In September of 2022 I returned home after participating in the Japanese English Teaching (JET) Program, serving as an Assistant English Teacher in Miyazaki City. It was a truly transformative experience I wouldn’t take back for anything; I had the opportunity to teach at 8 different schools totaling over 500 students and design my own curriculum as I pleased, freely incorporating American popular culture, history, and politics into my activities. I had the privilege of living in a tropical climate near the beach in a two bedroom apartment I paid less than $100 a month for. I was the least stressed and anxious I’ve been in my entire life, at the same time, the most financially stable. Nevertheless, after one year, I chose to leave. Let me explain.
My experience on the JET program was defined by an introspective journey towards a deeper, more clarified sense of self relating to my Japanese American identity. As I read over testimonials from fellow American JET alumni, there is a common theme of transformation and unity overcoming the challenges of learning Japanese, establishing identity in a foreign country, and working in multiple different schools and communities. I, too, had to overcome these challenges, just not in the same ways.
Initially, I saw my effort to live in and work in Japan as an act of redemption– a way to honor my great-grandparents and the cultural heritage they held dear to their hearts. Japanese culture was something I’ve always felt I should have had a close affinity with, and because I only grew up with certain remnants of it, living in Japan became more a game of “catch up” with my identity, rather than a journey towards better defining it. This is where I went wrong.
...living in Japan became more a game of “catchup” with my identity, rather than a journey towards better defining it. This is where I went wrong.
I took every opportunity to study Japanese over the first 6 months, and I did it successfully to the point where I could blend into society doing everyday things like small talk, grocery shopping, ordering at restaurants, etc. It was only when I began to have deeper, extensive conversations with people did my cover get blown, and my insecurities arose. At work, this was especially difficult: I was treated as an anomaly after the community heard an “American” was coming, saw my last name in Kanji, but realized I did not speak Japanese. From assuming I was half-white to even questioning if I was adopted, the confusion I created on people’s faces coupled with my inability to explain, and in some cases defend myself, hurt. I realized no matter what I did to conform in Japan, my acceptance, socially, was largely conditional, as I teleported constantly between blending in and sticking out, being stared at and being smiled at, being talked to and being ignored. Sometimes it was when I opened my mouth, other times it was the way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I ate.
I know I’m not alone in the habit of defining myself based on someone else’s understanding and validation. This is something I realized I’ve been struggling with my whole life, but did not become apparent until I left America.
The reason why I stressed on becoming someone I’m not was due to the fact that I hadn’t come to terms with the person I am.
The reason why I stressed on becoming someone I’m not was due to the fact that I hadn’t come to terms with the person I am. It’s the reason why I still have much to learn about my own family history- the implications WW2 and incarceration had on them, and how trauma and racism impacted the way they rebuilt their lives, defined themselves, and raised their children. It's the reason why I ultimately returned to America to work in policy and advocacy representing the JA and unified AANHPI community.
I believe true solidarity stands in the collective journey towards understanding the intergenerational effects of our family histories, breaking down lenses of shame that we are socialized to view our “Americanness”, and building a perspective that takes pride in who we are, individually, and as a collective. It's through our own self determination and willingness to find and speak our truth that our identity must develop without limitation, restriction, or a need to be explained. Speaking for myself, although there is still a lot of work to be done, I know I am exactly where I need to be.
Okaeri 2023: A Beautiful and Transformative Conference
I was honored to be part of such a large gathering of queer and trans Nikkei. My feelings of shame were replaced with pride, as I heard Japanese Americans of different sexualities, genders, and generations share their stories.Read More >>