The Journey Towards My Hyphenated Identity by Monet Shinohara '21
Stepping out of my four-door apartment complex, I looked both ways before crossing the street and headed to her house. Every time we decided to hang out, there always was an expectation that we would hang out at her house because where I lived was too small for playdates. Stepping on to her front lawn, I was greeted by the barking of three dogs. I felt my shoulders tense up, as I’ve never been in such close proximity with one. She welcomed me into her home. Following the smell of hamburgers, hot dogs and cigars, she guided me to the backyard where the rest of her family bathed their upper halves in the sun and the lower halves in the pool. After some time, the mixture of the sun tattooing sunburns into my skin and fumes from cigars seeping into my clothes prompted me to head inside for safety. She took me to her room; full of Justin Bieber, Jonas Brother and Camp Rock posters. Her floor was covered with Barbie dolls, art supplies and one overly muscular WWE action figure; one that clearly wandered off away from her brother’s territory and entered into forbidden girl territory. After sometime, I was brought into their seven seated dining room table, and in front of me was Deluxe Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper. The red box with a white glove holding a wooden spoon; a box I was so familiar with, yet only seen on the shelves of supermarkets and never in my mom’s shopping cart. This was my first taste of America. We gradually migrated towards their slightly worn out brown leather sofa, eyes glued to the 75” flat screen in front of them. Once dinner was finished, plates and utensils were thrown into a bin rather than a sink. I thanked them for lunch and dinner, told her I would see her tomorrow at school, and walked back home.
Looking both ways before I crossed the street, I tip-toed onto the shared front porch, trying not to disturb my neighbors. Twelve steps from the front door to the bedroom door. Before entering, I hear my brothers arguing over who gets to use the Nintendo D.S. next, warning me that the privacy and quietness I desired would not be given. After helping them settle on a fifteen-minute rotation schedule, I climbed up the steps of the bunkbed, pulled the sheets over my face and slowly drifted away. I drifted into unconsciousness, wishing to dream of similar memories of earlier that day, experiencing the American lifestyle.
The Japanese Weekend School was a weekend school that took place once a week on Saturday. The student body largely consisted of Japanese natives who were enrolled without negotiation with their parents, in attempts of maintaining their Japanese language proficiency before their return flight back to their home country. In the mix of the student body was a sprinkle of Japanese Americans, whether that’d be culturally or by blood.
The ratio of Japanese natives to Japanese Americans maintained a constant 3:1 throughout the elementary years. The first decade of my life was immersed in the Japanese language, culture and broken English with heavy Asian accents. But as my friend’s anniversary of stepping foot on American soil reached its third or fourth year, they slowly started to retract back to their home country. By middle school, we were all used to having familiar faces be replaced by new faces, only to have those faces disappear as well. Perhaps it was the fear of having to say goodbye to close friends or because of our personalities developing, but the unity of our class, that once wasn’t influenced or defined by facial features, cultural background, or country of origin, slowly divided as we progressed further up the educational ladder. By middle school our class started showing signs of division and the broken English were balanced out with colloquial English.
I entered my classroom 45 minutes before homeroom began. Of course, I was the first one there. My mom was a teacher at the school, so I often accompanied her early in the morning to help her set up her classroom. Assigned seats were a thing of the past and therefore being the first one there meant having first pick in seats. I skated my eyes in and out of the perfectly aligned rows of desks. I ultimately chose a seat right in the center row. No need to move my chair, considering it was one of those tables where the chair and desk were connected. I sat down in the cold blue chair, shimmying around trying to make myself warm and comfortable.
25 minutes passed before the second and third student entered the classroom: Risa and Catherine. Without hesitance, Catherine walked passed me and plopped her Jansport bag on the desk to my left. Risa followed her symmetrically to my right and placed her bag (the same one she used in Japan) on to her chair. Before sitting down, Risa looked towards me and did a come-hither motion with her hand. “I want to go downstairs to buy water so come with me!” she said.
