I grew up white and only became Asian American in my 30s.
Odd statement to make, but an honest one. My mom was from Hiroshima Japan and at the age of 12 had lost her family, home, friends, to the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945. She met my dad, a white, American serving in the US Air Force stationed near Tokyo. They married at US embassy in Tokyo in 1959 and then came to the United States.
My mother faced a lot of prejudice and racial slurs when she arrived. She hadn’t expected that, after all it was 14 years later, and she had lost all that she loved in the war. She decided not to mention Hiroshima and kept a low profile. She worked on her English language skills, and within 5 years became a US Citizen. She “Americanized “(her word) our home. We didn’t have Japanese decorations, and she didn’t own any kimonos. She delighted in sharing her favorite Japanese fairy tales like Urashima Taro, in English.
However, she did have her Papa’s picture in a place of honor in our home and sang Japanese lullabies to me. We’d often receive a package from my grandmother in Tokyo with Osembei (Japanese rice crackers), ramen, green tea, and a few Japanese magazines. I looked forward to the monthly calls my mom had with her friend and my grandmother because I loved hearing the lyrical language that made her smile whenever she spoke it.
My mom focused so much on avoiding discussions about WWII and her family, that until the age of 9, I thought she was from Tokyo. That August when she had horrible nightmares as she did the year before, I pestered her with questions. She finally relented telling me she was born in Hiroshima and lost everything in the atomic bombing. She gave no other details except to say I couldn’t tell anyone.
She did all this so I wouldn’t experience the same prejudice as she had. Unfortunately, being the only Asian American (and I looked more Asian than white) in my elementary school, discrimination and racial slurs still found me. I started school so proud of my beautiful Japanese mother and perplexed when some students (and teachers) would make it sound like I should feel otherwise. Statements like ‘my mom and I should go back to our own country’ really confused me because I was born in the U.S.
Middle and high school were similar, so I focused on trying to fit in, not on my heritage. And when I applied to colleges, my mother insisted that I check off white and not to mention Hiroshima or Japan in my essays. (It was a couple years after the horrific Vincent Chin murder, and she feared that someone would hurt me as well).
Although I didn’t deal with outright prejudice/slurs in college, if I had a quarter for every person that sang “China Girl” or “Turning Japanese” (which at least they got my nationality right), I could have avoided college loans. But I still didn’t fully identify with my Asian side. However, that all changed when I turned 31.
I had been very sick and hospitalized for a month. While helping with my recovery, my mom began talking to me about her childhood and what happened on the day of the atomic bombing, all she went through and what she lost. I had been surprised to learn of the prejudice she faced in her own country as a Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) and especially for marrying an American. I decided it was time I learned and celebrated my Japanese culture for myself and for my 4-year-old daughter.
I didn’t really begin writing The Last Cherry Blossom (TLCB) until 8 years later and when I had, my father advised me against it. He felt that people in the US would be angry. I wasn’t sure how to take that from him.
But the more that I thought about it, why shouldn’t I be the one to tell her story? My intent wasn’t to blame any country. I wanted to tell a story of a 12-year-old girl and her family. I wanted to show that the Japanese children had the same love and concern for their families and friends, while wishing for peace. Just as the Allied children had. That, the ones we may think of as our ‘enemy’ are not always so different from ourselves.
I think that being half Japanese and white American enriched my research, and I purposely wrote about the culture and mindset of Japan at that time without putting a white lens on it. I hoped that even though my book took place over 70 years ago, a reader could still relate to or find themselves represented in my main character Yuriko.
Once I came to that realization, nothing could stop me from moving forward with writing TLCB. As a result, I continued to learn more about my Japanese culture, I’ve shared it with my daughter, who recently graduated with a minor in Japanese, and even studied a semester in Tokyo. I’m so happy she can identify with her Japanese heritage in ways I never could at her age.
Even once my book published, I referred to it as my mother’s family, my mother’s story. My husband constantly reminded me that it was MY family too. MY losses as well. I think, subconsciously, I was still that little kid feeling that I shouldn’t acknowledge who I was out of fear of a hateful response.
But over the past couple years, I discovered thoughtful blogs like this, and Asian American podcasts where I’ve learned about other Asian ethnicities as well as had opportunities to discuss my own. I’ve realized that perhaps my writing can play a small part in breaking through stereotypes. It took several decades for my mom to feel her voice mattered. I’m so glad that I helped her realize that before she passed away. And that I can now say with confidence, that it is MY story, MY voice matters. And YOUR voice matters.
Augvocate for the Day
Kathleen is a Japanese American author and daughter of a Hiroshima survivor. She’s a wife, mom, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja. Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. When she’s not writing, she can be found binge watching Aggretsuko episodes with her daughter. The Last Cherry Blossom (Distributed by Simon & Schuster, Scholastic), is now a United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Resource for Teachers and Students.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August
until the 28th.* Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
* Note: Due to unforeseen delays on my part, the posts for Augvocacy 2019 will keep coming until the 23rd of September! Hence, the new title: #Augvocacy2019 (Extended).
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🌻 What are your thoughts on Kathleen’s story? Have you ever struggled with learning about your culture?
🌻 Have you checked out her book? Add The Last Cherry Blossom on Goodreads!
🌻 Have you ever picked up a novel that’s based on historic events?