I was born with a white man’s name. When I looked in the mirror, I never found a white person, nor a man. A mystifying misery of disconnection between what I saw in the mirror and what I felt like inside left me feeling very lonely. All I wanted to do was fit in and not have to contend with these feelings of alienation.
As a transgender woman, I have lived with the agony of being invisible. The pain of people not seeing your authentic existence is excruciating. As a person of colour, as a Japanese Canadian, that was part of my life too.
I remember continually looking in the mirror more and more seeing a woman rise to the surface. I could finally see myself. The more I saw myself the more my name didn’t feel right to me. There is no right way to chose a name for yourself. Even though I played around with the idea of taking a white woman’s name, it never felt serious to me. And now that I think about it, it just doesn’t feel right. I never understood why then but now that I have the gift of hindsight I can begin to understand.
I had a moment where I looked at myself inside and let go. I said to myself, “What if I call you Akira?” A part of me beamed with joy. I had finally found my name, I had finally found myself. In a way, I always had that name. Akira was my middle name at birth. It is now my given name legally. I have rediscovered that part of myself like an archaeologist sifting through an ancient treasure. My femininity also connects to my Japanese Canadian ancestry. While the artifact that I hold in my hand is chipped, worn, and incomplete, the knowledge that it provides me is what makes me feel a little bit more whole.
I felt safe having an assigned name that could be read as white and male on paper. However, when people discovered my then middle name they would other me by asking, “Oh! That’s Japanese, isn’t it?” Eventually the dialogue of being othered as a person of colour would start, and I would become embarrassed. I learned to be ashamed of not just my name, but my identity as a person of colour. It separated me from the peer group, my role models, and people I was trying to be like my entire life. I grew to hate my name.
Learning about my history, I learned that there was a blanket of shame living as people separated, mistreated, and judged collectively as enemies. Perhaps my loved ones don’t see their existence in society as I do, but it is telling that I was not given a Japanese first name at birth. I didn’t get to choose my name or how it felt to me, I just had to live with it. My family can’t tell me what feels right in my own body. I have to gather the courage to hold my identity and own it.
Adopting a Japanese name will not make me more Japanese, nor rejecting a white name make me less white. What it does is allow myself room to embody what feels right. It allows me to be seen. I would rather be treated like the person that I truly am: A queer, transwoman of colour. The sense of well being I get from people seeing that is incredibly peaceful.
Before I made a trip to New Denver to visit the camp, my grandmother showed me a photograph of her mother and father at her confirmation. I couldn’t feel any connection with them. After visiting New Denver, I could finally understand the indignity they must have endured while imprisoned. I felt the shame of being so ignorant, but also why it took me so long to appreciate a trauma so nuanced. Coming out of that environment, it’s no wonder that Japanese Canadians wished to assimilate into white society. To be invisible.
Constantly, this is something that I understand is done by many visible minorities, not just Nikkei. The power, authority, and legitimacy held by white individuals seduces people into changing their way of life, behaviors, and even names to assimilate into that power structure. But we never truly assimilate, do we?
I adopted my grandmother’s maiden name, Imai. I learned that its meaning translates to: a new place of residence. I found that to be very fitting. And the more I sit with it, the more I am fulfilled. The more people speak it, the more I’m seen. That’s all I need.
My name is Ms. Akira Imai. よろしくお願いします.
*This article was originally published on The Bulletin on November 14, 2016.