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As the years pass, I begin to feel the weight of everything I don’t know about Japan, pressing down on me.
Living with two Japanese parents as I did, I obviously absorbed some Japanese culture the way children do – by osmosis, and by listening to stories and anecdotes. But I am aware of a very large gap in my knowledge.
When we first started going to Japanese club, 3 or 4 years ago, I realised that there were so many songs, games and traditions that I wasn’t familiar with – that I’m learning for the first time as an adult.
It brings a sense of melancholy and panic – what will happen to my heritage when my children are grown up, have children of their own, and I’m the only vestige of 'Japaneseness' left in my family? Where will the stories, knowledge and memories go? Will they disappear into a pitiless fog of oblivion, never to return?
I suppose that is the nature of migration. We leave our native shores, and make homes on the opposite side of the globe; we learn so much, adopt new ways – language, culture, cuisine, education, and sometimes even religion – but we lose little bits of ourselves on the way. It’s hard for me to know what I’ve lost – how can I know when I never had them in the first place? But I believe there is a blueprint buried inside, a file with ancestral imprints which I just can’t access, like a broken memory stick, and it senses the slow drip of history bleeding away.
I need to speak to my relatives. Ask more questions. Find out as much as I can before it’s too late. The bitter truth of human nature is that we often don’t realise what we have until it is gone.
I spent so much of my life wishing that I was not Japanese. I railed against it – I was angry and frustrated with the cards I’d been dealt. I truly believed that I would have been more confident, more successful, more carefree if I hadn’t had this disability – the curse of being a foreigner. The different one. The funny-looking one.
Of course, it says a lot of (uncomplimentary) things about my character, that I saw myself as disabled and cursed. I laid down foundations full of negativity and self-hate, but in doing so, doomed the bedrock of my metaphorical house to fundamental cracks. Because I loved being Japanese too. I loved it desperately. That buried genetic memory of Japan cried out every day for recognition.
I did have to deal with racial insults and teasing, as a young child, and I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on my 5 year old self for finding this distressing and allowing it to stunt my social development. When I recently watched a nature programme, and observed the adult salmon swimming laboriously against the current to reach their spawning ground, sometimes having to leap crazy distances up waterfalls, I felt a glimmer of recognition.
That’s how my whole life felt – all the time. As if I was swimming against the current. It just made me so tired. I rarely felt as if I could relax – I was always presenting a contrived, manufactured face. I changed, transformed, mutated – a human chameleon – until I completely lost my true self.
Everyone has an identity crisis, right? It’s a coming-of-age ritual. Except mine has been going on for such a long time, that you could describe my mental state as being in a perpetual state of crisis.
It is only very recently that I have started to understand the nature of this crisis – and it all stems from this love/hate relationship with who I am – with a part of me that I cannot detach, cannot change.
I can’t turn my back on my Japaneseness. East and West must coexist within me without tearing me apart, and it’s up to me to make that work. I can’t continue to blame other people or circumstances for the anguish I’ve suffered, because now I have a choice. I’m not a child anymore. I’ve spent my entire life running away and wishing things were different, instead of accepting that this dichotomy is actually my USP. I have to take my head out of the sand and CHOOSE to see the positive aspects of my situation.
Better late than never.
Now I understand that, yes, I had some difficulties at school. It was frustrating to be bright and capable and full of ideas, but feel hampered by a lack of confidence and a terror of drawing more attention to myself than I already was. But EVERYONE has their own story. Being a foreigner was my story, but everyone struggles with something. My naivety was believing that, if I’d been British and white, I wouldn’t have had any problems.
Many, many years ago, I knew a boy who had an operation to pin his ears back because he was constantly teased. It made me sad, because he was only 7 years old. Also, I knew that the shape of his ears wasn’t the reason he was teased. It was what the other children latched on to, but it wasn’t the reason. He was teased because he was fussy, annoying and obstinate. He was teased because he cared what everyone else thought of him. He was teased because his lack of confidence and desire for acceptance shone from his whole body like a neon beacon. The fact he was compromising himself – having a surgeon cut into his head - in an attempt to appease some cruel, thoughtless children would probably exacerbate the teasing, if anything.
In effect, I was that boy too. I’ve been trying so hard to adapt to my surroundings that my personality got fed up of wearing masks and costumes, of being crushed into strange shapes, and retreated to a deep dark corner to wait it out. Why would I do that to myself?
It’s been a long process, but I’m finally seeing a way I can heal this rift in my soul, stitch all these broken components together… and it’s quite simple. Instead of feeling rage and injustice at the things I can’t change, I’m going to choose to accept them. I’m going to choose to be kinder to myself, and nurture pride in the elements that make me unique. Even telling the world how I feel is part of that process, because I’ve just realised I no longer feel ashamed.
I don't have to choose between East and West - I can simply choose who I want to be in every minute of every day. We all can.