About Me · Community

Exposing Myself

I belong to a Japanese playgroup–primarily for Leo so that he can learn Japanese in a natural social environment. Surprisingly, I have made good friends through that. Misha points out that this is my first time relating to the ex-pat Japanese community in the US.

 

I just offered on their website to talk about my experiences growing up bilingual (Japanese and English) and bicultural (Japanese and American, although I actually think that I grew up more Japanese and Jewish-American, which makes me wonder if that actually makes it tricultural? Or bi-point-five cultural??).

 

This is a very scary thing. People constantly want to ask me about this and I offer my perspective, which I don’t particularly like doing in a way because without an established friendship, this person is only intruding on my privacy and using me to satisfy their base curiosity. Once I have satisfied their curiosity, I am discarded like a cheap gossip magazine. It feels horrible. So for me to come and say that I am going to talk about myself like this in the open, to offer it voluntarily, is a HUGE deal. I also know how hard it is for a lot of these parents to hear the implications and difficulties of growing up this way and their desires to dismiss them in favor of thinking “it would be different in America,” or “it would be different for my children,” or simply treating it as a part of teenage angst that they think they will “eventually grow out of.”

 

I have had a blog in Japanese where I dedicated to talking about stuff like this and I had a few dedicated ex-pat Japanese moms with (usually) bi-racial kids (not as old as me) reading it. When I expressed anxiety over the social issues that surround mixed-race people, they assured me that I would grow out of it when I got “older,” when I got married, when I had my own child(ren)…. This was clearly coming from people who did not grow up as minorities and had no idea what it meant to be a true minority, not by choice.

 

The nature of racism is that it doesn’t go away just because you decide “to be stronger” or something “more important in life” pops up for you. The reality does not change unless you confront it. Thus, the life of a minority can be really challenging throughout life. One of the reasons I put myself out there like this (albeit anonymously)? Because I don’t want to see any more children with profiles similar to me suffering from needlessly ignorant and thoughtless comments and deeds by others. So, it’s scary putting out my thoughts and experiences there and each time risking the comments and looks, “that’s YOUR personal experience. How do you know that’s true for anyone whose mixed?” “That sounds whiny. I think that if you had better things to care about in life…” “I think you are just oversensitive.” etc. But, I do it. I do it for the young me, for the other children past, present, and future, like me.

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5 thoughts on “Exposing Myself

  1. I was recently reading some of the psychology literature on biracial identity. A common theme is that biracial people do often develop stronger identities. Getting there, however, isn’t always easy. It’s particularly tough for people without positive connections to their roots, so I think it’s wonderful you’re doing this for Leo.

    My son (5 months old) is Jewish/Korean. I’m really grateful that we have a wonderful Korean, Buddhist temple nearby, and my wife and I have many Korean friends. But sometimes I have the same problem — she doesn’t understand what it’s like to grow up as a minority.

  2. Matt>

    Yeah, it’s often very difficult for people who grow up as a part of the majority population to understand what being a minority (particularly within a minority population) is all about. I think that is where many bi-racial (and specifically “bi”racial/ethnic/cultural) people have it hardest.

    Many parents that I have seen expect their children to be just as [blank] as they are. I personally saw this a lot with white Jewish parents who expect and demand their biracial or non-white children accepted as Jews. These parents often have very weak or understated Jewish identities themselves, but are unmistakably Jewish because of their ethnic appearance. They demand that the rest of the Jewish community accept their child who has a just as weak Jewish identity as them, but do not look ethnically Jewish, be thrown into the mix and accepted as such. In my opinion, this is a very sticky, complicated, and really just setting up the child for a difficult lifetime (in the context of America). If it’s that important for you, the parent needs to help the child ground their identity in something concrete. That is, something other than social or communal (=human) approval. Perhaps the unconscious recognition of this is why some biracials have a stronger sense of identity. You could also just broaden the statement and point out that minorities tend to have a stronger identity because their differences are constantly being pointed out by those around them.

    Part of my struggle is that, at least in appearance, I am the sole minority in the family. Leo looks unquestionably white and he’s growing up in America where being white is still (barely) a part of the majority population. This is difficult for me because I grew up a minority and am in the minority in Japan, the US, and in the American Jewish community. With Leo, no one would suspect that he has any ties to Japan and he will (at least visually) totally blend in with both the general populace in America and in the American Jewish community. Very strange for me and difficult to accept although I imagine I will get used to it over time.

  3. That’s interesting. Certainly, I feel Solly should be accepted as Jewish (at least by those who would otherwise accept patrilineal descent), but I know it will be challenged. I’m lucky to be in New York, where there are more biracial Jews and generally more diversity, but still I know there are going to be difficulties that neither I, nor my wife, will have faced.

