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What am I? Who am I? – Part 1 of 3

Imagine this – a shy, quiet little girl with black hair in a school playground surrounded by other little boys and girls of all shapes and sizes. Everyone is talking and laughing and enjoying what they do best – being kids. Then, suddenly without warning someone yells out, “Ching, chong, Chinaman.”

A dead silence. Slowly, children turn towards the shy, quiet little girl with black hair. The little girl is too shy and too frightened to reply, “I’m not Chinese!” and too shy to fight back. The only way she can protect herself from further pain is to pretend that she didn’t hear the remark or didn’t care. She doesn’t want anyone to know how much she hurts inside.

No one knew that this remark and others like that would haunt that little girl for the rest of her life. Not even her closest friends had any idea how painful those words were to her. They, of course, realized that derogatory remarks and racial slurs of that kind were not acceptable. They knew that and tried to comfort the girl with kind words. Sympathy helped, but it wasn’t enough. At that moment, all she wanted to do was to run away, somewhere far away where no one called people dirty names, and no one made remarks about one’s physical appearance.

This little girl will spend years wishing and hoping to be someone else, anyone else, and wanting to believe that someday people will treat her as a person and not as a person from the other race. There would be very few days in the years to come when she would not feel ashamed and self-conscious about who she was and what people thought of her.

Who is this shy, quiet little girl? It’s me! As a child I always felt different. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, it was easy for me to stand out. My friends’ parents would often refer to me as that ‘nice little Japanese girl’, but I learned to accept that remark simply as a way to distinguish me from the ‘nice little Jewish girls’. Why couldn’t I just be called ‘Susie’ rather than ‘the little Japanese girl’?

As I grew older and when I would meet someone for the first time, I would inevitably be asked the question, ‘What are you?’ as if I were some kind of object. I knew what they wanted me to say, but I answered, “I’m American.” They would return with a “Yeah, I know that, but what are you? Japanese? Chinese?” Being able to place that ethnic label on me satisfied their curiosity, but for what purpose??? It always puzzled me because whatever we talked about after that had absolutely nothing to do with my being Japanese-American, except for an occasional, “Oh, I once knew a guy from Japan.” That didn’t make any difference to me because at that time, I had never been to Japan so I failed to see the connection.

Pleasant memories of my childhood became overshadowed by these incidents of racial/ethnic insensitivities. Why couldn’t I have been born white so that I could just blend in with the crowd and not have my life controlled by the color of my skin or my ethnic background? Those were the days growing up in Chicago.

Over 30 years ago, fresh out of college, I married a Japanese national and was ready to start a new life with him in Japan - in a new country and literally it was in the country. The first 15 years of our marriage were spent in a small town in Gunma prefecture which, at that time, didn’t even have a store that sold cakes or beef!!! To make matters worse, Japanese homes didn’t have central heating, western-style toilets, hot running water or even ovens for baking, so you can imagine how lost I was, thinking I could make a warm and cozy home for my husband and me but without the simple comforts of home that I thought were universal.

I soon accepted the fact that life in Japan would not be like in the U.S. I learned to squat, wash my face with cold water and I also got accustomed to cooking on a 2-burner stove. I was a quick learner and was able to adapt and follow these new customs. Fortunately, I didn’t have to learn how to use chopsticks and eat rice!

Here I was in the land of tofu and natto where no one looked at me or made remarks as I walked down the street. I was ‘one of them’ – the invisible majority. A dream come true! I looked like everyone else! I admit it was confusing in the beginning because everyone looked so much alike that I couldn’t tell one person from another.

Being young and naïve, I thought that since I looked Japanese I could naturally be Japanese, that is, speak, act and think like an ordinary Japanese person. How difficult could it be to learn the customs and habits of the Japanese? I could easily assimilate into Japanese society because I’ve got the face. But I soon found out that it wasn’t that simple.

Part 2 >>

© 2009 Susan S. Sakayori

identity life in japan