I was at the 50th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival with two of my closest UC Berkeley friends walking past the fresh fish of the always crowded Nijiya Market, the smell of handmade dorayaki somewhere within the food stands and the sound of the taiko drums echoing from the stage to the end of the street. The three of us were taking it all in as slowly as we could — stopping at every block to make sure we didn’t miss a single attraction.
It seemed like the entire city of San Francisco was at this festival, experiencing it from different perspectives and cultural backgrounds. I admit that, being fourth-generation Japanese on my mom’s side, I probably knew less about Japanese culture than some of the non-Japanese people at the festival. In the beginning, I just felt like another visitor.
But there were moments when I felt like I was entitled to a personal connection with this event. The foods were once part of my childhood, this part of town was once home to fellow members of the Japanese American community, and this celebration was once one that my great-grandparents celebrated to welcome the cherry blossom season in Japan.
We stopped by the Japanese American Citizens League building — home of the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization in the United States. There were articles and printed artifacts on the walls documenting the injustices of the Japanese internment during World War II. The beginning of one document read, “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry,” in bold — it’s a document I immediately recognize. It’s the executive order that directly addressed my mom’s parents and their families, sending them to live in the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
I turned my attention to the center of the room, where there were hundreds of origami art pieces on display, some crafted by children and others intricately designed by professional artists. As I browse, I’m reminded of all of the amateur cranes I made out of scrap paper as a kid that were inspired by reading “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” — a novel that takes place in Japan.
As I admired the cranes, I wished that my mom were in the room to see all of this with me. Regardless of the generations that separate her from Japan, the traditions she’s maintained have been direct connections to her family and Japanese American upbringing. Whenever we have the chance, the two of us are always exploring some Japantown, finding a new Japanese restaurant together or spending an afternoon at another Japanese tea garden. It was her influence that always connected me to my Japanese culture in some way and reaffirmed that my Asian identity was more than just my race.
Moments when I feel this close to my Japanese culture are rare these days. Judging by how I had been racially categorized by white Americans for the better part of my life, my Japanese side used to seem like the half that had been amplified in my genetic makeup — so I was under the impression that I didn’t have to make an effort to prove the Asian in me. But that changed when I started college in the Bay Area, where, for the first time, I had more Asian peers than white ones. Suddenly, I felt like I had to prove it.
After four years of friendship, a friend of mine recently told me her parents still don’t refer to me by my name, but as the “white girl” — a name I found kind of funny. Growing up in Wisconsin and attending high school in Minnesota, I was always labeled as “Asian,” so that’s how I self-identified. But here in Berkeley, I don’t always feel qualified to use that identification anymore.
After living within a predominantly Asian community throughout college, I’ve started to feel the way a lot of hapas, “whitewashed” Asians or multigenerational Asians feel — like our Asian heritage is only expressed on the outside. I often have little to contribute in discussions about Asian culture, and I find myself explaining my family’s American traditions more often than its Japanese ones. I rarely crave Asian food, I only watch American TV shows, and I only speak to my parents in English.
But at the same time, I am comforted by Japanese traditions, Japanese culture and my mother’s Japanese New Year meals. I always enjoy that annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I am living the same Asian American experience as many of my UC Berkeley peers. I feel an obligation to engage in Japanese culture, and regardless of how others see me, I tell myself I belong within it.
I’m still constructing my Asian identity while learning to embrace the American parts of me too. I’m still trying to understand my culture and my mom’s side of the family. I’m still learning to stop dodging questions about why I’ve never been to Japan and to start explaining that I am fourth-generation Japanese American, that I never knew the great-grandparents who immigrated to this country, but that I am proud of the uniqueness of the multigenerational Japanese American experience.
Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.