  They helped explain what was going on in the classroom, what my homework was, and why they served fish in the cafeteria on Fridays (for the Catholic students) and matzo bread during passover (for the Jewish friends).

Some insensitive classmates would be offended by us conversing in Japanese in the hallways and would cut in, “Hey, don’t you know we’re in America now?” and act like a clown, which was probably normal for prepubescent boys who secretly had a crush on one of us.  Other sweet friends would try to engage by speaking to us slowly and asking us how to say certain words in Japanese and try to learn from us.  Let’s just say that there was a spectrum of reactions from our classmates in this regard.

Fast forward several decades to now, in Irvine, where English is a second language to many residents.  One time, I walked into a bathroom at a restaurant where a couple of attractive Asian ladies were talking excitedly with each other in their own language.  After they walked out, I heard a couple of Caucasian ladies say to each other, “Wow, that was rude.  Don’t they realize that there are other people in here who don’t speak their language?” I had to bite my tongue.  Why should someone switch to a language they’re not very proficient at — English — just because you’re in the room? 

Perhaps people are paranoid of others talking about them.  I do see that happening so obviously at nail salons where the gals chatter away in their own language, laughing while glancing at a particular customer.  That, I do agree, is rude.  I do confess that I myself have switched to Japanese while hanging out with my sisters to subtly say something that we don’t want everyone around us to understand (“Over-Botoxed face at 3 o’clock!”).  It’s no different than friends giving signals, speaking in code, or using Pig Latin to try to be covert in their communication.

I am not making any statements here about officially declaring English as the national language or abolishing ESL classes at school.  I would agree with most of you that it is essential to learn English if you want to get ahead in academics and in your career.  I’m just talking about letting people speak in whatever tongue they prefer amongst their own family and friends, even in public.  Just let them be.  That’s what my kids do with all of their friends at school — some in Korean, some in Chinese, others in Japanese, but all of them bilingual students who float between languages just as easily as they float amongst different circles of friends.

Traveling abroad to foreign countries just might give you a little insight.  In fact, you might find yourself quoting with me, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Jetlag and Thoughts on Motherhood

I got the best of both worlds -- mommy by day, rock star by night!

I returned safely from my whirlwind tour of Japan and Indonesia last night to a husband, two kids, and a dog who all were very happy to see me.  There is, truly, nothing like home.  I’ve been up since 4am, though.  It’s always harder to adjust to eastward travel, but it’s as good time as any to catch up on my blogging!

When I first became pregnant with Josh almost 15 years ago, I thought that my life was over.  I was facing 18 years to life, and I knew that I would always have to look after this helpless offspring who, at the time, could do nothing — not even eat and poop — without my assistance.  I had enjoyed a busy career in music, traveling the world and meeting all sorts of interesting people.  Yet, I knew that it was time to kiss my life as I knew it good bye and kiss the cheeks of my newborn baby.

I mourned that death of me at the time, pretty much going into labor kicking and screaming, not wanting to let go of my wonderful life.  I mean, I thought I had it pretty good, and I enjoyed my freedom more than anything.  I did not want to be tied down to domestic life.

For a while after we became parents, I still tried to fight it.  I wasn’t willing to give up my life as I knew it, and I tried hiring nannies and sitters to try to prolong the freedom I had had.  Eventually, though, it became obvious that I was not yielding myself to this new role in life called motherhood.  That’s when I let go.  And then it became wonderful.

In fact, life got even better, much more fulfilling and richer than ever before.  How did I even think that my previous life was so worth holding onto?  Once I dove into motherhood with everything I had, my life became much more…what shall I say? — centered.  To be sure, others may be very well-centered even without having children, but for me, motherhood brought everything into light and my life finally made sense.  Yeah.  Much more centered.

Fast forward 14 years, and I’m finally crawling out of the mommy fog and reentering life again.  Things don’t look exactly the same, and I’m no longer chasing unrealistic dreams and expectations nor running away from demons on my shoulders.  Yes, I had my issues back then.  Anyway, in the past year, it has felt like I’m slowly getting my life back, and it feels good.  In so many ways, my music ministry and career look so much better than ever before.  Ironically, though, I don’t care as much about it; I can honestly take it or leave it.  Boy, is that ever freeing!

As I sang at and taught workshops at this children’s ministries conference in Jakarta with other speakers from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of the US, I noticed that many of us have children about the same ages as mine — preteen to young teens — which made me think that perhaps my parenting journey is not all that unique.  For a while — maybe 10, 12 years — we (especially moms) need to let go of our own selves and focus on raising our kids at home.  Ten years used to sound like a very long time for me back then, but now, in perspective, it is just a blink of an eye.  Then, just at the right time according to God’s infinite wisdom, we get back out there and continue with our lives and leave a lasting mark on humanity, both by raising children who are, hopefully, well-adjusted and contributors to society themselves, and also by doing whatever God made us to do here on earth.

