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Define American

I've been meaning to write something to answer Define American's call for stories. In light of founder Jose Antonio Vargas's arrest yesterday (on July 15, 2414) I thought now would be a good time. Jose was detained by the US government when he tried to board a flight to California at the McAllen-Miller International Airport in Texas, a few miles from the US-Mexico border. Due to its proximity to the border, people flying out of McAllen are screened by Border Patrol agents in addition to the TSA, something which is not mentioned on the airport's website or CBP's website. Jose said he was unaware before he arrived in Texas that he would have to pass a Border Patrol screening in order to get to another part of the US.

Jose has been living in the US for the past 21 years since his grandfather brought him here illegally from the Philippines at the age of 12. The United States is his home. He feels and believes that he is an American, but he has no papers to back that up and he has no reasonable path to citizenship available to him because he's too old (by four months) to qualify for citizenship under the DREAM Act. Jose was only held for a few hours before being released and it's unclear if he'll be deported when he appears in court. The media is speculating that he won't be deported since he's not the sort of person who is a high priority for deportation. (See his first post-arrest interview with ABC.)

If you need a primer on how our legal immigration system works, Reason magazine laid it out in a simple one page chart back in 2008. To learn more about US Border Patrol checkpoints, see the AP's story, Answers About Immigration Checkpoints.

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My mom's side of the family has been here for over 100 years. Her parents emigrated to Hawaii from Okinawa when it was still a territory. My grandfather came over with his dad at age 14 in 1912 and my grandmother followed as a picture bride ten years later at age 16, sailing on the SS Tenyo Maru. Although my grandparents lived and toiled in Hawaii for decades and had 10 children there, they were not eligible for US citizenship until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act) repealed racist laws that had denied citizenship to Asian and other non-white immigrants.

Although I was born in Japan, I have been legally American since birth. How did I manage that? By having the sheer luck to be born to a woman with American citizenship. My mom reported by birth abroad and voilà I was a US citizen. I held dual US-Japanese citizenship until age 20 (the age of majority in Japan). At that point my mom and I struggled our way through the paperwork at the Japanese consulate in New York to renounce my citizenship (my dad wasn’t available to come with us). A college friend with dual US-Australian citizenship told me I was crazy for giving up my citizenship since there were places I would be able to travel more easily under a Japanese passport. This was before 9/11 and I didn’t give it any thought. I had to give up one or the other because Japan doesn't allow dual citizenship* for adults and since I could barely read and write Japanese at that point and had no plans to ever move back it seemed like the only sensible thing to do. So at age 20, I became solely a US citizen. But did that make me more American?

When I was younger, I struggled to fit in everywhere. At American school I was the Asian kid in a predominantly white school who brought weird, funny-smelling lunches (onigiri, spam okazu) in plastic boxes (bento) while my classmates were eating sandwiches out of plastic bags. I eventually convinced my mom to send me to school with Wonder Bread and Oscar Meyer baloney sandwiches so I wouldn't have to endure taunting over my lunches. Since I learned to speak English from a native speaker and came here at a young enough age I never had an accent. At American school I was an excellent student in most subjects. I loved learning even though I didn't love my bullying classmates.

On the other hand, at Japanese school, I may have looked similar to the other kids (though not quite the same since most of them were not half Okinawan like me) but since my parents chose to speak English at home my Japanese comprehension got worse over time and I struggled to understand my classmates and teachers. Six and a half days of the week I was surrounded by English and for a torturous Saturday morning, I was immersed in Japanese and expected to learn. My dad helped me with my homework but towards the end it was always a fight and I cried a lot because I didn’t see why I should have to learn Japanese if we were living here and not planning to go back. I hated learning and hated my bullying classmates. My parents let me drop out after 6th grade.

I spent much of my life believing that because:

  • I’d been raised in the US…
  • spoke unaccented flawless English…
  • had a document that declared me American…
  • and had white American friends...

...that I was American.

However, I always identified somewhat with my Japanese origins. Although I had one parent who was a native English speaker, I had another parent who was not. Every time my dad opened his mouth and spoke heavily accented, grammatically incorrect English or yelled, "Baka!" in Japanese I was reminded that I’m not from here.** When my paternal grandparents were still alive I wrote letters to them in my other native tongue. I loved going to shop at the Sanrio store after Japanese school and picking up treats at the Japanese grocery store. I loved it when I received origami paper from family and family friends and would spend hours making models. I loved it when we went out for Japanese food or when we had my favorite Japanese dishes for dinner. I loved eating onigiri on road trips. I loved the custom of omiyage - what kid wouldn’t like getting presents all year long? Food, arts, and toys were the primary ways through which I connected with being Japanese.

