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That Hapa Kid—Part 2

Read Part 1 >>

The author and his friends Ashley, Alyssa, and Sammy in front of Pike Place Market after their first week of class. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Turner.

In June a friend invited me to join her and other members of the Japanese Student Association (JSA) of Seattle University for dinner. I came along and we packed into two cars and made our way down to a Japanese restaurant in the International District.

All of the students that came spoke Japanese in varying degrees, which came as a surprise to me because, well, I had no idea my school had so many native speakers up until I started going to JSA events. Most of them were from Japan, if not of Japanese descent or at least familiar with the country and its culture.

Still, I only knew a few of them well so I ended up making origami cranes while the others made small talk. But then the girl sitting across from me asked me a question, to which I answered without thinking. She laughed awkwardly. I looked up from the crane and asked her what was wrong. She said it was odd that, when she asked me a question in Japanese, I answered her in English. I thought for a moment then agreed with her that it was pretty odd that I did that. We started talking about something else but in my head I continued to think about that little mistake.

It’s a curious thing, to speak two languages. It feels like my body is home to two different people, each from a different country and with a distinct personality. People often ask me if my Japanese is fluent. I tell them, yes but I speak like a middle-schooler and write like I’m still in elementary school. That usually gets a laugh, but I mean it honestly. I was born in the states so my English is miles ahead of my Japanese, but still my Japanese is good enough that I can hold a simple conversation with a native speaker.

When I think of Japan, I see a side of me that I don’t know very well. I’ve spent the entirety of my short life—I’m 20 years old—in the Pacific Northwest, and I only moved to Seattle two years ago for college. I’m lucky enough to have family in Japan that I visit once a year, usually during the summer. Every time I visit, I’m reminded how and in what ways Japan and America are two very different countries.

Here in the states, everything seems bigger: food portions, cars, buildings, even the people. Part of that comes down to the size of the country; the rest, I think, is a matter of culture. In America, growth is driven by competition and a desperate longing for more of everything. People here are taught from a young age that only growth and improvement can lead to success, and that no amount of fame or fortune will ever be enough. Inevitably, this induces a strong spirt for innovation, exploration, and discovery, but I still think it’s a poisonous mentality that breeds an insatiable appetite for impossible growth. But I suppose this isn’t the only country plagued with such delusions.

In my experience, Japanese people have different priorities. I can’t say my conclusions are drawn from experience but speculation leads me to think that the need for material wealth—and the veneer of achievement that follows it—is overshadowed by the importance of respect, honor, and family. Unfortunately, this means Japanese people often prioritize conformity over exceptionalism, and choose structure over improvisation, or creativity, and spend their lives trying to blend in rather than stand out.

I know these are broad generalizations made by a young person with limited experience, but I would like to think that I relied on good observation, clear judgement, and sound logic to make them. With one parent from each country, I sit dead center between these two great countries, and I want to explore and understand both of them equally. I know many people—especially Nikkei in Seattle and people reading this—are in the same position.

After dinner that night, we walked a few blocks to a karaoke place and rented a room. It was my first time. I remember my hands shaking when somebody handed me a mic. The next thing I knew, I was singing my heart out to one of my favorite Japanese songs—“アゲハ蝶 (agehacho)” by Porno Graffiti. In the midst of all those bright lights, the blaring music, the laughter, and everybody’s mediocre singing, I knew that I had finally met my other half.

Part 3 >>

 

* This article was originally published in The North American Post on July 1, 2016.

© 2016 Nicholas Turner / The North American Post

hapa identity Japanese Student Association language mixed race Seattle University values