being the other
Growing up as the ‘mixed kid’ means I’ve spent most of my life keenly aware that I’m not quite like everyone else. I don’t look as Japanese as my mom, nor do I look as Japanese as my grandmother from Fukuoka, Japan (on the island of Kyushu). I definitely don’t look as white as my dad who lovingly adopted me after my parents were married when I was five years old. As a child in Chesterfield County Schools when there were only one or two Asian kids per grade level, I couldn’t help being the "other."
By the time I was in middle school and my mom moved us to
Henrico County Schools, I didn’t feel quite as different. I’d sit down in my classes and realize there was a solid handful (or more) of Asian kids in my grade. By high school it wasn’t uncommon to regularly have one or two Asian kids in classes with me. I was still different because I was mixed whereas most were 100% Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese (only to name a few of the many ethnicities). Most of the time my fellow Asian American classmates embraced me, but sadly no one else was Japanese. I began to feel like the "other", the odd woman out, once again. Thanks to early forms of social media (shout out to Asian Avenue) I was able to make some Japanese friends.
Overtime I feel like I’ve quieted some of my Japanese-ness so that I would fit in with the group.
Now I have the chance to hear “I just see you as you and not as being different.” I know that that’s meant to be a compliment, to see me as being like everyone else, but we both know that I’m not. I come with a cultural history that makes me uniquely me, just like you do as well. I don’t know what all of your colloquial figures of speech mean, and you don’t know that I cringe inside when you leave your chopsticks in your food. I’ve learned to use the word “y’all,” but I have an aversion to the number four. I can’t help being Japanese, but my hope is that you might seek to understand more about me and my heritage. I have always been intrigued by the others and sought to know them better, my hope is that you may feel the same.
I was recently at an event where there was talk about
who is the "other" for each of us in regards to making connections with people. The facilitator encouraged us to think about situations where we have to interact with "other" people. Many shared great examples (race, gender, sexual orientation, politics, etc.), but I couldn’t help realizing that I would fit in at least one of their “other” categories. There was great conversation about a desire to push through the "other"-ness and connect with others. There was a desire to know how to break through these boundaries. Some of the conversation was focused on doing what you can or at least praying about it.
BUT then I, the "other" in their midst, spoke up.
I said that we needed to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. For some this is feeding the hungry For some this would be dining with those different from themselves. And for others, it could be as simple as getting to know someone different from themselves. The facilitator of the group quickly dismissed me, and made it clear that I shouldn’t challenge the status quo. They made it clear that they were not interested in digging deeper into this and engaging with the "other" in their midst. Most of my life I’ve tried not to disrupt the status quo, but I’ve learned that none of us benefit from being silent in the face of injustice. I’m also keenly aware that our zone of comfort and discomfort will be different for each of us. I challenged someone to step out and they didn’t like it. But I also don’t like being the "other" all alone.
I have learned to embrace who I am and appreciate the diversity of others.
I have loved learning my grandmother's mother-tongue, Japanese, but I’ve also loved learning the languages spoken by others. Learning even the tiniest bit of Mandarin Chinese made it easier to communicate with my best friend’s grandmother, who didn’t speak any English. It made it easier for her to feel comfortable in the midst of a life that was confusing and uncertain due to her dementia. I have loved having French as a common language to ease the divide while in Haiti, AND that it eased my learning of Haitian Creole. I have loved learning the words of new foods in the language of new restaurants, whether those words were a language spoken in India, Ethiopia, or Lebanon.
The world we live in is diverse and beautiful.
It took the Army pushing my grandfather out of his comfort zone to leave his tiny town in Minnesota to go to Japan to meet my grandmother. It took my grandmother leaving her family and comfort of the known to marry a man who’s language she didn’t speak. It took their willingness to go the unknown path to create a family that is beautifully diverse. A family that now represents a multitude of cultures (Czech, Irish, German, and Norwegian to name a few) all because you do their willingness to do what was scary and hard. I know that I don’t have the only melting pot family, but I hope you’re willing to get it know it or another one like it for that matter.
Being the "other" isn’t a bad thing.
When people take the time to get to know who you truly are as a person, we break down barriers and walls. We find common ground. Embracing the "other" in your midst is having a desire to get to know them, appreciating their differences, and fully embracing who they are as an individual. We must see beyond the color of our skin, but learn to appreciate and embrace all that makes us different.