When someone asks me about what it was like growing up mixed, I am reminded of a memory from my childhood. My kindergarten class had been let out for the day and I was running over to my mom sobbing and in distress. When she asked me what was the matter, I looked up to her with teary eyes saying “I must look pretty weird!” She stood there confused about what was going on until I followed it up with “Half of my face looks Mexican and half of my face looks Japanese.” Apparently I was the only mixed child in my class and the other kids had made fun of me for it. My little kindergarten mind had been convinced that I was two lumps of play-doh that wasn’t supposed to be mixed. That there was a distinct line in the center of my body that dictated half of my body was Japanese while the other half was Mexican. Of course, this is a silly notion when thinking back to it, but in a weird way that’s how I felt for a majority of my life. A poorly mixed lump of play-doh that just didn’t belong with the rest.
If I really think about it I know there were many people who thought that my mix of backgrounds was cool throughout my childhood; however, I can’t help but focus on those in my life that made me feel like I didn’t belong. Those that told me I wasn’t really Japanese because I couldn’t speak the language, those that told me I don’t understand how it feels to be Japanese because I don’t look Japanese enough, those that told me I wasn’t Asian because I was mixed. With each and every single comment made, it was as though I was taking a sucker punch to my gut. With each punch, I felt more and more pieces of me no longer wanting to tell anybody what my family had brought me up to be. I didn’t think there was anyone like me.
Up until my late teens, I never really knew about the existence of the Japanese American community. To me the only Japanese community that existed was my grandmother’s favorite hair salon where everyone only spoke Japanese and the few Shin-Nikkei* at my high school who didn’t accept me because I wasn’t bilingual. In that sense, I also didn’t understand that there was a difference between the Japanese American community and the Japanese National community. I was floating in limbo with no awareness that there was a community with people that would welcome me with open arms. Then, with one kind gesture, everything changed.
In 2016, a regular walked into my family’s restaurant and gifted me a 442nd Infantry Nisei Soldier GI Joe. As I stood there confused with a plastic soldier in hand, the regular smiled and told me to look up who the Nisei were. After closing up the restaurant that day, I went home and dove into Japanese American history for the first time. It was as if the first domino in a series of events had finally been tipped. I would go on to dedicate all of my free time to learning about the injustices that had occurred during WWII and the valor of our Nisei vets. A few years later, I eventually stumbled onto Kizuna’s Nikkei Community Internship and decided to apply. My life quickly changed after I received an email that notified me that I was selected for the internship.
Throughout the summer of 2019, my identity became centered around a single sentence. That sentence was “I’m Hiro and I didn’t grow up in the Japanese American community.” Early on in the internship I was excited to get involved, but I felt as though I was still only a guest. Everyone around me had been involved in the community since birth and I had only found out that the JA community existed a few months prior. I convinced myself that it was necessary for me to share that I didn’t know anything about the Japanese American community outside of the history I had read about. I had finally entered a space that was ready to take me in and teach me, yet I still struggled internally to allow myself to feel the acceptance that was being offered. That was until I noticed how frequently I was meeting fellow mixed folks in the community. With the friendships and role models I gained throughout that summer, I was coming into terms with my own identity. For years I had been struggling to understand who I was as a mixed person and through NCI I had finally found people that I could truly relate to.
After completing the internship, I gained a newfound confidence in who I was. I found the support that I needed as my new friends and I discussed what it was like to grow up mixed. To this day, I am beyond thankful for their kind words as they reassured me that the community welcomed mixed folks and encouraged everyone to get involved. It was for this reason that I chose to continue working within the community. I made it my goal from then on to ensure that the Japanese American community continues being inclusive while helping other mixed folks understand that this is a space of acceptance and understanding.
However, since my involvement in the community, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t come across some experiences where folks invalidated me and my identity as a mixed Nikkei. Luckily, those moments are minuscule compared to the love, support, and validation I receive from everyone else I’ve met. To some extent, it helps me to know that these negative experiences are rooted in misunderstanding and lack of awareness. That is why it’s important to continue working towards and maintaining a safe space within the Japanese American community. We must not only rejoice that our community is as inclusive as it is today, but we must also make an effort to foster this positive attitude to ensure that no Nikkei is made to feel they don’t belong. After-all, a beautiful flower can quickly wilt when it is not cared for.
As a mixed Nikkei, I love being a part of the Japanese American community and I often thank this community for helping me find footing in my identity. I don’t know where I’d be today without this space. It is because of these experiences that I’ve gone on to working on projects like Mixed Feelings, a Nikkei-led podcast focused on being mixed. Today I am proud of who I have become and I have community to thank for that. I guess when you really do think about it, a mixed lump of play-doh is still play-doh.
*Shin-Nikkei: A member of the Japanese diaspora in America who immigrated to the US after the events of WWII or is the child of said immigrant
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