It wasn’t until I finally connected with the Japanese community in Boston a few years ago and started seeing a Japanese therapist that I realized that much of my discomfort in my 20s and some of my difficulties with my white friends and partners had to do with the fact that I am NOT American. Of course, I’m not Japanese either. I’m painfully aware of that every time I struggle to understand when people are speaking to me in Japanese and I have to ask red-faced if they can switch to English instead, when I wonder if I’m using the proper tense or the appropriately polite form of a word, when I think I’m not bowing low enough or slurping my noodles loudly enough, and when I can’t even read my own native tongue.

It’s a rare occurrence, but on occasion when I’ve been cranky or haven’t liked the way I’m being interrogated about my origin by a total stranger, I’ve lied and said I was born in the US, as though somehow by claiming an American birth, it makes me more American. Some Asian Americans don’t like to be called "Asian American" or "[insert ethnicity here] American". Some think we should be called American Japanese because that would emphasize our American-ness instead of the country of our ancestors. Others just want to be called American, just like white European descendants. I always told people I was Japanese-American because that's what my mom said I should tell people, but I've stuck with it, including the hyphen, which gets some Asian Americans upset, because I feel like it’s the most accurate representation of my dual identity as someone who was born in Japan, is ethnically and culturally Japanese, but who holds US citizenship and is also culturally American. I may have lost my other native language skills and my Japanese citizenship but Japan will always be in my blood, my heart, and my taste buds. If that makes me less American, oh well. I can't change who I am and I've finally stopped pretending that I can.

As a legal immigrant I’ve been free to embrace as much or as little of my Japanese identity as I've wanted to because legally I have nothing to prove. When I was younger I bought into the Japanese American belief that we must assimilate because what child doesn't want to fit in with everyone around them? However, now that I'm older I see that's not entirely possible for me, nor is it necessary. I couldn't have written this blog 10 years ago since I was still too busy trying to fit in with my friends and their interests instead of asking myself, "What am I interested in?" I suppose it's lucky for me that Japanese food and pop culture are so trendy now so I'm no longer that kid who eats weird, strange-smelling food. I wasn't comfortable with myself until I accepted that I will never be fully American by some standards nor do I want to be. Without my Japanese parts, I wouldn't be me.

We rarely see images of people like Jose (i.e.: professional, not Latino) being taken away by authorities for immigration violations. When someone says “illegal alien” what comes to mind? Probably something like Mexicans crossing the border at night or perhaps other Latinos from Central and South America - the sorts of folks you see working as custodians and food service workers. While Latinos do make up the majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the US, it's not as though they're alone. Unauthorized Asian immigrants are estimated to be around 11% of the undocumented population. Given the focus on Latinos you might have missed that Asians were the fastest-growing racial group in the US in 2012. Sixty percent of that growth was the result of immigration, some legal, some illegal.

After I wrote about Documented, I heard from some Japanese people that they know undocumented Japanese living in the US. There's this notion that since Japan is a polite society and its' citizens are very law-abiding that all Japanese immigrants must come here legally. It's not true though. It's also not true that we don't have a history of illegal immigration. We do, but it's something most Japanese Americans don't want to admit. A few months ago I heard Dr. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, speak in Newton and was surprised when he mentioned that his dad had come to the US as an undocumented immigrant. Rather than be ashamed of his dad's choice, he sees it as an act of civil disobedience at a time when the US was restricting Asian immigration for racist reasons. I wish more Japanese American families would share these stories.

Last summer the JACL National Council voted 72-0 to pass a resolution calling for Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. It's great to see them involved with immigration reform but I feel like it would have been more compelling if it had been accompanied by personal stories of undocumented Japanese immigrants — current or past. I'm sure that current numbers of undocumented Japanese in the US are probably a very small fraction of the total undocumented population, but their stories matter.

The vast majority of Americans would not be here had our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or other ancestors not come to the US. Without the contribution of immigrants, both legal and illegal, the United States as we know it would not exist. We have to acknowledge that this country is a country built by immigrants and that's probably our greatest strength.


* I’ve since found out that I have a number of friends with dual US-Japanese citizenship who simply didn’t renounce citizenship for one country. The Japanese government doesn't seem to mind or do anything about it if you don't mention to them that you kept your other country's citizenship.

** I felt so ashamed the first time I heard G Yamazawa’s piece about his father in which he says, “thank you for your broken English that reminds me I am Japanese.” [Trigger warning: the piece deals with physical abuse and G's dad having cancer.] It had never occurred to me to see my father’s imperfect English in a positive light. In America we often look down on people with foreign accents, even though being bilingual is an accomplishment. People with heavier accents suffer more prejudice including being perceived as less truthful. However accents don't always relate to level of English fluency and general intelligence and competency.


*This article was originally published on Japanese-American in Boston, on July 16, 2014.


© 2014 Keiko K.

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