I eagerly nodded and exited the room with her. She raced down the two-story staircase and as she passed me, that’s when I noticed her outfit of the day. I always admired and idolized Risa’s sense in clothing, as it was something I rarely saw during the weekday at my predominantly white regular weekday middle school. Today she was wearing an oversized gray crew neck pullover; a perfect match with the weather today, as it was cloudy with a chance of snow. The pullover was accompanied with short blue jean shorts. Underneath the shorts she wore see-through black stockings. Despite the thinness of the stockings, it still covered her bare legs with fabric, negating the contradiction that came from her top and bottom. As she pranced towards the vending machines, her heeled boots filled the empty halls with clicks and clacks. By the time we came back to our seats, the remaining empty seats were quickly filled up and the school day begun.
10:50: time for a ten-minute break. A third of us stayed in our desks while others rushed to the bathroom. The remaining headed towards the windows where the heating vents acted as a saving grace to those on the verge of hypothermia. The largest hand on the clock struck 54 as I glanced around the room to figure out how to kill six minutes.
In the corner of my eye I caught Catherine looking towards the windows. Based on her concentration, it seemed as if she was seconds away from witnessing the first snow fall of the season. I join her and match her direction of focus when my view was blocked my Risa, sitting on top of the heating vents bathing in the warmth that lacked from her choice of clothing. Suddenly, Catherine’s voice innocently asked, “Why doesn’t she just wear pants? Why does she wear tights under her shorts? I get that it’s cold but it’s so weird… Why not just wear long pants? I never understood why girls wore something under their shorts. Just stick to one. You know what I mean?”. There was no malicious intent within her stream of rhetorical interrogation but I unconsciously replied, “Yeah. She’s obviously cold and it looks kind of weird… The things people do for fashion, huh.” Catherine nodded, stood up, brushed off the erasing shaving off her desk and black leggings, adjusted her Uggs, and quickly rushed off to the bathroom. As I watched her leave, the slight betrayal of Risa and I’s friendship at the expense of the approval of Catherine, left a slight knot in my stomach.
Fast forward a few Saturdays and once again, I had Risa to my right and Catherine to my left. The school day begun and as per usual, the clock struck10:50. I got a sense of dejavu. This time I was on the heating vent, grasping for all the warmth I could get. Under my sweatshirt was an ever so familiar black tights and shorts. Granted, it was heat-tech Uniqlo tights that was meant to contain body heat, but nonetheless it was worn under my blue jean shorts. Despite the cold, I felt cute, comfortable and proud of my outfit of the day. But it wasn’t until I made eye contact with Catherine that the flashbacks of my conversation with her about Risa’s outfit a few weeks prior, flooded my memories. Embarrassed by my hypocrisy, I turned away but continued to sit on the vents. The school bell marked the end of the ten-minute break and once again I returned back to my seat that divided the room in half. Despite the numerous visits to the vent throughout the school day, my seat seemed to be getting colder and colder each time.
Fast forward a Saturday later. I enter the classroom. I was first again, but despite having the freedom of first pick, there was no skating of the eyes this time. As if a seating chart had made its way through the door before me, I sat down against the wall of the right side of the room; away from the window and the heater. It was mid-January, and the cold and frigidness had no mercy on the classroom and metal rods connecting the chairs and desks together. Yet, I found unusual comfort in my chair.
I usually faced the board and the front of the room during class, but that day, I couldn’t help but face my back against the wall and look towards to the other side of the room. I couldn’t help but stare at Catherine conversing and laughing in perfect English grammar with occasional slightly accented Japanese phrases. I continued to sit next to Risa, among the language of perfectly spoken Japanese and slowly came to terms with my position in the unassigned seating chart.
