Thoughts On Ethnicity

My maternal great grandmother Tamako lived until she was in her very late 90s. She battled cancer numerous times through her life. She saw the Hiroshima bombings from a village 10 kilometers away, where she was supervising children tidying a schoolyard. She was born in Japan in 1914. She married a Japanese-Canadian farmer in Japan, and then emigrated to Canada in 1964.

I never met her. She died 4 years ago, and I still feel a deep mourning.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, is half-Japanese. My mother has his blood as well as Czech. Aside from her, I get intense Scottish from my father.

And this is the side that shows.

“Seeing is believing.”

It’s hard to be in touch with your roots when they are bleached with every generation. I don’t resent it, obviously. Love and marriage and reproduction happen.

I grew up in Canada. Most of my customs are Canadian, though I starkly remember only learning how to properly use a knife and fork when I was a 12-year-old. I knew how to use chopsticks so early that I can’t remember. When I was very young, I was enrolled in Japanese language classes, and I’m thankful I gained the phonemes. Perhaps that first class is what instilled in me a love of languages, but—as I said—I was very young. I don’t remember.

I remember the kimono my mother had in their boxes.

I remember the round and crinkly face of my half-Japanese grandfather. I remember his artisan woodworking skills and the carvings he makes. (Thankfully, he’s still alive and well.)

I don’t know “how Japanese I am” because every person is different, regardless of their ethnic background.

But I can’t describe the disconnect I feel when I think about my Japanese heritage. It brings me to tears.

There are behaviours and habits I have which I see so frequently in Japanese animation that I wonder: is this something I was taught? Is this a stereotype? Are these cultural facts that I inherited? The way I drink from a bowl. My undying love for umami flavour. My core belief that I should never be a burden to anyone. My value for order, simplicity, and practicality. Tofu and miso and rice. Light desserts. The experience of the sublime in nature without the association (or appreciation) of God. The awkward half-bow motion I’ve taught myself to suppress.

My research into the Shinto religion brings me peace. Like it is many pieces finally found that fit the corner border of a puzzle.

“Appearances can be deceiving.”

For some reason, I’m in tears and there is a weight like a small black hole near my heart. I am conflicted between my legitimate ethnic background and how close it is to my generation. I often hear white Americans being mocked for their “4% Cherokee” statements and whatnot. Like that kind of ethnicity is a fun accessory. And I don’t know if I’m allowed to own and possess my ethnic background.

I don’t look Japanese. If you look closely, you can find some features. My male siblings definitely have more Japanese features. We all inherited hair that is representative of Japanese genetics: my younger brother’s hair sticks straight out when it grows longer, and my oldest brother’s hair is coarse and unmanageable. My mother’s hair is pin straight and long. None of us, including my half-sister (same mother, different father, so she has the Japanese too) look our true ages—and as they say, Japanese people live long and have extended youth.

But I don’t know.

A classmate of mine told me that her first impression of me included the thought that I definitely was mixed race. That I wasn’t entirely Anglo-Saxon like so many Canadians.

All of this makes me want to do some genealogy. My paternal grandmother might have some information on my mother’s side, but considering she has more heavily researched her own ancestry, I’m doubtful.

I simply don’t feel valid when I claim “I’m part Japanese” despite the fact that I am. I just don’t look Asian enough for my own mind to accept it, I guess.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

How can I describe a disconnection? How can I describe it aside from mourning and loss? Like I’m missing something. It’s cliche as fuck, but I feel like there is a part of me that’s gone because I didn’t get the chance to better understand my heritage. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling (from the small selection of Aboriginal North American literature I’ve read, they feel it too).

I just don’t have a resource for this feeling. Do I try to reconnect? Do I visit my great grandmother’s grave? Do I visit Japan? Do I ignore it? I don’t know.

I don’t know.

Thoughts On Ethnicity

1 comment

  1. I was really moved by this post. It also – I apologise for being so stereotypical and blunt – but it also made me think of photos I’ve seen of you and I actually think I do see some Japanese in your facial features. Never mind you ‘not looking Asian enough’, you should be proud of your heritage. Although you may feel some disconnect because you didn’t know a great deal about your ancestors, you should not feel like you are not Japanese.

    I’m only part Dutch. So much so that I leave it out, it’s something like 1/16th or something virtually insignificant. I have a friend who is 1/32nd Chinese. She laughs about it because she just looks like a regular Australian. But to take a step back and know that if your great-grandmother did not exist, you would not either.

    I am continuously amazed by mixed Caucasian-Asian people, who seem to carry more of one race than the other, and in some families, siblings look entirely different. One of my friends is Italian-Australian, and her mother got an offensive comment when she was bringing up my friend and her two brothers, with someone asking if her kids were from different parents. My friend looks Australian, while one of her brothers has dark skin and looks Italian, and the other looks somewhat mixed with lighter skin. For people to judge and not believe that you are Japanese because of your appearance is probably the norm – but it comes from you. It’s up to you to identify with that.

    That said, with my parents’ ancestors being immigrants from China to Indonesia, I thought that I specifically wasn’t Indonesian, yet it made sense for me to tell people I was Indonesian because a lot of people don’t understand and lose interest. For me to explain that my parents were not actually Indonesian was somewhat difficult for people to grasp. 😐 However, it was later found, not too long ago (so it would have been hundreds of years since my ancestors died), that one of my great-great-grandparents or something along that line was actually an indigenous Indonesian, so there is a bit of Indonesian in me after all. It’s not too late to do more research. It’s not too late at all. 🙂

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