    At the same time, I wonder what guides those parents you describe. What little literature there is on Jewish identity does suggest that Jewish identification often remains in the absence of religion or social connection to the community. Perhaps they are projecting their own feelings of marginalization onto their children? They want their children to have strong Jewish identities but lack the understanding of Jewishness needed for socialization? If so, I may have to watch for this in myself. I eventually developed a strong Jewish identity, but was raised deeply assimilated. Again, I’m lucky to be in New York, where there are many Jews and Jewish institutions to help develop a more solid (Jewish and Korean) identity based on an understanding of what it means to be Jewish (and Korean). Or perhaps those parents are narcissistic and simply unable to accept that their children will not be like them in every way? If so, I think I would be hurt if Solly chose a Korean identity that completely eclipsed any Jewish identity, but I think I would be able to accept it.

  4. This is an interesting conversation for me. I never really considered the parents’ perspective because I usually just got really frustrated with the demands of “you must accept my child(ren)!!” without any substantiation. I understood their desires because I felt similarly (that I should be accepted as a Jew), but at the same time, felt like their expectations were just unrealistic and turning us (biracial Jews) into guinea pigs instead of helping us. I know they don’t mean to do that, but they are also not the ones that always get mistaken for being a covert (it’s just not my experience with Judaism so I can’t relate), or a “friendly outsider” who needs a lot of guidance, or “the weird” person–you know what I mean? Like you say, in New York, particularly in the Reform community, I think you are less likely to encounter some of these problems. I think though that the west coast (like LA or SF-East Bay area) is better about acceptance of particularly part-Asian part-Ashkenazi kids. (I’m sure the experience is different for different racial mixes, but I am not sure how exactly.)

    In telling my story though what I tell a lot of parents is that you can listen to my experience, but you should also bear in mind not only are the personality difference, but also generational and regional differences (which I think accounts for more of the variation). You have to remember that I grew up in Japan, not in Tokyo nor any kind of “international” community, but in a place where we were the only Jewish presence within easy driving distance. My sister and I both have very strong Jewish identities despite our stark difference in practice because no one ever challenged our Jewishness. Our Japaneseness, on the other hand, was challenged on a daily and perhaps even hourly basis. That’s why, I think, even though we know Japanese better and Japanese culture better, our Japanese identities feel more tenuous to us. By contrast, our Jewish identities feel stronger and more rooted despite our lack of knowledge. Ironic, isn’t it? This is also to say that I think the more problems and sadness one encounters in youth with a certain affiliation, the more likely they are going to turn away from it in adulthood. But our identities keep shifting as we go on with life anyway and someone with a mixed heritage just has more range of cultural variance that they can identify with. It’s not a tragedy… Just really tough at times and often for an extended period.

  5. From what I understand, it’s tough at times for most biracial children. Sometimes they’re more accepted by one group, but often they’re dismissed by both. Some biracial children often develop biracial identities, seeing themselves as part of a group of all biracial people, that are stronger then either of their racial/ethnic identities. But from what I understand, the best way to prepare them is to instill a strong sense of who they are and where they come from and the tools to deal with the complications as best as possible. Often (even with children who aren’t bicultural) that means socialization experiences that the children don’t understand yet (and which they may find annoying) — identity doesn’t usually crystalize until adolescence, perhaps early adulthood — but which prepare them. White/Asian biracial children in America do notably better (on a variety of psychosocial outcome measures) if they have experience with Asian religion.

    From my perspective, as I said I grew up assimilated. As I began exploring my Jewish identity, I had a lot of conversations with my mother. I found out she’d been ashamed of being Jewish. Both her marriages and all of her major relationships were with Catholic men. Every time one ended, she wondered if it was because she was Jewish. So she mostly didn’t talk about Jewishness. I knew I was Jewish growing up, but it wasn’t a meaningful (positive or negative) part of my identity. Eventually, though, I was forced to explore my Jewishness. It just wasn’t tenable to leave it at that.

    I wish I’d had more conversations about identity with my mother earlier. Not that I wish I was told what it meant to be Jewish and who I should be and how I should be, but I wish we’d discussed what it meant so that I knew more than Hannukah and bagels. (I didn’t even really know a lot about Hannukah.) It wasn’t like being a generic American (if such a thing exists); there was just a big void there. Maybe a lot of that is my issue, but I don’t want Solly to feel that way about either side of his heritage, that there’s an emptiness there. And from what I’ve learned about ethnic identity in general, I think I’ve got at least the right direction.

    I think I can understand your frustration with parents who just insist that their children be accepted. It’s not necessarily productive to do that, and the children may feel like a round peg being forced into a square hole. I’m really grateful to hear your perspective there. But I think there must be better ways to do it that are more responsive to the child’s needs.

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