The best time to do it was right after you heard the garage door close. The weight of the slightly rusted and stained white door signaled to me that my father was out of the house. From downstairs you could faintly hear the Japanese television news cast coupled with the clamoring of chopsticks and Tupperware boxes. It was now or never. I gripped the metal doorknob. As I twisted it clockwise, I used both hands to slightly lift up the door in order to prevent the wooden door frame from rustling against the carpet floor. The door was now open, just enough for me to slide my body over to the other side. A calculated sixteen steps from the door to the wooden shelf. A shelf that was over twice my size but at eye level, on the second shelf, was a small wooden three compartment drawer. Despite knowing that my father was out of the house and my mother was downstairs cooking, I still bobbed my head left, right and behind me to make sure there was no siblings that creeped behind me as witnesses. My fingers wrapped around the slightly faded gold handles and pulled it towards myself. There was a slight pull of friction as a result of the weight of items inside the drawer. Among the dozens of business cards, receipts and other miscellaneous items, there laid a long black leather wallet. Another successful hunt.
I slowly picked up the wallet and opened it. The right side was filled with the faces of Fukuzawa Yukichi while the other with Andrew Jacksons and Benjamin Franklins. Not paying much attention to the yen, my two fingers reached for the left sleeve and pulled out a single twenty-dollar bill. It was crisp and without a single crease, almost as if it was counterfeit. I carefully transferred the cash into my other hand and quickly closed the wallet. The thickness unchanged, I carefully placed it back in its home. I slowly closed the drawer and followed my footsteps out of my parents’ room and raced into my own room. Delicately inserting the bill into my wallet, I headed downstairs to greet my mother. Oblivious to what had just occurred four minutes prior in her own bedroom, she smiled, handed me my lunch and told me to hurry or else I would miss the bus.
After I closed the front door behind me, I shoved my lunch bag at the very bottom of my backpack. It was just a 2.5inch by 3.5inch Tupperware box filled with a combination of Japanese ingredients but to me it was like carrying a sign that screamed I was Japanese; a sign I desperately wanted to throw away. After the thirteen min bus ride, I shuffled my way through the school doors and towards my locker. 36-0-24. Clockwise, counter-clockwise then clockwise again, I turned the numbers to open my locker, zipped open my dark blue Jansport bag and dug my hand deep for the lunch bag. Pulling it out swiftly, I threw it to the top shelf of my locker, quickly slammed the door and headed to class.
The digital clock displayed 11:30. Unlike usual, I headed straight to the cafeteria because this time, I had a lunch line to catch. Always eating my lunch from my rectangular box in the hallway, I saw the lines form all the way from front to the back of the cafeteria. So badly did I want to see what was at the front of the line. As I waited in life, eyeballing the trays filled with mac and cheese, boiled green peas, a side of canned peaches and a box of milk, I pulled out of crisp twenty-dollar bill. It was now my turn. Without hesitation, I handed the lunch lady the money. Almost forgetting my fifteen-dollars in change, I walked towards a table inside of the cafeteria.
As the clock struck 2:30, the school bell signaled for us students to go home. On the bus ride home, my bag felt heavier in comparison to when I first arrived at school. Getting off the bus, I rushed in to the kitchen. I placed my backpack on the marble counter top and in my hands was my lunch box, still filled with an entire meal. Although with slight hesitance, I mercilessly emptied the content of the box into the black bag that was already filled with vegetable skins, empty milk cartons, paper towels and egg shells. I zipped up my backpack, scurried upstairs, heading back to my room, and checked the lunch menu for the rest of the week. For the time being, I had four more opportunities.
