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Listening to stories at the cultural crossroads

It can be a mixed blessing having parents of two different races. While rich cultural history is embedded into my heritage, so is ambiguity, and often, people are reluctant to consider that my ethnicity doesn’t fall into a single specific category. Each person, I’ve found, is a composite of stories, stories that aren’t always written in the same language.

As someone who grew up in an international community within Tokyo, Japan, I was fortunate to live in an environment where being a blend of cultures was, for the most part, accepted and understood. I had countless friends from various backgrounds. In the very race-conscious city, there was even a word to describe someone who is half-Japanese and half something else. The word, hafu, is not derogatory; it’s simply a popular descriptor. Rarely in Japan did I experience racism.

It wasn’t until I came back to America––I’m originally from Fairfax, Virginia––at the start of high school that I began to understand, somewhat, why race constantly incites conflict. A million other things also came to light, such as how odd the term hafu sounded in the U.S., like it was a made-up word or, as a friend told me, “the kind of a name you’d give a dog breed.” And it was in America that I realized most people only saw me, and subsequently treated me, as what they thought I looked like: Asian, an ambiguous word that captures an expansive range of cultures.

I’ve found that to most Americans, I’m not half-Japanese, a quarter Dutch, and a quarter American … I’m simply an Asian girl. It’s a label that makes me cringe because of the way it oversimplifies my personal history and because it generalizes a complex ethnic group that deserves to have each of its layers acknowledged. While I obviously have a lot of Japanese features, which I am proud to have inherited from my mother, it’s not everything I am. My Japanese friend summed up my predicament beautifully. She said that in Japan, I’m “not that Asian,” but in America, I seem to be nothing but.

I love that I come from a multitude of places. I have ancestors in Okinawa, cousins in Holland, grandparents in Maui, Hawaii, and relatives in several other places. I’m proud, as everyone should be of their own heritage, of where my family comes from. And so it bothers me when people refuse to look beneath the surface and therefore make me feel like I can only be one thing.

Dana Hall represents a microcosm of the real world: it boasts a diverse and global student body. It’s a privilege to be able to have a conversation with someone from Beijing one period, and then to discuss American politics with someone from Mexico during the next. So many people here are great about respecting other people’s differences; they understand that some people are the result of the collision of multiple cultures and, therefore, cannot be simplified into a single word. All the same, it’s tiring to continuously brush off micro-aggressions and smile when people ask me questions like “does Hawaii even have colleges?” and make nonchalant remarks such as “you speak such good English.”   

It’s disheartening when, after talking about the upcoming presidential election, a teacher goes down a line of students and asks the ones who “appear American” if they will be old enough to vote this coming November. And then when she gets to me, she wonders aloud if I’m even a U.S. citizen.

One particular conversation has stayed with me for a while.When a Dana classmate asked me my full name, and I told her, she remarked that it didn’t fit me because “it sounded too white.” I had no response to that. I still don’t.

Upon returning to the States after living abroad for several years, my eyes have been opened to some people’s eagerness to make assumptions about another person’s race, and that often, “American-ness” is associated with unadulterated European features … despite the fact that it’s basic American history that the United States is a melting pot. Americans originate from every corner of the world. That’s what I love about this country: it’s anything but homogenous; there’s one of everything here.

A person cannot be summed up in a box, in a label. Humans are more complicated than that.

The world is forever becoming less black and white. It has about a million shades of gray, meaning that there are so many different kinds of people, all of whom possess a unique background and storied histories. Conversations about race and diversity shouldn’t be “hush-hush,” or limited to X-blocks, but brought out into the realm of casual conversation. It’s a great way for people to get to know other cultures, and to learn about the world.

I, like everyone else, am not simply what people decide I should be. I am what the world, through thousands of years and hundreds of generations, has made me.

Before deciding that an individual is a certain race because you think she looks Asian, or Black, or White, take a second and get to know her story, however complicated it may be. It’ll be totally worth it.

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