|On Being Japanese American...|
|Written by Nicole Sumida|
|Friday, 17 October 2008 20:30|
Growing up in the 1970’s in Chicago’s near west suburbs, there were few people like me. In fact, my sister and I were the only half Japanese, half Swedish/German girls on our block (or in our community for that matter). Most people thought I was Chinese and it didn’t take long to realize that “chink” was not a friendly word. As a kid, I gravitated towards the “others”, the few kids in the neighborhood who were Puerto Rican, Mexican or who just didn’t fit in. Despite being isolated from other Japanese or other Asian Americans, I always identified more with being Japanese, probably because of my appearance and my close relationship with my mother, who was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
In high school, my Latino and African American classmates readily accepted me and didn’t seem to care what I was. While most of my Caucasian peers were equally welcoming, many didn’t quite know what to do with me. “Is she Oriental or White?” This was clearly an issue for some. They’d ask me dumb questions and at times make racist jokes not thinking I’d be offended. I knew a girl in high school who used to call my mother “Mrs. Miyagi”. (At least she got the ethnicity right).
My work at Pintig led to a friendship with Larry Leopoldo who shared my interest in starting an Asian American arts magazine. Over coffee in a café, we decided that the focus of our magazine would be works “by and about Asian Americans” and we named it riksha. When we put the call out for submissions, we began to realize that there were lots of people out there making their art, sharing their stories and starting to connect with each other. They all needed more exposure.
Over the next few years, riksha lived through many incarnations. Through the hard work of talented people like Larry, along with Alex Yu, Patty Cooper and Ed Eusebio (and numerous others), riksha published several magazines and held a variety of performances and exhibits in local cafes, art galleries and clubs. riksha collaborated with many organizations and helped to contribute to the dialogue that had started about what it meant to be Asian American.
My grandfather died when I was ten years old and my memories of him are hazy now. On a shelf at home where I place special mementos, I often look at the photographs of him. One is with my 2-year old self in his lap and another is with him and several family members and employees in his general store. He was a stoic and practical man with his own children, but with us (his grandchildren), he was an altogether lighter person, quick to smile and play and who expressed his love through walks holding hands and naps curled up close. My mother told me that he would “light up” whenever my sister and I would visit him. He was a man who, despite his hardships and sacrifices, which included surviving the devastation of two tsunamis in Hilo, lived his days with a sense of gratitude and generosity that touched all who knew him.
The author as a child pictures here with her grandfather Ryoji Sumida
As I became more grounded in my family history, it became somewhat easier to deal with the more prickly aspects of being Japanese. While I had read about Japan’s atrocities during the war, learning to deal with it firsthand was another story. I remember my first encounters with friends whose families had been affected by Japanese occupation. Their stories were awful and I was often stunned and shamed into silence. I could tell that they felt badly telling me but they seemed driven by a need to tell someone, someone Japanese, and to be heard. As time went on, I found myself apologizing after these encounters. Perhaps it seems odd to apologize for something so removed from my own personal experience. But somehow, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
I remember one day, when I was first dating my now husband (who is Filipino/Chinese), I met the aunt of my father-in-law who had immigrated to Chicago many years ago. She proceeded to tell me the horrific tale of her husband’s murder by imperial soldiers in the Philippines and how she was left to raise her small children on her own. The details of her story were so vivid, as if she had experienced the loss only a short time ago, and her emotions were still raw. I knew she didn’t blame me personally but she needed me to hear her and, for a moment, feel the discomfort of her tragedy. She held my hand as she told her story and I felt a small reconciliation take place. This is a burden that we Japanese carry, but it’s also an opportunity, a chance to extend our compassion and interrupt the cycle of pain that continues to this day.
Nicole Sumida is co-founder and former publisher of riksha, a magazine dedicated to promoting artistic and literary works by and about Asian Americans. Information about the magazine can be found at www.riksha.com.
Published in March of 2007
This article is featured on the Community forum section of the Discover Nikkei Website: http://www.discovernikkei.org/forum/en/node/1587