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Am I Unstable? Or am I just a Hapa?

I have an early memory of a “bowing war” that occurred between my Japanese grandmother and a visiting neighbor who had come to her home bearing gifts of mochi and tangerines in Shimabara. In my mind, the conversation went like this:

GRANDMA (bowing down to NEIGHBOR)
Thank you so much for coming over to my pathetic excuse of a home!

NEIGHBOR (bowing down to GRANDMA)
Don’t be silly! Thank YOU so much for letting my pathetic self come over to your glorious home that I worship! I certainly hope that my horrible mochi and sad excuse for tangerines are worthy of your sophisticated and tremendously wonderful taste buds!

GRANDMA (bowing down to NEIGHBOR)
My taste buds are lame and unworthy! Your mochi and tangerines are gifts from heaven that I worship. You didn’t need to bring such a well thought out delicacy to such a disgusting and horrible home that I tried to clean up for you and your God-like presence! I’m so sorry that it’s not clean enough! How I wish I could have been more thoughtful!

NEIGHBOR (bowing down to GRANDMA)
Not clean enough? Your home sparkles like teardrops of an ice angel ice skating on a clear blue crystal lake! My despicable tangerines and mochi are insignificant! I wish I could have brought something more delicate and rare for your wonderful home! I’m so embarrassed! Embarrassed!

GRANDMA (bowing down to NEIGHBOR)
Don’t be embarrassed! I am embarrassed that you have been so considerate to such a pathetic person such as I with such a pathetic and insignificant home! I’m so sorry!

NEIGHBOR (bowing down to GRANDMA)
No, I’m so sorry!

GRANDMA (bowing down to Neighbor)
No, I’m so sorry!

NEIGHBOR (bowing down to GRANDMA)

GRANDMA (bowing down to NEIGHBOR)

NEIGHBOR (bowing down to GRANDMA)

NEIGHBOR and GRANDMA explode from bowing and LEAH eats all of the mochi and tangerines.


The generalized Japanese mentality of “honor your neighbor before you honor yourself” is a stark contrast to the “dog-eat-dog/step-on-others-to-succeed” American culture that I presently reside in. Growing up as a person who was heavily involved in my Japanese roots while living in the Midwest, I preserved my family values of honor and consideration only to have the “you are so special you are the only one like you” Barney values simultaneously embedded in my brain by the American media. This might be the reason why after years of swimming in between two societies that contradict one another in various ways, I started experiencing severe anxiety—prompted by thoughts that were illogical or unreal all together.

Although daily exposure to the ever-schizophrenic American culture is enough for anyone to take in one lifetime, trying to cope with the morals of the passive aggressive Japanese culture is equally confusing. Trying to balance the two can take a toll on anybody’s mental stability. As a result, I started to hit a wall once I reached my twenties. Perhaps it’s because there is a myriad of epiphanies that occur at this age and I was over-thinking it. Or maybe it’s because New York City is full of cultural identity as well as separation between those identities and the shock prompted me into crisis mode (resulting from a creeping sense of racial isolation common in hapas). Or maybe, as my mother puts it, I’m just too sensitive. I don’t know.

Though I was never institutionalized or life-threateningly deluded (Dr. Nash style) and most of my friends consider me level-headed (I think), questioning traditions vs. morals in a person’s chosen (or sometimes not chosen) environment spiraled me into enough misery to seek professional help. While I underwent psychotherapy tests and wondered why I felt like I couldn’t get enough air when I was breathing, Dr. Hoffman, my psychologist, asked me one question that changed my perspective on the source of my emotional woes. As I explained my unreasonable fears and superstitions of a “false self” taking over my “true self” and questioned why I chronically self-depreciate even though I’m fiercely proud of my accomplishments, she asked me if my Asian roots blended with my American upbringing had anything to do with my mental instability. I laughed before I considered the truth of my existence.

For example, although I grew up in a sometimes-hazardous home environment with an alcoholic father, I feel that I have been conditioned to feel sympathetic for him rather than angry. My sympathy, propelled by the notion that I must always honor my superiors (especially those who gave me life) and stay loyal to my loved ones, contradicted my bitterness toward him—possibly prompted by the American ideal of writing those off who treat you badly for the sake of self-preservation.

This moral dilemma would always lead me into a stream of confusion that followed me in my adult life. I’d make many mistakes by second guessing my instincts, such as attempting to leave bad relationships while simultaneously trying to retain them and nurturing friendships I had outgrown. These habits rooted from a sense of obligation similar to my own tainted version of filial piety.