So, if you are stuck in the mires of life that is raising young children and you feel like you will never wear dry clean-only clothes and/or high heels again, fear not!  You will get out there again, in due time.  And then you will realize how much more fulfilling life is and that you wouldn’t trade all the sleepless nights and poopy diapers for anything.

No, I wouldn’t trade my life as a mommy for anything.  Would you?

Singing at New Hope Yokohama. Some of the young parents there told me they heard me long time ago when they were kids. Oh boy, I've been at this a long time!

Asian Pride and Our Heavenly Citizenship

Meg and her friends from camp last week

“Do you like being an Asian, Meg?” I asked my preteen daughter as we enjoyed Japanese-style hot pot dish shabu shabu at a hip restaurant in town. All of the workers are Asian — Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, or some sort of a mix — although they probably all primarily speak English. More importantly, they are attractive young men and women wearing stylish jeans and t-shirts with the restaurant’s equally stylish logo. The decor is decidedly Euro-modern sleek, and so is the background music.

Meg replied with complete certitude, “Oh yeah,” as if to say, “Why, everyone knows that it’s really cool to be Asian these days!”

What a difference one generation makes.

When I was Meg’s age, I was not exactly proud of my ethnic heritage. I spent many hours in front of the mirror wishing that my eyes were bigger and rounder, my nose pointier, my legs longer, and my skin whiter. Basically, I wished that I had been my best friend in 6th grade, Judy — a gorgeous California blond. She was tall, beautiful, athletic, and popular. She had equally athletic and attractive parents and brothers, and they had fun conversations in English at her home which was bright and cheery, a gathering place for all the kids in the neighborhood. Even their golden retrievers were beautiful.

I spent a lot of time at Judy’s home after school and only went home, reluctantly, when it was time for dinner — rice, soy sauce, fish and vegetables. We were scolded if we didn’t speak in Japanese at home. Parental respect was in high order, and we had to take off our dirty shoes at the front door. We rarely had friends over.

Maybe my inferiority complex began when I was a third grader in New York, where we had arrived from Japan during the previous summer. A blond classmate named Erik was on the swing at the playground one day when I walked by with another girl, also a recent transplant from Japan.

“Japs,” he said, then he spat at us.

Unfortunately for him, his spit came right back at his shirt, more dramatically so because his swinging moved him right into it. He continued on with some tirade, but neither my friend nor I could understand English.

Erik was also the one who, the following summer at the local community pool, forced me and another friend into the boy’s bathroom. After he cornered us, he crossed his arms and leaned back on the concrete wall. He then made a demand.

“Do the wee-wee dance.”

Perhaps he was curious about that playground ditty which goes, “All the girls in France do the wee-wee dance…” We had no idea what the wee-wee dance was, of course, but the absurdity of such a request from a fellow 10-year old classmate made us burst into uncontrollable laughter. That’s when some other guys walked into the men’s room, and my friend and I used the opportunity to slip out, laughing and giggling.

He was never rude to us during school in our classroom, but he was a different boy outside of it. He probably had issues at home, but in my preteen mind, he was picking on me because I was Asian, and I deserved it.

Fast forward to today. Now, we live in a town which is heavily Asian but is mainly multi-cultural. Our kids now differentiate friends by hair color — yellow (blonde), black, brown, red — instead of skin color. Anime, toys, music, and wonderful Asian eateries surround us everyday, and our kids are proud to be a part of a culture that introduced Pikachu, Hello Kitty, Top Ramen, and Jeremy Lin. I’m also noticing now, at middle age, my Oriental skin is holding up better than those of my Caucasian cohorts.

It took me several decades of self-loathing and growing to become utterly okay with myself, which I am now. I also take to heart the verse in Philippians 3 which says, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I’m just happy for Meg that she has a head start in being okay in her own Asian skin today.

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How do you help your preteen/teens gain confidence in themselves? Let me know!


First Day of School

First day of school for this boy and mom

School year begins in April in Japan, so last week in Osaka I saw a lot of parents rushing to attend the Opening Ceremonies at their children’s schools.  Many of the moms don their spring kimono for this momentous occasion.  Walking on the streets lined with cherry blossoms, the view of these ladies took me back in time…not only to historical Japan, but also to my own son’s first day of elementary school.

Josh attended the preschool and kindergarten right on the grounds at the church where I was on staff during that time.  In total, Josh spent four years — very safe, nurturing, and familiar four years — at this wonderful facility.

