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I Am Job

I was fourteen when I got my first job as a cashier at a Japanese convenience store in Lexington, Kentucky. We sold imported goods like Haichu and Pocky at inflated prices and welcomed each customer with a pleasant “irasshai mase!”

Soon after, I made enough connections in the small Japanese community to acquire a waitress position at a local sushi bar. I was fired after three weeks for (a) being a horrible waitress and (b) not being able to understand my boss’s broken English. Every time I asked that she spoke to me in her native language, she just ignored me and continued to give me commands through unintelligible syllables and choppy sentences that slightly resembled English. I went as far as demonstrating my Japanese speaking abilities but she just stared at me as if I were invisible.

Though I had my fair share of quirky tribulations as a hapa in the workplace, I will admit that my bilingual ability and cross-cultural perspective have often served as an advantage in terms of employment.

Even during dry spells where I couldn’t find an organization that would hire me, I had the ability to create my own source of income. When I was sixteen, I taught a group of white anime nerds Japanese in my backyard to better their Dragon Ball Z viewing experience. Come to think of it, I made $75 each hour from the wages they gave me collectively. If I had the space to conduct these “foe” lessons from my Brooklyn apartment, I probably wouldn’t have bee a month behind on my rent.

In my adult life I have taken on several identities ranging from an assistant to a genius Asian American artist to a window statue at a certain chocolate store on Fifth Avenue, where I was paid to eat fudge and converse in Japanese with a mannequin.

I’ve had a multitude of jobs like these, but the one that baffles me the most is the year I suddenly became a bilingual “Product Specialist” for a certain Japanese car company. The job consisted of traveling to an auto show in a new city once each month with a team of other “Product Specialists” and standing next to various automobiles, while wearing go-go boots and a dress that resembled a Star Trek uniform. Carved onto my silver plated name tag was the word “JAPANESE” in all caps, which meant I got paid a slightly higher starting salary, and I would give a minute long presentation about a featured vehicle with a three sentence Japanese introduction.

In all of the cities I visited, Asians and Americans alike have been remarkably surprised when they found out I was fluent in Japanese. “Sugoi!!!!!!” the Japanese house wives accompanying their Jaguar seeking rich husbands would exclaim, putting their hands over their mouth. The Americans usually just insisted that I “say something in Japanese” or out of curiosity would begin to ask me questions about my upbringing. It was flattering, but I stuck to my own routine of downplaying my circumstance by reminding them that it’s not as if I studied Japanese and learned a language through hard work and discipline. I just happened to be born in Kamakura and grew up admiring Sailor Mars with my Japanese school companions. My kanji is quite juvenile and lately, since most of my New York friends are American, I am starting to hear a hint of a non-Japanese accent when I speak to my mother on the telephone. Sometimes I even catch myself grasping for words in a fifth grader’s vocabulary. I’m just your average car girl from the hills of Kentucky—nothing special here. Nope. Nothing at all.

On many of those trips, my boss, whom I will refer to as John Ron, was one of the personalities who decided that he needed two first names instead of one. An actor turned “Product Specialist,” John Ron had been doing this “gig” basically fulltime for the last nine years. His side-kick, we’ll call her “Shelly”, was a blonde ex-pageant queen from some place in the Midwest. Since she was past her prime, she seemed to take pleasure in caking her face with yellow foundation and tattling on the other women when they didn’t know what horse power a certain car had during one of her impromptu passive aggressive quizzes that weren’t really quizzes.

While working with the two of them in a city in California that had a large Asian population, they started to talk badly about Asians. Let me remind you that we were working for a JAPANESE company, I was wearing a name tag clearly labeled JAPANESE, giving JAPANESE presentations, when John Ron, got frustrated with the auto show patrons who lingered ten-minutes past closing, and who happened to be Asians. At the end of the shift, he exclaimed, “We would have been out of here twenty minutes ago if it weren’t for those Japs touching our cars.”

My eyes widened in disbelief as Shelly coddled John Ron, saying something to the extent of “Oh no you didn’t!” My astonishment that my so called superiors would actually say something so racist to my face and expect me to laugh with them was so overwhelming that I fell into complete shock and couldn’t retort or even grimace. Later in my hotel room, I came to the conclusion that the only reason they revealed their ugly selves to me was because, similar to how my old boss at the restaurant ignored my pleas to speak to me in Japanese, I would never be “Asian” in their eyes despite any labels that the company had put upon me.

Later that year, when I was “let go” from the company, I wondered if the fact that I had told the agency about John Ron’s inappropriate comments had anything to do with it. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that the both he and Shelly remained on the team and to my knowledge no disciplinary action was ever taken. However, it always perplexes me as to why this company was enthralled by my duality, when they found it convenient (hiring me as a token “Japanese” person) but chose to ignore it when my complaining of racism proved to be a nuisance.

I will not deny that I have used my racial status to boost my eligibility for the strange jobs I’ve had. Who doesn’t? And how many white people get hired over minorities simply. because they are white? Countless numbers, I would imagine. Throughout the years, these odd jobs have fulfilled my need to be financially independent and given me enlightenment in terms of finding my identity.

Perhaps the idea of a person speaking a foreign language when they don’t look like they should be speaking a foreign language is strangely exciting—but hearing where we stand on things is too foreign. Or perhaps hapas just give employers the opportunity to “check off” the minority card without the responsibility of hiring someone who might make them uncomfortable due to racial ignorance and stereotypes. Or maybe they just think hapas are cool—which we are—and unaware of our bite.

Regardless, I know that as our community begins to grow and we come out of our shadows, slowly taking over the universe, they will know our boundaries and will be afraid to mess with those who represent the melting pot this country stands for.

© 2010 Leah Nanako Winkler

hapa identity multiracial occupation work