The thought struck me while I was watching an old ’90s movie called Rising Sun, based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name. Sean Connery’s character is supposed to be well-versed in the Japanese language and customs, and helps Wesley Snipes solve a murder investigation that happened on US soil with Japanese suspects. The audience is obviously supposed to align with Snipes’ character, who is clueless and used to “the American way” of pursuing investigations (much like my husband, who watched a few minutes before saying, “What is going on and why is Connery doing that?”); but while I was watching, I understood what Connery’s character was doing before he had to explain it to Snipes.
It’s because I’m a part of two worlds, I thought. I know this about myself but I catch myself re-remembering and re-realizing it all of the time. The reason why I am the way I am. American father, Japanese mother, raised in America, studied summers in Japan. While my mother was not a typical “Tiger Mom,” she was very strict when it came to learning, reading, and studying the Japanese language. On Saturdays I attended a supplementary school for kids whose parents had moved to America for their jobs — these families usually stayed in America only a few years, so they had to keep up with their Japanese studies in order to pick up seamlessly when they moved back. The courses required all of the books and agendas that the Japanese school system followed, and homework was assigned over the week, the holidays, and even between grades. My childhood was stuffed to the brim with studies: school of some sort Monday through Saturday, and homework every day of the week. When American school let out for the summer, my mother and sister and I went to Japan for two months, where their school year was still ongoing, and we’d enroll with my cousins for school days that lasted Monday through Saturday. When we’d come back to America, my sister and I would go through a two-week period of readjusting from jet-lag before the next school year started up again in the fall. It was tiring, it was relentless, but by the time I finally claimed I could not do double duty anymore, citing exhaustion and obligation to work on my American school studies, I could speak and write and read as well as any other Japanese middle-schooler. More importantly, I could converse with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — which was my mother’s purpose in making us learn Japanese in the first place.
My dad (who reads this blog) has told me several times that he and Mom chose to settle in Houston, Texas because he knew that it was a diverse community and my sister and I would not be ostracized. (This was back in the ’80s, of course.) And this is true: my schools were always populated with folks of different cultural backgrounds and colors, and there is a large Asian community as well, so my sister and I fit in just fine. It was Japan that was different. We were regarded as rockstars… the strange American children with whiter skin, double-lidded eyes, alien language, and a six-foot tall man with an enormous beard as a father.
Being a part of two cultures, and growing up predominantly American but with Japanese streaks, has been interesting, to say the least. For instance: both versions of The Ring scared the crap out of me. My Japanese cousins told me, “The American version was so lame, but I couldn’t sleep after seeing the Japanese one!” My American friends told me, “The Japanese version was so slowly paced, it put me to sleep. But the American Ring almost made me pee myself!” Me, I stupidly watched both back-to-back one Halloween with a bunch of friends, and I almost peed myself twice. I had nightmares for weeks.
The last time I went back to Japan, I was 22. One of my cousins was learning English and asked me for help understanding a short story for an English assignment. I translated it literally and looked at her, smiling, convinced that that was good enough. She looked back at me, confused. “Elissa,” my uncle — her father — told me, “I’m sure that made absolute sense to you, but to us… it didn’t.” My mother, a Japanese woman who is now proficient in English, explained the short story to my cousin as I listened. I insisted, “That’s what I said!”
“No, you said something totally different.”
My brain can flip a switch and understand a story in Japanese. It can flip back and understand a story in English. Flip-flip, flip-flip. But somewhere in the middle, the two don’t recognize each other. My mixed-culture background shows up in the way I say “mayonnaise” (mah-yo-naze, instead of may-o-naze); the way I draw boxes on pieces of paper is the same way I draw the character for “mouth;” it makes me insist on chopsticks at Asian-food restaurants when the staff wants to give me a fork; it makes me take off my shoes when I enter my house (and it drives me crazy that Walter traipses about the apartment in his sneakers). If I’m watching the Olympics, I root for the USA team; if I’m keeping up with sports, I root for Japan. It’s just the way things are.
I am who I am.