Coming to terms with knowing Spanish better than Japanese was embarrassing yet indicative of the uniqueness of Japanese American culture.

Spanish is deeply embedded in SoCal culture, which greatly aided me during my recent trip to Spain. Despite studying Spanish over a decade ago, I was pleased to still be able to get around the city, order food, and even joke around with the residents a bit. However, this accomplishment was bittersweet as it also made me reflect upon my relationship with the Japanese language. 

As I continued to speak more Spanish during my travels, it dawned on me that I lack the same comfort and ease of communicating in Japan as I do in a Spanish-speaking country. Even though growing up not speaking it was not my choice, as a Japanese American, I am embarrassed of not knowing Japanese. I feel a twinge of guilt when someone asks how to say something or what something means in Japanese and I have no clue. Translating everything to English and conjuring how to say Japanese words from the void is difficult and I find myself reflexively mixing words up with Spanish vocabulary when put on the spot. I see friends speak their mother tongue with relative ease and can’t help but feel jealous of them and their connection to their heritage.

Yet, I've learned that cultural connection isn't solely through language; it's just one pathway. As a fourth-generation Japanese American, I take pride in my cultural identity, formed despite limited Japanese language skills. Instead, I found connection through community involvement. While I wish I could magically become fluent in Japanese, that’s also true of many other languages and skills and does not mean I wish I had a different cultural experience than that of my current. 

Despite my embarrassment about my limited Japanese proficiency, I've come to accept my identity as a Japanese American. It's evident that being Japanese American isn't a perfect balance between Japanese and American cultures. As a fourth-generation Japanese American, several Japanese cultural aspects have faded over time. However, embracing American culture, and more specifically Japanese American culture, has sculpted a unique identity, one that may include spam musubi, basketball, summer camps, or even growing up learning Spanish instead of Japanese.

Japanese Nonfluency

Coming to terms with knowing Spanish better than Japanese was embarrassing yet indicative of the uniqueness of Japanese American culture.

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