Photo credit: KiKi
Growing up, did you ever feel you were hiding your real self from the world?
True, the "growing up process" means you have no idea who you really are, but even back then, I had an inkling I was leading a double life.
As a thirteen-year-old growing up in Los Angeles, I led a hush-hush life my friends didn't know very much about.
At the 3 PM school bell, while the kids at my Southern California junior high school lounged around lockers willing their latest crush to walk by, or dragged themselves to basketball practice (hoping to see their crush on the way), I vanished into my mother's red Ford Taurus station wagon and transform into my "other self". As the Ford headed to its secret destination, I washed down my ham sandwich with a cup of cold mugicha (barley tea—imagine having to explain that to your peers), and put on my "Japanese" face, which I only wore after school and on weekends.
In the car, my tongue switched languages, my gestures toned down a bit, my mind began interpreting in Japanese, and most importantly, I made the switch over to my other set of boy crushes to gush about with my Japanese girlfriends (you sense a theme, don't you? Basically boy-crazy).
I always had another culture behind the door, and with my spare key, walked in and out several times a day. There was nothing extraordinary about this. It was the only life I knew.
Growing up deeply immersed in two cultures was a natural circumstance of my father's business move to the US from Japan when I was four, yet I made it as unnatural (and difficult) as possible.
From 8 AM to 3 PM on weekdays, I was a "normal American girl" in my mind, who wished people would call her Michelle instead of Yuki—my given name. I read Teen and Seventeen, hated math class (this was not an act as not all Asians can do math), and gossiped with friends at the mall over chili cheese fries until our parents picked us up. Once, we tried to explain to my mother how American girls just get bras much, much earlier than in Japan.
After school, I would do all the same things, but in Japanese. When I stepped into my Japanese school, my teachers and the other students lived and breathed a separate culture. The math was much more advanced (a plot to confuse me more, surely), the magazines had Japanese faces on the pages but we didn't see them as being "ethnic", rather, perfectly mainstream. And yes, the girls and I gossiped, but there was no talk of bras (Our moms would take care of that).
Even if we could speak English to each other, we didn't. In this setting, America was the foreign place.
I wasn't evolved enough to appreciate the enthusiasm with which my parents threw my brothers and I into that afterschool wonderland of pseudo-Japan. We fought for years over my fate. Dramatic American girl demanded reasons why she was not born in America like all her friends (I was born in Tokyo). Anguished Japanese girl wished her parents had just stayed in Japan so she wouldn't be so confused all the time.
Exclamation points were fast and furious, and anger gradually translated to shame, which translated to my never letting my American friends know I was so Japanese. They knew my ethnicity of course, but not that I spoke the language fluently, or where I went day after day ("Uh, tennis practice.", "Uh, my parents are making me go to this thing").
So went my double life, all through my childhood and teenage years. At J-School (which is a much cooler way of saying nihongo gakko or "Japanese school"), squealing over Japanese pop stars and television shows, talking about our grandparents and our last trip to Japan, was the norm. My girlfriends and I shared books by Haruki Murakami, love story comic books, the latest J-pop, and studied kanji together.
My family never moved back to Japan (thus far), so I watched the revolving door of Japanese friends come and go, as they fathers were transferred back to Japan. Some of my most tearful goodbyes have been with my Japanese best friends.
But I couldn't (didn't) share my sadness with my American friends, because they didn't know I had these friends, or these emotions.
As an adult, I've been researching and analyzing what caused my embarrassment, my shame, and double personality. It can be said that I just wanted to fit in. Not much research needed there.
But I also see how my double life might have trained my ability to "perform" to my friends' and teachers' expectations. Playing the perfect American girl in one scenario, and the perfect Japanese girl in the other, but never allowing the two to blend.
Who was I afraid of hurting? Besides myself, that is.
In my adult life, as I became slightly less closeted about my blend of cultures, I found myself in a public teaching role with, again, a very private life. The two personalities boxed again, one shining loud and bright, the other carrying darkness like light never existed. As my Japanese voice became central to my identity during my ten years in Japan, I became increasingly detached from my American side, losing touch with my best American friends, until I noticed it was becoming difficult to breathe.
I needed both. One was not better or bigger than the other. And denying either one would make me un-real.
The double personality, the need to please, my susceptibility to losing my identity and taking on someone else's vision, and now, back in America and accepting I've made some grand mistakes, climbing the steep hill back to normal. What's my normal?
I hope to explore that in this column. And I thank you for joining me, for sharing your normal with me.
Hi, I'm Kiki, and it's so nice to meet you.
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