That’s why it was such a dramatic change when I enrolled him in our neighborhood public school.  Irvine has a great school system so I was not concerned about the quality of education he would be receiving.  It’s just that it was no longer familiar territory.  It was time to step out into the big, bad world.

Mrs. Calkins was a tenderhearted first grade teacher who understood us moms’ apprehension and let us linger just a few extra moments at the classroom door before leaving our children in her care for the day.  It was a cloudy day, and the dark skies reflected what was going on inside my heart as I fought back tears.

My baby…oh, I miss him.

I was surprised by how sad I felt about Josh entering first grade.  I should have been rejoicing!  After all, I had spent the previous 6 years counting down the days until I regained my freedom.  I couldn’t wait for Josh to start school!  But then the memories came rushing back.  Oh, the fun walks we had together, just the two of us at the park and at the mall!  And all those trains we chased!  I pictured his sweet face looking up at me in the bassinet when he was only a few weeks old, and how much I enjoyed cuddling with him during nap time when he was a toddler.  I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of my son just yet.  I wished I could turn back the hands of time, just a little.

After I left school, I went to run some errands, and that’s when I ran into a friend.  At the time, he was still a newlywed and not yet a parent.  I’ll call him James.  Not aware of my fragile emotional state, he waved hello and casually asked, “How’s it going?”

“My son started first grade today,” I said, trying to sound normal, which I was not.

James, being a young man, responded in a way that any non-parent in his situation would:

“Oh, that’s good.  Um, congratulations?  Well, see ya,” and away he went, leaving only me to deal with this awful conversation that just ensued.

Good?  That’s good?  I’ve lost my baby, my world is falling apart, and you think I should be congratulated?  What type of a heartless soul are you?

No longer able to contain my tears, I ran back to my car for a good, long cry.

Later, I reflected on my little conversation with James, and it dawned on me that I must have said twice as many insensitive things to people who are parents.  You just can’t understand the heart of a parent until you become one yourself.  I felt mortified as I recalled some of the unthoughtful and stupid words I had said.  Oh, if I could only go back to apologize to all those moms and dads for the dumb things I said!

Tomorrow night, we are attending the orientation night at the high school where he’ll be attending starting this fall.  And in four years from now, we’ll be looking at colleges.

I can’t imagine what a wreck I’m going to be when that day comes around.

How did you feel when you sent your child off to first day of school?  Any college parents out there who could give us some words of wisdom?  Please feel free to do so in the comments below!



Once a Mom, Always a Mom

My parents, happy in paradise...I mean, Hawaii.

My parents moved to Honolulu to retire about 5 years ago after finally relinquishing their Japanese citizenship to the US. Today, while traveling in Tokyo, I received an email written in Japanese from her with the subject “Please Be Cautious.” The body of the email went like this: “North Korea is testing its nuclear missiles between April 12 and 13. I think you’re flying back to LA during that time. Please be careful.”

A part of me is glad that I still have a mother who cares about me like no one else ever will. However, another part of me can’t stop laughing at the lunacy of her caution. What, pray tell, should I do to prepare myself in case of a nuclear missile launch? In particular, if they actually do shoot a nuclear missile towards the very aircraft in which I sit, what could I possible do to escape my certain demise? Run into the lavatory? Duck under my seat? Notify the Authority? There are times when we all have to face our final destiny, and no mother can stop that. Certainly not by email from Hawaii.

This is the same mother who tried to grab my hand while crossing the streets of Honolulu during our last visit. No, she wasn’t trying to steady herself; rather, she was trying to protect me from cars whizzing by Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. She’s nearly 80 years old, so I can’t imagine her providing me with much protection, in spite of the fact that she is still in great health.

Many of my friends ask why, when their only grandchildren reside in California, would my parents move to Hawaii. Wouldn’t they want to be involved in their grandkids’ lives? How could they only see them, at most, twice a year on vacation in Honolulu?

The truth is, my mother cares too much, and she almost smothered all of us when my kids were young. She couldn’t stand watching me learn by mistake in parenting, and she couldn’t stand to see me or my kids experience pain. So, in her most loving and caring way, she chose to remove herself physically from us to create a geographical distance between us because she could not separate from us emotionally. Where would be the most sacrificial place to live in retirement? The paradise known as Hawaii. My dad was not going to refuse.

My mother's latest project

It’s turned out to be the best decision for them ever. They are enjoying their golden years strolling the beaches of Waikiki and playing frisbee together at Kapiolani Park. (Actually, I think frisbee is great exercise — jumping, reaching, throwing, catching…) My mother picked up oil painting at the ripe old age of 72 and has been churning out amazing works of art on a regular basis. My dad, who has always been a learning junkie, has signed up for unlimited classes at the local Apple store and has become quite an expert. I think he secretly hopes to someday work at the Apple Genius Bar so he can help out old people.

