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Voices of Chicago

How Marrow Unites a Community: Chris Ishida’s Search & Discovery

For a majority of my life I have felt a little left out of the Japanese American community. This is despite the fact that my family incorporated both my mother’s American/Italian traditions and my father’s Japanese traditions. My dad was born and raised in Japan and moved to Chicago as a young man in 1971.

As a child, I watched Japanese tapes of An Pan Man, called grapes “budou” and even attended a Japanese Buddhist temple in downtown Chicago. However, growing up in the suburbs, the Japanese American community was sparse. Few related to Japanese culture with the exception of the big Pokémon craze in elementary school. I spent a lot of my time playing soccer, baseball and even football. Yet I also managed to find solitude for manga, Japanese Dramas, and Karate.

As I grew older I desperately tried to stay connected to my Japanese roots. I won a scholarship to attend a Japanese high school as a summer exchange student. I also joined my high school Japanese Club and volunteered at numerous Japanese Festivals over the summer. Although I was actively learning about Japanese culture I continued to feel disconnected from the Japanese American Community. There were never really any Japanese or Japanese American members in Japanese Club nor did I know anybody at most of the festivals I attended. Basically, if you didn’t live in the very small Japanese expat community or attend a Japanese Temple on a regular basis, being a hapa was a solo affair.

Chris Ishida. Photo courtesy of the Ishida Family.

That all changed when I started college in the wonderful state of California in August 2010. Upon arriving at Pitzer College, I began experiencing a closer connection to my Asian identity. The considerable Asian American population on campus was a lot stronger and more diverse than back in my hometown.

The Asian Pacific American Coalition (APAC) was the first organization I joined. It is designed to foster the Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander community at Pitzer and collaborate with Asian groups among the four other Claremont Consortium Colleges. Of course the members weren’t all Japanese, but they were a group I could connect to and learn a lot about being an Asian American. APAC provided me with peers I could relate to about so many things I never could back home. It was nice to feel like I was part of an Asian community.

It wasn’t until I faced a life threatening disease that I realized I had always been part of the Asian community back in my hometown, as well as in California. This reality became clear after my first semester. I was diagnosed with Severe Aplastic Anemia on January 5, 2011 while on winter break.

Severe Aplastic Anemia is a condition that occurs when bone marrow produces an insufficient amount of new blood cells. This rare and serious condition leaves me feeling fatigued and at a higher risk of infection and bleeding. The cure for the disease is a marrow transplant from a live donor who matches my genetic make-up. While an international search has already been initiated, I need the help of the community to increase my odds of receiving this life-saving transplant.

Unfortunately, I was not a marrow match with my sister, Sachi. My search for a marrow donor is more complex since I am bi-racial. While genetic matches can be made from different races, my chances for a successful match will most likely come from an 18-30 year-old male who is of mixed North European and Japanese descent.

I soon realized that I misinterpreted the Japanese American Community in metro Chicago. Once my family understood that I needed “hapa marrow,” we started asking for help and the response came surprisingly fast. One of the first to respond was the Japanese American religious community. With the help of Mary Doi and a couple other family friends we spread the word through the Japanese American Temples and Churches. With the exception of the Midwest Buddhist Temple, I had never been involved with any of these other organizations.

Soon thereafter the Japanese American Citizens League, the Asian American Institute, and Japanese American bloggers began reaching out to their communities on my behalf. They also emphasized the fact that while Asian Americans have a four times greater chance of getting Aplastic Anemia; they are the least represented full minority in the National Marrow Donor Program’s Registry. The only fewer registrants are hapas!

Now my parents constantly receive emails from concerned Japanese Americans asking what they can do to help. Recently, they were invited to raise Japanese American awareness at the Chicago Museum of History’s “Day of Remembrance.”

Meanwhile my fellow APAC members took it upon themselves to assist Harvey Mudd College, another Claremont Consortium College, with their annual Marrow Drive. They got 62 people registered as marrow donors, a record not matched by the Drive since 2005. Only 40 people registered at UCLA a couple weeks before, so 64 registrations for five very small colleges is a huge success by comparison. The Japanese Clubs at Northwestern and University of Chicago are working together with their student organizations to run marrow drives later this spring.

It’s truly amazing how quickly and strongly the Asian American and, the Japanese American population in particular, responded to my plea for help. I wish I could thank you all personally but I’m still out of commission so I hope to pay it forward.

Chris on a mountain. Courtesy of the Ishida Family.

I intend to continue my education soon so that I can pursue Asian and Media studies. Once I catch up with my studies, I hope to study in Asia on one of the great exchange programs offered at Pitzer. However first I must get my body to maintain a healthy marrow that can produce blood.

Did you know that Asian Americans are at a four times greater risk for Aplastic Anemia? Yet we are the least represented minority in the National Registry. You can help Asian Americans, Japanese Americans, and Hapas like me, by registering to become a donor with the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP is also known as the “Be The Match” program). Registering involves you taking a simple cheek swab. The tissue cells from this swab are then typed for use in determining a match and become part of this critical live-donor registry. In the event that you are matched to someone who needs this life-saving procedure, please be aware that, due to improvements in marrow transplant technology, the majority of donations now performed are non-surgical.

If you would like to participate visit: Be the Match

Click the “Join the Registry” tab on the upper left hand corner of the page. The site is extremely informative and contains a section on Frequently Asked Questions that should help you with your decision.

My family, friends and I appreciate any help that you may offer. Best wishes and good health to all.

You can follow me through my blog at Chris Ishida’s Caring Bridge Blog
Twitter: @marrowforchris
Facebook community page: Marrow for Chris Ishida

If you would like to contact me with any questions or comments, please feel free to do so at:

*This article was originally published in Voices of Chicago, online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2011 Chris Ishida

bone marrow chicago community hapa health identity

About this series

The articles in this series were originally published in Voices of Chicago, the online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, which has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Voices of Chicago is a collection of first-person narratives about the experiences of people of Japanese descent living in Chicago. The community is composed of three waves of immigration, and their descendants: The first, about 300 people, came to Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1899. The second, and largest, group is descended from 30,000 who came to Chicago directly from the internment camps after World War II. Called the “ReSettlers,” they created a community built around social service organizations, Buddhist and Christian churches and small businesses. The third, more recent, group are Japanese nationals who came to Chicago, beginning in the 1980s, as artists and students and remained. A fourth, non-immigrant, group are Japanese business executives and their families who live in Chicago for extended periods, sometimes permanently.

Chicago has always been a place where people can re-create themselves, and where diverse ethnic communities live and work together. Voices of Chicago tells the stories of members of each of these four groups, and how they fit into the mosaic of a great city.

Visit the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society website >>