Who am I? My boy’s Cultural Identity

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If you asked my son his cultural identity, he would…well, he probably wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about. But if you asked him who he is, and where he’s from, he’d tell you he is Japanese. Go ahead, ask him.

Cultural Identity for our boy

He was born in Tokyo, and aside from yearly visits to the US and the occasional family vacation, his entire life has been in Japan. Now if you look at him, he doesn’t look like the typical Japanese kid.

He has many of his mother’s inner qualities — competitiveness, concentration, literal-mindedness etc — but when it comes to his outer appearance, it’s nearly all me: freckles, thin mouse-brown hair, elastic limbs and facial features, you name it. Even the cowlicks on our heads are the same.

Looking Different from “norm”

This makes him stand out in his own neighborhood, and for years, that was a problem. I had not thought too much about my child’s cultural identity until then. When he started elementary school, it became an issue.

Our apartment was just on the edge of a particular school zone, so at the start of first grade, all of his daycare friends went to other schools. Until that time, our son adored me, and loved having his big group of daycare friends that had known each other since they were toddlers. These kids didn’t look at him any different because they had all known each other their entire lives.

Not so at the new elementary school. We lived in an old part of Tokyo, far from the cosmopolitan west side, so most of Jamie’s new schoolmates had little experience with anyone other than people who looked like them.

The change in our boy seemed almost immediate — suddenly, he wouldn’t even walk down the street with me, and became irritable and distant at home, as well. He was angry — angry that he stood out, and angry that he looked different. And he blamed me.

Not wanting to stand out

This was a really rough time for us both. His cultural identity became an existential slap in his freckled little face.

At first I thought he was being bullied, because at the time bullying seemed to be a problem everywhere. But it turned out that wasn’t the case at all.

In fact, most people were overly nice to him, and most kids were just curious. He was hafu, and that was exotic to them.

Embarrassed of being different

The problem was our son was a shy kid, and he hated the attention. But the worst thing for him was that his classmates couldn’t believe that he was Japanese like them. He was an outsider, just like his dad. His dad, who couldn’t communicate comfortably with his teachers and coaches. His dad who frequently stumbled over simple Japanese grammar.

He was embarrassed of me. That hurt.

It seemed like he went from 5 years old straight to 13 — with all the anger and resentment of puberty — overnight. And his resentment only grew after school when he arrived home, where I was forcing him to speak English in an effort to keep him bilingual. To him, I was basically throwing his “otherness” back in his face. Fortunately, he didn’t hate being different when he visited my parents in Atlanta — Americans are used to seeing people from all over, so nobody gawked at him — but being different here in Tokyo, the place he identifies with most, was hard for him.

This sort of battle with cultural identity is something he’ll likely wrestle with for a long time. So far, Felicia hasn’t seemed that concerned about these things and started at the same elementary school last year with no real problems at all. Perhaps she benefitted by witnessing Jamie’s experience from a distance, but I have no doubt that she benefitted from Jamie’s transformation that would soon follow.

Our boy remained somewhat an outsider at school, but eventually he became the right kind of outsider: the popular one.

It turned out he’s a pretty good athlete. I know: I’m his dad, so take as many grains of salt you care to with that statement. But I mention it because it was his athleticism that turned things around for him. He became the star of his soccer team and the captain of his dodgeball team, which went on to the city championships (yes, they have a Tokyo city dodgeball championship — and no they didn’t go all the way. They were thrashed pretty badly in the semi-finals, if you must know.)

That seemed to be some sort of tipping point for him. Soon after, he became well-known in the neighborhood. For example, one day we walked out of a convenience store as a few kids rode by on their bikes. “Oh! It’s Jamie!” one says to another, and the five of them nearly wreck turning to look at us as they whiz past. “Who was that?” I ask, and he shrugs. He didn’t know. This happened every so often he said. My son had become a local celebrity. He was still being gawked at, which he didn’t care for, but now he was being gawked at for his own accomplishments and not just because he looked different.

I’ve wondered how things would have turned out if he wasn’t athletic. If he was a nerd instead of a jock. Would he have remained resentful or would he have found a different place for himself? Would the kids have treated him the same way or would the gawking have turned into something else? Would his sense of self and his sense of cultural identity developed any differently? It’s not worth pondering for too long, because now I wonder how he’ll react once we leave his friends and admirers. A few years ago, he might have jumped at the chance, but now it may feel like being knocked off a pedestal, for better or worse.

Whatever the outcome, he and his sister will be entering new territory. When people ask him what he “is” in five years time, I wonder what he’ll tell them.

Comments

  1. Carla Gibson says:

    Thank you for your honesty and openness in this article. It really helps me mentally work through some of the concerns I have with raising my children in Japan. I wonder what will happen when they are older and feel Japanese inside, but don’t look it at all on the outside. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Carla. Kids can internalize culture differently. My two certainly have, and then kids with one Japanese parent may process things different than kids with two non-Japanese parents being raised in Japan. At least that’s the case in my limited experience with friends here. And it’s an ongoing thing. Attitudes change. My son is 15 now and how he feels about Japan and the US is so much deeper and nuanced now. Looking forward to the next steps.

  2. Hey Mama. I knew this might be a tough read for you, and that his struggles weighed on you as well as us. But all of this is going to make him an even more exceptional man one day — he’s proving it one day at a time. Love you.

  3. lena jenkins says:

    Loved the article, cried for you and for Jamie then laughed and rejoiced at his turnaround. Guess that is part of the reason I wish you guys lived in the states other than getting to be grandparents to these great kids on a more regular basis. They point out to me all the time how diverse it is in Atlanta, our neighborhood and the pool. It makes them feel good to be in this melting pot we call home. Love you all, mama

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