What being Chinese/Japanese means to me

Growing up in Southern Oregon and being one of four asian families that I knew (one of which was actually half Japanese/half Caucasian) I can sympathize with a little bit of cultural confusion. A phrase that I remember thinking (but not saying) often was, "The other kids don't have to do this!" I'm writing this for anyone else who might be feeling culturally lost or confused.  I hope it brings you some clarity.

My father is Chinese and my mother is Chinese/Japanese, but growing up that didn't mean a whole lot to me.  I considered myself pretty much the same as my Caucasian friends.  All I knew was that things in our house were a little different, in ways I couldn't fully understand much less articulate.  My parents weren't very helpful on this front.  I remember writing a college essay for a diversity scholarship and asking my mom if they meant culturally diverse or having diverse interests.  She said, "I don't know, April!" So I wrote about both.  Luckily, the college I chose was not very diverse and they gave me the scholarship anyway.

So now, years later, I'm trying to reflect on this and put some of these thoughts into words.  FYI the Chinese and Japanese cultures still get mixed up in my head and I apologize in advance if some of the things I say are not culturally accurate.  

Don't trouble the waters. It's a very Asian visual, and it works.  It means, don't be confrontational or difficult if it's going to cause a big ruckus.  It's better to keep the waters smooth and calm.  It may be more Chinese than Japanese, but I think both cultures are more introverted and hush hush when it comes to expressing your feelings.  Now that I'm married to a hoppa guy myself (meaning he's half asian/half caucasian) who's also a communications major I'm learning more how to express my feelings with love.  Growing up, I hardly every talked about my feelings except when they had been bottled up enough to finally explode! Not a good thing.

Don't be idle.  Again, who knows if this is Chinese/Japanese or even just my own families quirkiness, but my mother especially hated seeing us kids just sitting around.  We were meant to be always doing something and if we weren't then she would find something for us to do, usually chores.  When mom cooked dinner all of the kids were expected to help cook and clean up afterwards.  Or when someone came home from the grocery store or a friend was dropping stuff off, we were expected to go out and help unload.  I admit, it is a good thing to do and something I fully intend to teach my kids.  I just hated having to stop whatever I was doing to get up and help.

Get good grades, or else.  Enough said.  I have a clear memory of my mother somehow learning that my teacher thought I needed to practice my handwriting.  I must've been in kindergarten or first grade because I was just learning to write my letters. Every night for at least a week I had to sit down and copy out letters until Mom was satisfied.  I think I was finally let off the hook when my teacher sent home a note saying how much my handwriting had improved.  Getting good grades was something my siblings and I didn't question.  We knew we were expected to get good grades and we were terrified of the consequences of getting anything less than an A.  Coming home with a bad essay or assignment was scary enough. 

Do a million things.  This is related to the "Don't be idle" topic.  Today, not as many Asian families prescribe to this age old tenant, but mine did.  All the kids learned to play piano and at least one other instrument.  We all participated in sports year round.  On top of this my mother was very involved in church and would bring us along to help with whatever project she was into.  Everything from making stage sets complete with fake rocks and palm trees, to hand dyeing and stenciling T-shirts for vacation bible school. 

Traditions and Customs.  We didn't participate in many of the traditional holidays or customs.  I remember going to some friends house to make mochi (pounded rice) and having no clue what was happening except there were a lot of Asian people around.  We ate a lot of rice and the first time I ever used a regular spoon (not the Asian soup spoon) to eat soup was probably in college.  My Grandma (Japanese) taught me to make sushi, but my mom doesn't even know how.  Similarly, my mom knows how to make rice soup, but doesn't know how to spell it (juk).  I learned how to use chopsticks growing up, but I was never really proficient at it until I moved to Hawaii.  I do know that Japanese people like odd numbers, and Chinese people like the number eight and the color red.  Japanese people are more friendly, love hula, and practice the art of flower arranging called Ikebana.  China (and Japan?) is famous for silk.  The traditional Chinese dress is straight with a nice collar.  Japan is home to the samurai and geisha and the kimono is the traditional dress.

Living in Hawaii, where the Asian population is actually the majority, I've learned a lot.  I've learned to be proud of my heritage and not just confused by it.  When I was in elementary school a stranger in front of Safeway once asked me, "What are you?"  I was so confused by the question I couldn't even think of an answer, "Human?".  Now I'm not ashamed to ask people, "What ethnicity are you?" because I'm genuinely interested.  It helps me to learn a little more about the person and I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of.  I still have a lot to learn.  While my compression of the Chinese and Japanese culture is pretty good I'm still trying to figure out what's what when it comes to Vietnamese, Pilipino, Taiwanese, Korean, etc.  I hope to pass on this knowledge to my children to help them understand how they are different and the same as their friends.

I sat on this one a long time, because of fear or others' opinions maybe, but I've finally decided to post it, in the hopes it helps someone else. 

April