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What am I? Who am I? – Part 2 of 3

Part 1 >>

I had been looking forward to being married and living happily ever after. I had hoped that I would be treated as an equal, and perhaps be accepted as a woman without the hyphenated Japanese-American attached to it. Before long, I realized that the utopia that I had been dreaming of for so many years was not to be. Granted, I could walk down the streets of Japan and be somewhat invisible to the other pedestrians, which gave me a wonderful sense of freedom, until I had to speak. Whenever I went into a store, restaurant, or a public place and opened my mouth, the salesperson or "waitstaff " would look at me with an expression which I interpreted as “why is your Japanese so strange?” No matter how grammatically correct my sentence was, they would stare at me as if there were something mentally wrong with me. I would then try to excuse my awkward Japanese by saying, “Excuse me. I don’t speak Japanese very well.” Before continuing, I would give them time to digest what I had just said. I could see them trying to come to some logical understanding as to why this person standing in front of them with a Japanese looking face could not speak Japanese. To clear up the confusion, I would then tell them that I was born in the U.S. and that I was a third generation Japanese-American. I never knew if my explanation completely cleared up the confusion, but at least I received a polite, “Oh, I see” in Japanese and then they would give me a puzzled look as if my existence didn’t make sense.

Strange and embarrassing encounters like the above were and are still part of my life in Japan. The only difference between 30 years ago and now is that I don’t feel as uncomfortable as I once was. I have gradually learned to accept the questioning faces and have realized that people like me are still a rarity in many areas of Japan, and it is quite natural for people to be curious about what is unfamiliar and new. People are not to blame for not understanding why I look Japanese, but can’t speak the language fluently. They are simply not aware that there are hundreds of thousands of people like me who do not fit the picture of a typical American. I can talk about being born, raised, educated in the U.S. and even talk about my paternal grandfather who emigrated to Hawaii in 1898 before settling in California in the early 1900s. All those facts about my cultural past do not seem to be enough to qualify me as an American to many people, both in Japan and the U.S.

But these were issues that I was not capable of dealing with during my early years in Japan. What I was most concerned with was being accepted in Japanese society, and upon reflection, making my husband, and later my children, happy by being as Japanese as possible. How does one assimilate into a culture? I naively thought that having an everyday knowledge of the language and learning and observing the customs of the country would automatically allow me to be a member of the society. During the first few years of living in Japan, I studied Japanese at home, learned how to cook Japanese food, adjusted to unheated rooms, and Japanese style squat toilets. I even learned to survive without hot water. I avoided wearing clothes that were bright and refrained from wearing jewelry for fear that my neighbors would talk about ‘that strange person’ living nearby. To my family and friends in the U.S., it may have sounded like an unnecessary sacrifice to make, but it was something that I had to do in order to ‘fit in’ in Japan in the 1970s. I was searching to find my place in Japanese society and was willing to do anything to be accepted. At that time, Japan was quite conservative and very group-oriented. There seemed to be some unspoken rule in Japanese society which dictated that everyone must follow the group and not do anything that might attract unwanted attention so as to keep a feeling of harmony within the community.

I learned to ‘grin and bear it’ for years and years until I realized that no matter how hard I tried to learn the customs and the language, I would never be totally accepted into the Japanese community. I was and always will be ‘an outsider’. Not being brought up in this culture and not being fully aware of the proper social conventions, I had to be careful how I acted and what I said. Actions and statements that may have been totally appropriate in American culture oftentimes put me in embarrassing situations. I soon learned that it was not socially acceptable to offer my opinion unless I wanted to be labeled a nuisance or a trouble maker, and I had to show humility whenever I talked about myself or my family. Countless times I would find myself in situations where I wouldn’t know what to say: is this the time to speak honestly, should I be humble, or should I just keep quiet?

Each embarrassing situation was a learning experience. I will never forget the time my husband and I went skiing with his friends. My husband’s friends asked me if I could ski. I replied simply and honestly, “Yes. A little. I like skiing very much.” I asked them the same question expecting an equally honest answer. They very nonchalantly told me that they weren’t very good at all. “No. No. We can’t ski well.” I was relieved to learn that my husband’s friends and I were all in the same league. I knew my husband was an excellent skier, but since his friends didn’t ski very well either, I could ski with them. However, I soon learned that in Japan, the meaning of “I can’t” can also mean, “Yes, I can (but I don’t want to brag about it)”. As I saw them ski down the hill, I was in shock and awe and then felt hurt and deceived. The way they sped down the slope with such skill and grace made my “I can ski a little” sound ridiculous. “Why did you lie to me?” I wanted to scream out. I slowly left the group to go down the bunny hill alone feeling confused and rejected and wondering what went wrong.

While most Japanese could do and say things instinctively, I had to consciously think about my actions and put them in the perspective of a Japanese. What was proper and what wasn’t? What might be offensive and what would create stares? I lacked the social graces and common knowledge that were second nature to the Japanese. There was an unwritten social rulebook that only Japanese had access to. I couldn’t find that book in any bookstore. Each day was a learning experience, doing my best not to stick out and to be as invisible as possible.

I had two children, which increased my desire to be not only a good Japanese wife, but also a good Japanese mother. I observed what other women my age were doing with their children, watched how they acted and tried not to do anything that would cross the invisible line between what was acceptable and unacceptable. As impossible as it may seem, I thought my family could be like any other Japanese family if I could just try to be like a typical Japanese woman. If I could follow what everyone was doing, step by step, everything would be fine!

Part 3 >>

© 2009 Susan S. Sakayori

identity life in japan