Being American-Born Japanese

I was walking along Broadway in New York City on my way home when a Caucasian man with a slovenly beard tapped my shoulder. He was wearing an oversized, blue Champion hoodie and held a cane in his left hand.

“Ni hao,” he said.

I ignored him and continued to mind my own business when he shouted the same phrase again. Usually I’d ignore these types of situations but he got me so annoyed that at that point I had to say something back.

“I speak English here,” I said. “This is America.”

“Ni hao!” he continued.

In America, Asian-Americans make up 5.3% of the population, according to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau. Throughout the years many have set records. Lieutenant Colonel Ellison Onizuka became the first Asian-American, and third person of Asian descent, to reach space. Michael Chang became the youngest male tennis player to win the 1989 French Open. When Jeremy Lin made his NBA debut with the New York Knicks, his incredible performance wooed the crowd at the Garden and the term “Linsanity” circulated for the entire 2012 season. YouTuber Ryan Higa, who originally made home videos and “vlogs” out of sheer boredom in the barren plains of Hilo, Hawaii, reached Internet stardom by gaining thirteen million subscribers.

Yet of course throughout history there’s been a lot of racism and discrimination. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, under Roosevelt’s orders, thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to desolate concentration camps so they could be kept away from American property even though they were American-born and had American citizenship. Many had never even been to Japan. America had failed to distinguish between American-born Japanese and first-generation Japanese.

To respond to this preconceived, false view of Asians, filmmakers Ken Tanaka and David Neptune produced a video on YouTube called “What Kind of Asian Are You?” The video emphasizes the question many Asians get asked by other races in America: “Where are you from?” and evokes how Asians are still seen as foreigners. In the video, a regular Caucasian male asks an Asian-American woman where she was from, and she replies with “San Diego, we speak English there.” The man, unconvinced, continues to ask her where she is from “originally” and the woman, with a sigh, says, “My grandparents were from Seoul.” The man says he knew it, and goes on to explain how there is a great teriyaki place by his house. Palms together, he bows in front of her. The woman then finds out that the man’s family background is British, and she begins to blurt out British terms and jargon such as Fish n’ Chips, mind the gap, bloody hell, pip-pip cheerio, among others, and eventually freaks the man out.

I consider myself an American, and sure, although I am of Japanese descent, that does not make me any different. I am a second-generation Japanese-American. My relatives live in Japan and currently I’m the only fluent English speaker in the family. In general, there aren’t as many American-born Japanese in the New York region than, say, Hawaii or California. Instead, American-born Chinese and Koreans mostly make up the Asian population in the New York area. Growing up as an only child, I only knew about two Japanese-Americans and there weren’t any Japanese-American organizations or groups in New York. So whenever I say I’m Japanese here I’d always get fairly mixed responses. Some people would reply with a “Really?” Another person would ask whether I watched anime or hentai. Another would tell me not to forget about Pearl Harbor, and another would try to show off her knowledge of the language by greeting me with a “konnichiwa.”

“So are you fluent in Japanese?” my friend asked me once when we were eating at a diner.

In fact, I wasn’t. Sure, I could handle a basic conversation and my pronunciation was on point, but nothing more than that. The language was overwhelming especially due to the endless number of kanji characters. Plus I didn’t really use Japanese much. My mother would talk to me in a mixed version of English and Japanese, and I’d just reply in straight English.

“So, hypothetically speaking, if there was a war between the United States and Japan and you needed to fight for one country, which side would you choose?” my friend asked.

I thought about her question real hard. I’ve lived in America my whole life yet my family lives in Japan. Fighting against my own home country felt immorally wrong, and fighting against my family origin would just make my heart cringe. I couldn’t decide.

I took a huge bite from my burger and savored the taste while staring at her. Her elbows were propped on the table with her hands resting on her cheeks. I twirled my Coke on the rocks and took a gulp from it. I dabbed my mouth with the napkin and cleared my throat.

“I gotta admit it’s one of the toughest questions I’ve been asked and it always will be,” I said.

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About Sean Kawakami

Sean Kawakami is a senior in college majoring in Journalism. He enjoys reading, writing, watching movies, and grabbing the window seats in buses and trains.

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