I made some tea today. Chinese green tea from the Yunnan village near Pai in Thailand, in my grandmother’s tea pot. I took some pictures for Instagram and hashtagged it “asianamerican.”
I’m grieving my grandmother. It’s like a small tug on something inside me, a small ache there in my chest. I feel like some line that connected me back to the history of mankind has broken and needs to be repaired, and right now I’m still floating, loose – not floating away, just hanging, suspended, and waiting for the connection to be reformed.
There were a lot of conversations I wanted to have with her. I did not have the expectation of them, but I liked to hear her talk about people and things and places I was connected to because of her. It was alien and distant, but still something I could lay claim to, because of her, as her descendant. Now I have no proof, because she’s gone.
I read an article by a woman grieving the loss of her mother, and she asked, “Am I even Korean anymore?” And that’s how I feel a little bit. She was what made me Japanese, and now she is gone. I feel alienated from myself. How can I be Japanese when I don’t know how to make things, or don’t go to the effort to do it all properly? When my gyoza is store bought and I eat it with kimchi, and the rice for inari takes too long, and my miso has turned to a rock in the back of the fridge? My house does not look like a Japanese home, the way my mother’s does. My face doesn’t either. When I go to a restaurant or a cultural event, I’m another white girl, showing up because it’s something weird and interesting to do.
I judge the way other people hold their hashi, because, though I look more like them, I know how to do it properly. It’s a small thing I have that I can say, “see, I’m authentic,” and yet there’s so much I don’t know.
I was complimented once on how well I used hashi by the kindly proprietor of a restaurant. I smiled and ducked my head while my mother expressed her thanks on my behalf. Yet I felt that shame of being so out of place, of being singled out as Other, as not belonging, at a table with my own mother and siblings. “I’m Japanese,” I thought.
You would never be Japanese because you’re American, my mother said. They would never recognize you as Japanese in Japan, she said. It didn’t help that she said she could never be Japanese either. People recognized her right to her heritage. I was named interloper. That was part of it, the reason for not knowing things. If Japan didn’t want me, I didn’t want it. But of course, I did. And I do.
I’ve started to reclaim that as an adult, especially more recently. Still it hurts when people will say unintentionally unkind things (“you’re just white,” from a more-Asian friend), be casually misappropriative (“Kiyomi is a Hawaiian name, it’s my niece’s name, but it’s spelled differently,” from a coworker), or just plain ignorant (“your parents must have been hippies,” from an acquaintance). The bite of these things lingers. Other comments echo in my brain, still raw and upsetting. I try to be diplomatic.”I’m Japanese,” I think, and sometimes say. “Oh, part,” some will concede. “Oh, your mother’s half. So that makes you…” and they look at me, and I can tell they are thinking, “white.”
I am Japanese. I am. I am other things, but this too is mine to lay claim to, who I am. Without equivocation or caveat, it’s mine. I don’t have to look a certain way for that to be true. I don’t have to carry with me all of the cultural signifiers to prove it.
I want to shout these things.
When I was in Thailand, other women repeatedly began speaking to me in Thai. When there was a Thai price and a visitor price, there would be initial confusion as I handed over the visitor price. It made me happy, gave me some small comfort, to have someone else look at me and see belonging, even where I didn’t. It is part of the incredible diversity of Thailand, informed by centuries of rich history and an on-going openness to ideas and people that make it okay that I can look like me, and can still be seen.
You’re still Japanese, my mom would say to me, speaking of heritage. Mine to claim, because it is hers, and I am her daughter. Mine to claim, and she would defy anyone who might suggest otherwise, with that withering stare that other Asian children will know well.
My mom points out other’s like me in restaurants. “They’re at least a quarter,” she’ll assert with absolute confidence, of someone with lighter hair and more tattoos than me.
It’s a concession I’m learning to make, to accept. To be this third generation Asian-American. To eat my store bought gyoza with kimchi. To drink my Yunnan Thai tea from my grandmother’s teapot. I know there are more out there like me, invisible children who go to cultural events and are marked as strangers, to restaurants and get complimented on how they hold their hashi, and questioning looks or gentle cautions when they order off the traditional menu. Others who also have to navigate what it means when our connection to that other place – looming and important, and abstract and storied all at once – is severed.
Obon, the Japanese festival to honor ancestors, ended about a week ago. It’s more of a season than a date because of the way the lunar and solar calendars fail to line up. It started right after Gram passed away. It’s maybe right to have this period of saying goodbye happen when her ancestors – my ancestors – are traditionally remembered. She doesn’t feel like an ancestor yet, and I am still floating, untethered, with my tea.