By: Alisa Tanaka, IATG Contributor September 5, 2016
Growing up, I never truly believed the adults around me when they said that I should continue learning my mother’s native tongue. At the time, all I wanted was to spend my Saturdays hanging out with friends or watching cartoons, not studying spider-like characters and earning stickers in return. In some ways, I’m glad that I can now communicate in my mother’s native tongue semi-decently, but in others, it gets a little more complicated.
Growing up in a bilingual household can give a child the best of two (or more) vastly different cultures, and in my case, it has. I can speak, read, and write my mother’s native tongue, which allows me to befriend and understand people from all over Japan, which in turn, enriches my worldview in amazing ways. But it has also made things more difficult in some ways.
To any casual observer, I may as well have walked off the pages of a photo essay of Tokyo: black hair, brown eyes, the stereotypical Japanese. If you top that off with the fact that I can carry a conversation in Japanese, on top of my very Japanese full name, strangers have no reason to think that I am American.
Growing up in the United States, I have more American than Japanese values, but that’s not to say that I don’t have any Japanese values whatsoever. I do my best to show respect to older or more experienced individuals. I’m never happy with anything less than perfection.
And as much as I hate to admit it, I deeply care about how I’m perceived and what others think of me.
I learned how to apologize to others for the slightest things, even if I wasn’t in the wrong. I learned how to bow and what to say. I learned basically everything I needed to know in order to pass as a typical Japanese young woman, like an actress playing a role. In fact, every time I go back to my mother’s homeland, that’s how I feel.
You can learn how to pass for someone on the surface, but passing for someone and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes for a particular length of time doesn’t change who you are on the inside. My appearance and language abilities don’t change the fact that I have an American passport, that I believe in caring for yourself before caring for others, independence, and freedom of expression.
I’d be lying if I said that I was comfortable with the idea of never fully belonging to either culture. Belonging goes beyond your appearance and your heritage; it also affects your beliefs. Being Japanese by heritage and American by birth has given me pieces of both cultures, which makes it impossible for me to belong in either place.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that people’s perceptions are within their control; by that same token, my perception of myself is within mine, and that’s really the only one that should matter to me.
Growing up in an international household can be hard. Blending your heritage with modern culture is a struggle. How do you balance your family’s traditions and customs with the 21st century? What can you do to foster a more inclusive community?
Alisa Tanaka graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a B.A. in Communications in 2012. When she’s not writing herblog, she can be found reading, volunteering, dreaming of traveling the world, trying to master the 5 languages she speaks, or playing with her puppy.