A Case of Mistaken Identity
By Amy Nakamura
People of mixed heritage often have to choose between parts of their identity. That shouldn’t be the case.
Twice a week, I travel to a primary school in the city of Syracuse to be a teaching aide in a second-grade classroom. One day, I stood in line with the students. As I held hands with some of the children, I heard a young boy and girl laughing behind me. When I turned around, they stifled their laughter through clenched teeth and pursed lips. When I turned back, the little boy bent down to whisper in the girl’s ear, “She’s Chinese.” Their laughter continued.
After lunch, the teacher sat the whole class down and had me explain that I was Japanese, not Chinese, in an effort to encourage a conversation. The children bombarded me with questions about “eating with sticks” and speaking a certain way. Some of their questions had an obvious tinge of stereotypes towards Asians.
Throughout all of this, I wasn’t angry. In fact, I felt excited to have the chance to start a conversation with them and answer any questions they had. It would be a learning experience for all of us. However, it felt wrong for me to become a representation of Japanese culture because I myself am only half-Japanese. Because of that, throughout my life, I have never felt qualified enough to call myself an expert on my own culture. I am the product of slight opposites.
My mother is Roman Catholic while my dad’s side of the family is Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. My mother is a staunch Republican while my dad is a proud Democrat. Finally, my mother has French and Irish roots while my dad is completely Japanese. I grew up in Hawaii, where having a mixed heritage is often referred to as being “hapa.” However, I was always labeled as one over the other. It wasn’t until this past year when I realized how polarizing that mentality can be and how it destabilized my sense of self.
It seems like wherever I am, I am labeled by my “otherness.” In Hawaii, where many of my friends, teachers, and family are Asian, I am labeled as white. On the mainland and in many parts of the world where I find Asians a minority, I am labeled as Asian.
During the fall of 2018, I experienced a different type of categorization while traveling in Europe. I was shocked to find that after being told my whole life that I was too white to be Asian, I was now being told that I am too Asian to be white.
While in Strasbourg, France, my friends and I decided to go dancing at a bar atop a boat in the city. Well into the night of dancing, as I was walking to the bar to grab a glass of water, a man started yelling at me from across the room saying, “Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan! Come over here!” I panicked and ran back to my friends. The incident was fleeting, but I felt the discomfort the whole way home. That’s the difficult part; being hapa forces one to experience othering at unexpected and jarring moments.
Growing up in Hawaii, I felt like I was never enough. I was too caught in the middle to belong somewhere. With a divided identity, I didn’t feel like I could fully claim any part of myself. That being said, I represent and identify with just
a very small portion of the mixed population. Focusing and validating only certain aspects of a mixed-race identity prevents us from accepting that a whole rainbow of identities exists — one that’s vital to any global societal progress. The acceptance of intersectionality should be ingrained into our rhetoric and actions. Through more dialogue with and about people of mixed identities and with greater validation and support, the changes to how we act and speak will be tangible and rewarding.
Back in that second grade classroom, I took a deep breath and tried to explain my heritage and in a way the students might be able to understand.
“Well, lots of things are also Japanese. Do you guys know Hello Kitty?” I asked.
Their faces lit up.
“Yes!” they answered excitedly.
“Well, she’s from Japan!”
Their faces changed from confusion to intrigue. They continued to rattle off questions — this time with delighted curiosity.
Amy Nakamura is a sophomore magazine and international relations student who brings color to our pages as Design Director.