Ninth grade in some music class. The best singer in the class, Victoria, took to the front of the class and took the lead. We were brainstorming ideas for the final project for our class. Not getting enough sleep the night before, my cheek was parallel to the table. The coolness of the table provided a nice contrast from the humidity in the air. Someone proposed shooting a music video around campus. From that comment, students starting speaking up one by one, suggesting their own ideas. It wasn’t long before the room got rowdy. Somewhere in the midst of it all, someone blurted, “How about a parody of the Jersey Shore?”. My head perked up as I felt comfort in the familiarity of the television show name. Coincidentally, I happened to come across a few episodes of the Jersey Shore on YouTube a few weeks backs, so, I was at the bare minimum familiar with the show. That’s when Victoria asked, “Well does everyone know Jersey Shore? Can people who don’t know it raise their hands?”. Snookie, Pauly D, Sammi the Sweetheart. It was only three names out of the entire cast but I still felt educated enough to keep my hands on my lap. Out of the 22 kids in the room, only a handful raised their hands, and I felt relieved that I wasn’t one of them because Jersey Shore was a well-known show in American culture. I felt like an American. However, my minor accomplished feeling quickly diminished by the question, “Wait Monet, you know Jersey Shore?”. Startled by the question, with 22 pairs of eyes starting right at me, my cheeks flushed with pink. I felt my body tense up and my throat close up. With the remaining diminishing energy left in my body, I managed to nod my head. Without much of a response, eyes quickly turned its focus back to the front of the room. The conversation quickly moved on to planning the specifics of the project but all I could think of was how I wasn’t enough.
Even if I knew American culture, if my appearance and mannerism didn’t reflect the American ideology, then I wasn’t considered to be an American. But I so desperately wanted to be an American. That’s when I realized: I had to be like the white girls in my class. I had to look like them: outfits from PINK, purses instead of backpacks, leggings, Uggs and messy buns. I had to act like them: not doing the reading and homework, talking in class, going off campus for lunch and being late to class while holding Chipotle and a Starbucks drink. It was no longer enough to know American culture. I had to think, dress and behave like one in order to be one of them.
Following a few footsteps behind Issac and Peter, I followed a familiar path towards Issac’s house. Issac was my crush and Peter was his best friend. The two of them bonded over League of Legends, a multiplayer online video game. I had yet to dabble in the world of video games; a world that stemmed from Asian culture but ultimately bridged itself into American culture. But an invitation to try it out from Issac was a token that would allow me to spend more time with him. We reached his house and the three of us headed to Issac’s bedroom. He was an only child with a single working dad, so, he usually had the house all to himself. Excited and intrigued to enter into the world of video games, I glanced over to the desktop monitor that displayed the League of Legends logo. However, my eyes were drawn back down to the floor where my binder was filled with lists of terms for tomorrow’s vocabulary test and stapled readings. As Issac got comfortable in his chair and put on his headset, Peter rested his body on the bed with his hand rustling through his backpack. He was looking for something. “I’m going to finish my homework first but I’ll join you guys later,” I announced. Peter nodded but without a response from Issac, I headed for the beige living room sofa.
Thirty minutes had passed. I was finishing up the last few pages from the assigned readings when a black shadow started to consume my pages. Hovering over me was Peter. What I assumed to be an invitation to come join a game was replaced with, “I’m about to go smoke some weed but wanna join?”. I froze. At that moment I remembered a prominent factor about Peter. With his recent passions in League of Legends, in my head, it completely overshadowed his infamousness for his drug usage. Behind him was Issac’s head, still with his head set on, poked out of his bedroom as if to see my reaction. “Wait, what. Now?”. I was caught off guard. Although, as surprised as I was, it wasn’t completely unexpected. Weeks prior, Peter and I were having conversations about how I was interested in trying weed.
At this time in our lives, we had just entered our first year of high school. None of my close friends were smokers, but I knew a handful of classmates who already dabbled in the world of drugs. I’ve heard stories and I admit, I was intrigued. I want to see what it feels like… But it is a drug after all… What would my Japanese friends think of me? A pothead? Oh gosh, what if my parents found out. Without a doubt they’d ground me and never let me out of the house. I- my internal interrogation was cut short with Issac’s simple question, “Are you gonna do it?”. I was conflicted with the battles of logic and emotion. As a child, my parents always said to me, “You can do whatever you want, but tattoos and drugs are the two things where we draw the line”. Their words spun through my mind, but in front of me was the boy I’ve had a crush on for almost a year now. If I do this, Issac might think I’m chill and cool. All of his other White- American and Korean-American friends are all doing it. Look at Peter. But is this worth it? Is it worth being looked down upon my Japanese friends and parents? I don’t kn-, but once again, my worries were disrupted but settled with Issac’s voice, “If it makes you feel more comfortable, I already took a hit. It’s really not that bad you know”. With that statement, I looked over at Peter. He didn’t need my verbal response to know I was in. The two of us headed outside towards the deck. The sunlight was peeking through the clouds as Peter reached into his pocket. There it was, right in front of me. I felt a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t tell if I was more excited or nervous.