They bought their plots at a cemetery on Diamond Head, and every now and then they pack a picnic lunch to go sit under the tree canopying their future resting place. “We went to go visit our grave today,” she reports. “You should join us sometime. I’ll make some rice balls and your favorite teriyaki chicken for lunch.” I really don’t care to go visit my parents’ grave any sooner than I have to, but one of these days I’ll go humor them.

So, here we are in Tokyo visiting my parent’s homeland, and my mom is sending me directives by email. I just let her know that I appreciate her concerns and leave it at that. As much as I tell myself I won’t be doing the same when my own kids are grown, I just have a feeling that I’ll be sending similar emails to them in a few decades.

After all, once a mom, I’ll always be a mom.

Do you have any stories of your own parents still trying to parent you? Let me know in the comments below!

Tsunami Survivor — The Nakagawa’s

Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa and their 6-year old son

On Wednesday, I was able to visit a tsunami-affected city in Japan to meet some folks who are still struggling to rebuild their lives.  Thanks to the many kind volunteers and humanitarian aid, though, they have hope that things will get better.  I would like to introduce you to one such family today.

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Mr. Nakagawa moved back from big-city Sendai to the quiet seaside hometown of Ishinomaki 15 years ago to take on his aging parents’ business of manufacturing anko, a sweet paste used in many Japanese confectioneries.  He married his beautiful bride and together became parents to an energetic little boy.

On March 11, 2011, Mr. Nakagawa was just driving back from a delivery in Sendai when he felt the toll road beneath his car begin to shake violently.  He pulled over on an overpass when the waters began to rise.  He began to fear for his life.  Never much of a cell phone user, he could not call home to check on his wife and son — not that it would have done much good, as all cell communication was cut off.  He spent a cold, worrisome night in his car alone with water lapping at his feet.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Nakagawa was just assessing the damage from the earthquake and was picking up the pieces of broken pottery upstairs when she heard a loud roar outside.  She came downstairs to check on her boy who was playing with his toys when she looked outside through the sliding glass doors on the front of her house.  A river of ocean water mixed with oil, dirt, and debris was suddenly gushing down her street about 6 feet high.  When mangled cars and water burst through her front door like an unwelcome guest, she grabbed her son with a scream and ran back up the stairs as fast as she could.

“The noise was incredible,” she recalled.  “It sounded like a jet plane, and the house shook like crazy.”  They huddled upstairs for what seemed like an eternity, then came down to a mangled mess of what used to be their first floor.  Where is my husband? She had no way of knowing.  Snow began to fall the next day, and this mother and son hunkered down in freezing cold weather for three days.

Early the next day, Mr. Nakagawa tried to drive towards home as far as he could on the buckled highway then tried to enter his neighborhood on foot but was turned back either by impassable roads or by emergency patrol officers.  On the third day, he was finally able to reach his own home, now waist-high in mud.

“I heard his voice calling for us outside and realized that he was alive.  My son was so happy to be reunited with his dad,” Mrs. Nakagawa recalled, tearfully.  Although their house was ruined, at least they still had each other.

They spent the rest of the spring and summer in various emergency shelters and gymnasiums until they were finally assigned a temporary housing unit in August.  Fortunately, it is just a few minutes’ walk from their house which is now being completely redone, thanks to volunteers from many parts of the world.

Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa, Dean Bengtson and me

Pastor Dean Bengtson took on this family as one of his relief efforts and helps coordinate volunteers to work on the home, starting with removing all the mud and debris from the first floor.  Dean’s 20-year old son Joshua has become buddies with the little boy who almost lost his father.  “Is there going to be a tsunami again,” he clings with every aftershock.  At least when he’s playing with big Josh, this boy is without a care in the world.

Mr. Nakagawa’s parents lost their factory with the tsunami.  It washed away into the ocean.  The parents retired, but their son is more wistful when asked what he’s going to do for work now.

Remnants of the Nakagawa's family business sit in ruins

He is a bit of a musician and had a business on the side repairing guitar amps.  He also taught graphic design at one point.  He is a survivor, so he will probably find something to do.  For now, he is so grateful for the help he’s received from volunteers and for the donations from World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse that he has helped host several outdoor concerts in the open field adjacent to his house where members of the Franklin Graham band and gospel singer Alfie Silas have performed.  When Pastor Dean opens a church nearby this summer, the Nakagawa’s just might be there to check it out…

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

- Matthew 25:45

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And now, on a completely different note:

Seen at a vending machine. I didn't know "vitamin" was a verb.