The Unbearable Non-Whiteness of Being Japanese American at Japanese School


I decided to take my kid to a Japanese class for toddlers.

I’ve always felt weird and mildly ashamed that I don’t have much Japanese culture in my life. Mostly because I’m reminded of it every time I step outside and someone gives me side-eye for not speaking the language.

I don’t belong anywhere.

My great-grandparents immigrated here in the 1800’s. I’m “more American” than lots of white people, yet this face makes it impossible to believe.

In Japan, I tried to blend in, but anytime I opened my mouth to speak, the jig was up. I hoped they assumed I was Chinese.

I wish there were others like me, but I have yet to find them.

In the meantime, I thought the best way to make it more comfortable for my kid was to surround him with kids that look like him and caretakers and parents that look like me.

Of course, I knew this would be an uncomfortable thing, as is anything related to being a parent and having to mingle with other parents in a setting where your children are on display.

My kid, to his credit, is very social, outgoing and open to new situations. To his not credit, he will find someone (usually an adult) to fixate on and proceed to spend the entire time attached to their hip. Usually the adult handles it with grace, but after awhile, it feels awkward. I never know when to interject or just let it go, as it’s innocent and also kind of endearing.

Anyway, upon arrival of this new class, people started to pour in. Japanese people. Japanese moms who all spoke Japanese. I felt the unease creep up my neck and burn in my cheeks.

Was this a mistake?

No. I mean, this is not for me, right? This is for him and I could bear the embarrassment once a week.

The teacher, a super nice woman in her 50’s (?) started to introduce me to other people. Actually, she introduced me to all of the white people in the class and then reassured me that most of the Japanese people spoke English and were Chicago residents, not people in they city temporarily for jobs.

She encouraged me to “make friends.”

I hated how relieved I felt to see white faces. To know that at the very least there was someone else here who may feel outnumbered.

The adult my kid decided to befriend was a white guy with a shaved head and a Cubs baseball jersey. He was friendly and rolled with the punches. He spoke more Japanese than I did and looked genuinely bummed when I told him my kid didn’t speak at all.

The term “fourth generation” or “Yonsei” means nothing to white people. Even in the past when I would sarcastically ask them if they spoke German or Irish or Italian, they still didn’t get the connection. How could someone LIKE ME with this huge Asian face have family that has been here since The Great Depression?

When the class began, the teacher introduced us. Apparently in this large group, we were the newest members. She said I was “yonsei” and I could see the Japanese moms “ooo” in understanding of my inability to say “good morning” in Japanese as everyone else had.

My kid was not one to sit around in a circle and sing songs, so I spent part of the time shooing him away from the toys or making him sit in my lap. I had no idea what the protocol was, and most kids seemed happy to stay on the large mat to participate in whatever activity the teacher lead us in.

He also spent half the time trying to find his new adult friend, calling out his son’s name and running up to him, grabbing his hand to ask that he play with him.

The teacher let me know beforehand to bring a snack for him. It was getting to that point where he needed to eat and I had no idea how much longer he could go, so I handed him his granola bar and applesauce pouch before the official time.

Twenty minutes later, everyone was instructed to eat, and they all sat down at the communal tables with tiny chairs.

And to my horror, all of them had tiny, perfect bento containers filled with homemade food and rice.

This was not “snack time”. This was lunch.

We sat awkwardly, him sipping a cup of juice wondering why we had to hang out doing nothing while everyone ate. He pawed at someone’s meal and I eventually picked him up and got myself some tea from the “adult” table.

When we made our way back, we sat at a different table.

A young, Japanese mother introduced herself. She and her friend were beautiful, with the kind of stereotyped modern look from The Motherland that I do not embody. That effortless look of unmarked skin and flawless eye make-up. Even though both of them were married to white guys, there was still a separation between us. Mostly that they spoke Japanese and had curated bento boxes and I was unshowered, wearing a flannel, a mom who thought “snack” meant Market Pantry chocolate chip granola bars and applesauce pouches from Aldi.

The one who introduced herself was from the East Coast, new to Chicago. She said she found out about the class when she posted on a community board desperate to make a friend. One woman with two much older children responded and mentioned she had taken her kids many years ago.

I lingered over the idea of this mom being “desperate” to make a connection. I felt like I understood.

After working on our craft project, a construction paper creation with pictures of our kids’ favorite foods cut out from grocery store ads, my kid promptly grabbed it and ran on to the mat to tear it up. I still had my shoes on and couldn’t take them off in time to take it from him before he had destroyed most of our work.

It was time to go.

We said our goodbyes, and I made it a point to find my kid’s friend. He asked if we were coming back and I said probably not next week, but maybe another time.

As we walked out, a tall, bearded white guy with glasses was leaving with his son. He asked how I liked it. I don’t remember what I said, only his comment which was to pause and say “…it’s SOMEthing.”

And SOMEthing it certainly was.

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