Peter, despite being a frequent smoker, forgot to bring a pipe. He ran back into the kitchen and came back with an apple and a pen. He then started poking holes and dissecting the green apple, and in a matter of minutes, we had a handcrafted pipe.
He opened the bag. A strong indescribable odor latched on to my nostrils. Carefully, he, pinched out an inch of marijuana and stuffed it into the top of the apple. Peter’s eyes were glued to the apple, yet my eyes were everywhere else. Even on my tippy toes, I could barely see over the backyard fence, but I was desperately in search for witnesses. I am not going to get arrested. Especially not during my first-time smoking weed. As paranoia started to creep in and flood my body, it suddenly ceased when Peter grabbed my arm. “Relax Monet, haha. It’s going to be fine,” and passed me the cannabis infused apple.
Never having used a lighter before, I asked Peter to light it for me. Amazed at how the spark and flame didn’t burn his fingers, I watched the apple go from green to brown. “Breathe in and then bring the air all the way into your lungs. Hold it for 4 seconds and then slowly breathe out”. I inhaled. One, two-, but I was immediately greeted with a painful pinch against the lining of my throat and several painful dry coughs that seemed to squeeze my lungs tighter and tighter each time I coughed. Seeing the tears in my eyes, Peter suggested that I’d be not so tense, relax and to keep trying. And I do as he says.
We headed back inside and head towards Issac’s room. Issac was immersed in a game. Peter started setting up his laptop to join him. Feeling slightly dizzy but still remaining conscious, I remembered the homework I had yet to complete. I started to trace back the steps I came when suddenly I hear, “Monet, lets play”. It was Issac. Immediately forgetting the readings and terms that laid across the living room floor, I grabbed a seat next to him and join them. As I sat down, my pocket buzzed. Out from my pocket displayed my phone screen with two missed called from my dad. With some hesitation, I looked over back over towards the computer screen, only to catch Issac smiling at me. I smile back and put the phone back in my pocket. For the first time, my Japanese identity was fully swallowed by another identity. This Korean-American boy was the key and bridge that allowed me to cross over to my American identity.
The heavy rain from the day before left a dewy, damp, coolness in the air. As the streetlights and the headlights of the passing cars dimly light up the sidewalk, I stroll around the streets of Switzerland. The display window welcomed in the streetlights to showcase its merchandise and souvenirs. As it was my last night in Switzerland, I wanted to get lost in the city of Montreux. Walking past construction sites of Christmas markets and holiday decorations, I wandered aimlessly when suddenly I hear, “Excuse me?”.
I turn around and see a large dark-skinned man and what appeared to be his wife and two children behind him. The suitcases in their hands and backpacks on their shoulders signaled to me that they were fellow tourists. “Could you help me, I’m looking for the train station,” he asked, showing me his phone screen that displayed a virtual train ticket for Geneva that was bound to leave in an hour. Reluctantly, I replied, “Uhh, If I’m being honest I’m just a tourist too. So, I don’t know the city that well. But I think I saw the train station a few blocks that way,” and pointed towards the direction I came from. Frankly, I was bad with directions, hence, I was walking aimlessly that night because I didn’t want to bother with looking up directions or looking at a map. The father seemed to sense my hesitancy, but this time I was sure I saw the train station earlier that night. I reassured the family that they could trust me. The father, still slightly reluctant, thanked me for my kindness and lead his family towards the direction I came from, and we parted ways.
