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Reflections of a three-time immigrant Japanese mother: Globalization and identity on-the-move

Paper cranes decorate the roof with the colors of the Japanese and Brazilian flags. At the Japan Festival celebrating the 110 years of Japanese immigration to Brazil on July 2018, São Paulo.

Figuring out my own identity is a challenge, and I believe I am not alone. Most of us have probably grappled with the question "Who am I?" at some point in our lives. For immigrants, this question often becomes entangled with another question: "Where are you from?" As a three-time immigrant 'Japanese-Brazilian-American,' answering to these questions is not an easy task. When someone asks me, I usually follow a three-step explanation. I start by saying where my parents are from; then, where I was born and raised and; finally, where I live currently. So, essentially, my strategy is to talk about three factors that indicate where I come from: my ancestry, my nationality and my residency. In this essay, I want to share my thoughts about what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy. In the process, I will review transnational relocations that mark my experience and how I have made sense of my identity on-the-move. I enjoy the multiplicity and fluidity of my ties to the countries where I have lived and that is what I hope to pass on to my children.

Let me first briefly tell the stories about my ancestry, nationality, and residency, which I sum up by referring to myself as 'Japanese-Brazilian-American.' I have Japanese parents, both born and raised in the Kansai area of Japan, who chose to immigrate to Brazil through the Japanese government's emigration initiative around the late 1970s. As such, I was born and raised in Brazil up to the age of fourteen as a second-generation Japanese 'Nisei.' I spent the later portion of my formative years in Japan. I went through high school and undergraduate studies at local Japanese schools, where teachers and classmates identified me as 'kikokushijo' (returnee child)—I will leave the debate about whether I can be considered a 'kikokushijo' or not for another time. Due to my Japanese nationality—dual, along with Brazilian—my fair proficiency in Japanese language, and not being mixed-race, it was convenient for others at school to categorize me as a returnee. Currently, I reside in the U.S. as a first-generation immigrant, ‘Issei,’ from Japan (speaking in legal terms). If I decide to naturalize as a U.S. citizen in the future, I would add a fourth layer called 'citizenship' to my story. For now, I am a Brazilian national with Japanese ancestry--and nationality--living as a U.S. American permanent resident.

The biggest advantage of presenting the story above is that it is practical and it efficiently answers the question, "Where are you from?" Conveniently, the time I have lived in each country roughly rounds up to a decade. For now, I am able to say that I have spent one third of my life in Brazil, another third in Japan and another in the U.S. It seems to satisfy the curiosity of those who wonder why they are meeting an Asian looking person with a Portuguese accent--rather than a Japanese accent--with a U.S. phone number and address. Another advantage is that the narrative provides initial clues to my answer for the "who/what are you" question. Those taking a black-and-white stance might say that because my parents are Japanese my "blood" is Japanese, and I am destined to be Japanese. However, they will likely also add a caveat: you are Japanese but not the typical Japanese from Japan. The way I see it is that, to some extent, my story takes people away from stereotypes and generalizations about Japanese/Brazilians/Americans being a certain way. I will leave the debate about stereotypes for another time. Nevertheless, as I travel between these countries, meeting new friends and colleagues and interacting with random people in the streets, I personally feel a sense of accomplishment when my new acquaintance says she/he has learned something new about American, Japanese, or Brazilian people.

Thus, a shortcoming of sharing my story as a three-time immigrant is that it does not straightforwardly answer the question, "Who/what are you?" Instead, it invites more questions such as: "Do you identify as/feel more Japanese or Brazilian?" "Which country do you like the best?" "In which language do you feel more comfortable?" These are even more complicated questions to answer. I have lived different stages of my life in each country and in that particular historical moment of that country. Thus, it is hard to say which country I like the best as the society, culture, and people of a country are also changing with the flow of time. The language I would use more comfortably depends on the occasion and the activity I am performing. Speaking with my parents and expressing affection to my children –these are occasions when speaking in Japanese makes more sense. Many times, the Japanese "arigatou" communicates much more. When it comes to gossiping, making jokes and other interactions that involve humor, Portuguese (Brazilian) is certainly how I connect the most. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I spent my playful childhood years in Brazil, who knows? On the other hand, having spent a great part of my professional life in the U.S., in more 'rational' activities English comes more easily. To the disappointment of whoever expects a straightforward answer from me, my response will always come down to two words "it depends."

Here is my take on the matter of my identity in three points. First, I have special ties to three countries that allows me to identify as a member of their population and these ties are not in conflict with each other. For a long time, I had internalized a certain pressure that I should know which one I was out of the options of ancestry, nationality, and residency. After some time of struggle, I chose to be grateful for and celebrate the fluidity and flexibility of having multiple ties, even prefer it to the stability of an unequivocal and singular affiliation to a particular group, culture, or country. Second, the interpretation of these ties will vary depending on the location from where I am speaking. I am undoubtedly Japanese, but that identity has changed and still changes from being a Nisei when I am in Brazil, a kikokushijo in Japan and an Issei in the U.S. I believe it unfruitful to think of being more Japanese or less Japanese because of my other ties. This brings me to my third point, which is that I also contribute to the meaning of being Japanese, Brazilian, and American. Identity defined in terms of one's association to a country can be fluid and flexible along a person's life trajectory and family history. On the other hand, there are other things for which I am not willing to be flexible, those are essential for me to maintain a sense of myself, such as being inquisitive about the social world and be frank and open with those around me.

I have two children in elementary school. One day, when I picked them up at school, my daughter looked upset. I asked if something had happened at school. She went on to explain that she felt uncomfortable when some boys referred to her as “china.” My son empathetically shared to his sister that he also had a similar experience and that he tried to explain to the other children that he is Japanese. She still had a look of dissatisfaction. “But I am also American, Brazilian, and also Korean (their father is half Korean and half Japanese). So... am I Asian?” Big brother had a different suggestion. “Well, we are Nikkei.” I threw my two cents into their conversation and said that they are all the above. Most likely, they will have this conversation with many, many people many, many times in their lives no matter in which country they stay. My daughter sighed. It took me at least three decades of living to map out this complicated stuff called “identity.” I pass on these ties that I have with the countries that have provide the opportunities for me to become the person who I am now onto my children. I wonder how my children will make sense of their heritage and how different their experiences, as well as the way they navigate their identity, will be from mine.

 

© 2019 Anna Okada Sera

Brazil identity Japan language migration roots United States