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One day after school, my son said to me, “Mom, I am half-Japanese.”
I asked, “Why would you say that?”
He said, “Because, I am only half-Japanese.”
I tried to dig deeper, “What about the other half?”
He said, “Hong Kongese.”
And then he sighed, “But Mom, I am only half-Japanese.”
It seems like my seven-year-old son is already having self-identity problems.
My son was born in Japan and grew up in Hong Kong. When he was born, a lot of my seniors, even my professor from the university I studied at in Japan, advised me, “Chose an identity and native language to educate your son with. Otherwise he will get stuck in the middle and when he’s grown up he will be unable to express himself fluently in either language, which would be a pity.” The multicultural people I know have all chosen a nationality and mother tongue.
When I was studying abroad in Japan, I had a Chinese classmate who was married to an Australian. Their children are Australian and speak English. China? It seemed something very distant and external.
In my opinion, how can one discard half of your identity?
I admit. I was greedy. I wanted my son to be able to freely wander between both worlds, so I was determined to raise him into a person fully capable of integrating into Japan as well as Hong Kong.
But that was easier said than done. At home, only his father spoke Japanese. I used English, Japanese or Mandarin to communicate with him. This is the environment my son grew up in. My son is closer to me and when we are alone I speak Cantonese and he answers in Japanese. When we returned to Hong Kong later on, we intentionally moved close to my mother’s house, so she could take care of my son when I was at work. Because the Japanese kindergarten was too far away, we sent him to an international one nearby.
At school my son would hear and speak English and Mandarin, but because be mostly heard my mother and I speak in Cantonese, his mother tongue gradually also became the language.
My son started studying Japanese from Kindergarten 1. He knows the gojūon and much Japanese vocabulary. He understands the language but still has a hard time expressing himself with it, which makes him look even more like a foreigner. Later on, he would simply use English to communicate with his father, which was obviously not satisfactory for the latter. So when our son finished kindergarten, we sent him to a Japanese one, and six months after that, he started going to a Japanese primary school.
But my son was different and he started to realize this. His hobbies were different from his Japanese friends; he liked Gundam Unicorn and Iron Man while his Japanese classmates liked Power Rangers and Yo-Kai Watch. When he first started at his new school, his classmates would excitedly talk about the Yo-Kai Watch monsters and do the Yo-kai Watch dance, but he had no way of catching up. My son would say to them, “I really like Gundam.” But they would go, “Oh…” and continue talking about Yo-Kai.
His classmates were very friendly and their reaction was completely normal. Even though you might have your interests, that doesn’t mean other people want to know about them. My son really wanted to fit in, but he was simply out of his element.
This is not something merely my son has to face; it’s something I have to face as well.
Japanese wives love to go shopping for groceries together and have heart-to-heart talks. After school they will arrange play dates and take their kids to each other’s houses. On several occasions, a Japanese friend would invite my son over to play after school, but the mother would interrupt and say, “Don’t bother them. They’re probably busy.”
The same thing happened several times right in front of me. My son was understandably disappointed and I felt bad as well. Actually, if they invited me over, I would also tactfully decline, “Sorry, I’m busy. Maybe next time.” Everyone would be happy and things wouldn’t be awkward. But this has not happened yet and for now I can only powerlessly watch my son’s disappointment.
So are the Japanese unfriendly? No. They are very polite and amicable. When I don’t understand something, they will teach me and remind me of details that are easy to forget. However, I will never be part of their inner circle. It has nothing to do with my person or personality, but is because of reasons based on nationality, race, language and ethnicity; features that are inaccessible to me and are very hard to explain in a few sentences. I cannot easily fit in.
That’s why I don’t say I’m an expert on Japan. My Japanese is not bad and I’m familiar with the streets and food of Tokyo. I know the Japanese habits and how to avoid breaching Japanese etiquette. However, I am not Japanese. I would even go as far as to say that I believe only Japanese who were born and grew up in Japan can be experts on Japan. I can only look at their world from the outside, but never enter.
The more familiar I get with Japan, the stronger this feeling of powerlessness gets. When there is a distance (between me and Japanese culture) there is no pressure, but when I have no choice but to approach that world, the feeling of powerlessness comes rushing back. I have no way of working hard to change this fact, unless I completely give up my own identity and native language – but I am not willing and not able to.
On one hand, I am very happy my son likes Hong Kong; on the other hand, I blame my greed and incompetence, my inability to raise my son into someone who can freely wander in both worlds. It’s my fault he feels powerless and I regret it.
But then again, if “the private world of a certain race” is inaccessible for outsiders, then why are there so many international marriages? Why was my husband still willing to marry an “Alien”*?
This proves that the difficulties concerning race are surmountable, through for instance, understanding, time, patience and most importantly, fondness and love. Even though I am powerless, I am able to continue to work tirelessly for the people and things that I love in order to assimilate and integrate. Even though I have not yet become a part of that world, at least we can communicate and they do like me. They have even invited me to watch from the sidelines, which is actually a big step.
To comfort my “half-Japanese” son, I thought of the Taiwanese-Japanese actor, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and said to him, “You’re not just half-Japanese, you’re Japanese. You’re simultaneously Japanese and Hong Kongese. Your nationality, language and culture are therefore twice the amount of other people and the difficulties you face now might be twice as big as well. But you also have twice the amount of opportunities and your future happiness might just be double.”
He didn’t seem to fully understand and murmured some Japanese. What my son doesn’t realize is he’s speaking in Japanese to his little sister; he’s watching Gundam in Japanese subtitles with gusto; he’s recently been playing tag with his classmates every day until his clothes are soaked in sweat; he now likes Yo-Kai Watch and is doing the dances; in school, more and more of his classmates are becoming his best friends.
So you go son! Be someone who’s genuinely filled with love and people will naturally admire you and gravitate to you. Sincerity and love can roam this world freely, free of any racial obstacles.
Translated by Stijn Wijker
Edited by Olivia Yang
The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article. The original text was published on the author’s blog.
*Foreigners living in Japan have to register and will receive an Alien Registration Card. This is why I often jokingly call myself an, “Alien.”