A good ten minutes had passed, and by this time, the wind was getting stronger and the chilliness started to creep underneath my clothes. The stores were all closing for the weekend, and so I figured it was time for me to call it a night. As I headed towards my hostel, I opened my google maps on my phone and typed in the name of my hostel. However, as I went to tap the search bar, I noticed a highlighted star on the map; the train station. The day before, I had marked the station on my map so I could easily find it, as I was going to depart from that station tomorrow morning. That’s when I noticed the train station was in the complete opposite direction or where I had directed the family. A heavy weight started to form and fill my stomach as I became numb to the frigidness in the air. Oh no. I think I told them the wrong direction… What if they miss their train because of me… Guilt and paranoia started to engulf my consciousness. I’m sure they’ll find their way. They still have an hour until the train leaves. But even if they miss their train, it’s not my fault. I genuinely thought I was giving them the right direction. And besides, I won’t ever see them again, it’s okay. As I was rationalizing and justifying my decision, a thought popped into my head; But what if I was in their position… I have nothing else planned for tonight. What do I have to lose?
I immediately turned around and traced back the steps I took. I ran as I broke in my newly purchased Doc Martins, creating giant splashes as I dashed through puddles. After running two or three blocks, I start to see four figures clumped together; the family looking for the train station. I started to sprint. In a matter of fifteen seconds I’m in arms distance with the family. Gasping for air, I blurted, “Wait excuse me!”. Startled, the family of four turned around and the father stepped in front of his family. Before they could say anything, I explained, “Sorry, I just talked to you a few minutes ago and gave you directions to the train station. But I looked at my phone and realized I gave you the wrong directions. You actually have to go up those stairs and then make a left. Then, if you keep talking straight for two blocks, you’ll see the station on your right.” The father looked astound and replied with, “Did you run and find us just to tell us that?”. I nodded, “Yeah, I knew your train was leaving soon and I really didn’t want you to miss it”. After a few seconds of silence, he said, “Wow. Thank you so much! This was so extremely kind of you. What’s your name?” Seeing the smile on his face, I happily responded, “Monet”. “Thank you, Monet. Where are you from?” he asked, in which I replied, “I’m studying abroad in France right now but I’m from America, so the United States!” I responded with pride because I felt lucky and privileged to not only be able to study abroad in a foreign country but also have the time and money to travel around to neighboring countries. However, my pride quickly diminished with his next question: “I mean, where are you from?” The same exact words were compromised in same exact question, yet the emphasis on the last word was enough for me to know what he really wanted to know. With a sense of defeat, I muttered, “Oh, I’m Japanese”. His reply: “Oh wow, okay!”. He was satisfied with my answer. He went on to thank me once again, reiterated how thoughtful and kind I was, and him and his family left for the train station.
As they moved further away from me, I was left with the feeling of incompleteness. As I headed back towards my hostel, my initial thought was, I guess I served my ancestors well. In their heads now, they’ll add kindness to their preexisting stereotypes for Japanese people, rather than for Americans. Was it my appearance? Was it because I clearly didn’t fit the white, blonde stereotype of an American girl? Or was I too kind to be an American? Was I too quiet, polite and kind to be an American? Nonetheless, to that father, I wasn’t an American that came from the United States. Perhaps he was simply curious about my ethnicity, but answering his questions twice only gave him answers while leaving me with more questions.
Obviously, my appearance does not resemble one of a White person. It took me twenty years to realize, come to terms with and slowly accept my mixed identity. I was a Japanese-American who had American citizenship but had Japanese blood, physical features and behavioral mannerisms. I was a Japanese-American who dressed and talked like an American native but shared ideologies from both the American and Japanese culture. My experiences in Japan and the United States allowed me to identify as a Japanese-American – a term and identity I didn’t know existed until I was a first year at university. But the three years since my realization, continuous navigation and acceptance of my Japanese-American identity, was all requisitioned with, “Where are you from?”. To others I looked Japanese, and therefore I wasn’t an American. But to the Japanese, I stood out and wasn’t accepted as one of them. I can’t be selfish and choose both. I have to be one or the other in a world that doesn’t accept me as either or.