Also in my adolescence, I read a lot of shojo-manga comics where the heroine would be in love with a glorified mentally unstable boy who treated her horribly ((i.e. Kodomo no Omocha). Enduring turmoil from an unstable man was so romantic and admirable in these hypothetical situations—but on the flip side, I remember watching Lifetime Original movies (the U.S. equivalent of these comics) where empowerment would come from the woman’s ability to leave an emotionally abusive man. Staying in love with him would be a sign of weakness in American popular culture while the stronger choice of action in the shojo-manga scenarios would be for the heroine to stick through the bad treatment and still be gracious for any sliver of kindness she received from the object of her affection. The “happily ever after” in the Japanese pop-culture scenario would always have great payoffs in the end and nobody would ever consider to mention the word “abusive”.

Americans generally value self-health to the extent where self-deprecation is looked down on while the Japanese seem to view self-love as a cardinal sin. As a result, I became a hybrid kind of girl—feeling like I was in the middle of a tug-of-war between two polar opposite personalities: Japan and America.

Similarly, my Japanese mother was always apologizing to my father for her actions even though it was clear she didn’t mean it. Though she made his dinner and treated him with general kindness, she still complained about his treatment towards her and his attitude as a father. She stays with him, but the emotional turmoil he creates is obviously hazardous to her mental and physical health. Is this endurance a sign of strength or a sign of weakness?

When my sister and I would beg my mom to get a divorce when we were younger (not understanding the weight of what the action would bring), she would never follow through. I could never figure out if she stayed because of the repercussions that a separation would bring (partly because she immigrated) or because she was truly in love with him. As my mom relishes the moments of happiness that come from a mostly unstable partnership, I wonder which life would be more difficult to lead. Every time I ask my mom why she puts up with this sort of thing, she always replies with: “When I married your father, I promised that I would be there for him in sickness and in health. He is sick right now. And I know that when he is old—and in diapers—I will be there for him to change his diaper, and he’ll look up at me and say, ‘Thank you. I’m sorry’.”

I never understood this statement until my mom was diagnosed with cancer last year. Out of the true realization that my parents are aging, my skepticism morphed into a genuine fear of the possible loss of my mother and the weight of the obligation of having to be there one day to change my father’s diapers during his golden years if she wasn’t around. This fear haunted my deepest conscience. Of course, this is an irrational fear (and parent diaper changing is quite unlikely these days), but the responsibility of taking care of my parents as they grow old (even if we didn’t have the greatest relationship) suddenly dawned on me. America would tell me to screw it and that the notion is unhealthy. The shojo-manga comics would subliminally tell me that my mother would be alright, and even if I did have to change my father’s diapers, he would look up at me graciously and thank me one day. Reality can only tell me that mothers and fathers don’t live forever, and sometimes, they are not strong enough to say thank you. Life is not a single story with a cathartic ending no matter how you treat yourself or others. Big events tend to just happen out of nowhere and suddenly stop. It’s a matter of deciphering how to deal with them.

I think it’s difficult, especially for people from this sort of background, to make those decisions. The notion of “honoring others” and “taking care of one’s self” is a mind-boggling combination. I have not figured out the answers, and I expect this struggle to be a life-long exploration. What is the balance between being healthily selfish and being healthily considerate? Is it even in our human nature? Is it more honest to put others before one’s self or vice versa? What are people really like at the core and how much are we molded by our cultural surroundings? Which do we succumb to and follow, if at all? More importantly, without any cultural influences and rules, would we all just be cannibals who ate each other for dinner?

On one hand, my dad can be mean. On the other hand, he gave me life. He gave me a home. He gives me a type of love that masks itself with mistakes and actions, but it is the only love I’ll ever have from a father and that is something to cherish. He made me an incredibly strong person, and anything that I go through now seems easy because of him. Do I stay mad at him, to estrange myself and change my last name, ignoring any love for him I hold (the American way), or to forgive and accept him for what he is and deal with him every once in a while as he grows old (the Japanese way)? It’s a double-edged sword, both with unhealthy repercussions.

I value the idea of honor and honoring others. I still value the idea that selflessness is more honorable than selfishness. At the same time though, I’m learning to value circumstance. The value of eliminating situations and relationships that are unhealthy is a good step towards maintaining that ideal balance. Valuing myself in terms of “what is healthy” and “what is not” does make me recognize more and more how some of these contradictions have the potential to make me a well-rounded person.

While the nature of my grandmother’s “bowing war” with her neighbor can read as passive aggressive banter masked by politeness, there is a beauty and fulfillment in this behavior that may stem from respecting and appreciating others. At the same time, while the notion of saying truths and cutting people out from your life is harsh, there is strength in recognizing what is good for you. Perhaps it’s best to recognize the type of person you are becoming and to attempt to decipher a true nature and morals without cultural influence. Who knows? I know my first step on this journey is to keep my loyal and giving demeanor but to get a massage, to relax, and to treat myself to dinner every once in a while. But I can’t help but feel slightly guilty as I fight the urge to bow down to my masseuse, apologizing and thanking her for her extraordinary services on my lame and unworthy back.


© 2009 Leah Nanako Winkler

culture hapa identity multiracial traditions