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Growing Up Japanese in the South

“Tazuko, don’t marry him! He’s an American!” My grandma’s father was very against her marrying my grandpa, an American GI. It had only been 20 years since World War II had ended, and he still did not trust Americans. To him, all Americans were bad, especially American soldiers. During WWII, they had broken into his house and stolen everything of value, including family heirlooms that had been in the family for generations. But my grandma, being a rebellious 25 year-old, ignored him and married my grandpa in Tokyo.

A few months later, my grandpa took his new Japanese bride to Thomasville, North Carolina, a town known for barbeque and Thomasville furniture. My grandma was the only Asian in the small, Southern town. When she would walk to the store, people would stick there heads out of shop windows just to see her. Many had never seen an Asian in person before and many still thought all Asians were lower than Americans. She was raised to be a quiet person and she did not stick up for herself.

When my grandma was 27 years old, she had my mom, Linda. Three years later, my Uncle, Ricky, was born. My grandpa was still in the Army and they moved to Orlando, Florida. My grandma, Uncle, and mom still seemed to be the only Japanese in the area.

One day, when my grandma was in line at a small grocery store, a tall man pretending not to notice her stepped in front of her. My three-year old mom yelled at the man for ignoring her mom just because she was Japanese. My very American mom had picked up a Southern attitude, and used it to combat her first battle against racism.

Later, my grandpa moved his family to a small town outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Even though there is a small Korean community in South Carolina, my mom and Uncle grew up isolated from a Japanese community. My grandma had only a few Japanese friends, most of them had come to America under the same circumstances she had. They used to get together a few times a month to cook Japanese food. But to my mom and Uncle, who had grown up in the South, it was strange.

My mom and Uncle were not interested in being Japanese. To them, Japan was just a country their mom was from; it did not mean anything to them. They knew they were Japanese and American, but they separated the two. They considered themselves Japanese and American, not Japanese-Americans. My grandma had tried to teach and raise them Japanese, but they shook their heads and walked away. They seemed to be more interested in other things.

By the time my younger brother and I were born, my mom was set in her ways. She was Southern born and raised and she wasn’t going to change a thing. Because we did not have a Japanese community around us, and my mom did not know anything about the culture; my mom decided she wasn’t going to raise me Japanese, either. Or at least she thought she was not raising us Japanese. My grandma had instilled Japanese values into my mom, and she taught them to us. She taught us to respect our elders, they have been around much longer than we have; to always try our best in school, being smart can help you in every part of your life; and to never lie, by no means does not telling the truth help in any situation.

One of the bad things about being Asian in the South is racism—from blacks and whites. My Grandma used to work at a local hotel. Once, a black woman who worked with her called her a “Jap”. She said to them “Yes I am! And you’re a Negro!” My grandma did not say much back to them, but they left her alone after that. My Uncle used to get made fun of everyday at school. My Grandma is from Southern Japan, so my Uncle has extremely dark skin. Kids called him “black” or “Chink”. But my mom, again with her Southern attitude, stood up for him. It was worse when my mom and Uncle were growing up, but my brother and I have had our share of it, too.

When I was seven, a woman came to my school to show us how to write our names in Japanese and how to draw koi fish. I loved being Japanese, and I wanted to know everything I could from this woman. As we were walking to the class, my teacher pulled me away and told me I was not allowed to tell the woman I was Japanese. I was very confused; why wasn’t I allowed to tell her? I told the woman anyways, and she was very happy that she was teaching a Japanese girl. She brought me to the front of the class to teach them how to say “hello” in Japanese. After class, my teacher didn’t say anything to me, but something didn’t feel right for the rest of the day. Another time my brother was on a bus and two boys started calling him a “Chink”. He turned around and said. “I’m not a Chink! I’m a Jap!” After that, the boys never messed with him again.

Sometimes, though, I feel like I am stuck between two cultures and two countries. I am mixed race and very proud of that, but I have a hard time identifying with either one. I feel as if I am too American for Japan and too Japanese for America. I know I’m not alone in the world, but because of where I live, it feels like I am. I listen to J-pop while I eat boiled peanuts and make mochi and collard greens on New Years Eve. You have to admit, that is a weird way to mix the Japanese and Southern culture! I wonder if there is any other family in the South like mine, or if we are one-of-a-kind.

Now that I am older, I embrace both cultures. I know it is ok to be Japanese and Southern at the same time. I will never be ashamed to say I am Nikkei born and raised in the South.

© 2008 Danielle Arikawa

culture family hapa identity multiracial North Carolina