The conflict inherent in being Japanese, Japanese American or “just” American is a complex issue that leads me back to Capt. Gaijin and why I DO disagree with him. He told me that his significant other–who is JA–was very upset by this post, and he asked if I was offended, as well. I told him no. But what was interesting was her response to him. She apparently said something like:
Everyone always says I’m not really American because of the way I look, and now you’re saying I’m not Japanese.
Now this is something that I can relate to, and really cuts to the core of the matter: How we are viewed within mainstream society. I should mention first that it seems me that many non-Asian young(er) people–at least the college students I meet–harbor fewer preconceptions as to what an American looks like, like Capt. Gaijin. They seem less concerned with background than with current interests and lifestyle. And I find this refreshing.
However, while it may be ideal for all of us to be equal and Americans–and I admit that I try my best to make non-Asians feel that I am as equal as any of them–there is no denying that JAs/Asians are made to feel like we are different. Certainly, the statement by Capt. G’s significant other suggests that there are still those who view Asians as being less than “authentic” Americans–and she’s from an area populated heavily by Asians.
One important way that makes us feel different is mass media. Okay, there are many Asian newscasters and reporters now. But that is fairly recent, and mostly in urban areas heavily populated by Asians. How about “real” mass media? In the movie, “Karate Kid”, Mr. Miyagi seems to have this “Oriental” mystique about him, separating him from the rest, He is also short, looks like a gardener, and bows all the time. Definitely different from others. What other images of JAs or Asians are there in movies? Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, all matial arts related. And the Japanese? “Rising Sun” portrays Japan as mystical–did you like Sean Connery’s attempts to exude Zen qualities? Or as business/working automatons, a la “Gung Ho” with Michael Keaton. More telling might be the complete absence of JAs/Asians on TV. Besides Arnold–the goofy restaurant owner–of “Happy Days” and the incredibly forgettable “Mr. T and Tina” (both by Pat Morita), has there ever been a film or TV show–non-historical–in which a JA or any Asian starred as an average American? (There is, of course, “Better Luck Tomorrow” which portrays Asian youths as… wow, American youths with a foreign–Asian–cultural background. But I haven’t seen it yet.)
These portrayals may not necessarily represent malicious discrimination; but they do spawn the view that Asians are different–in many cases, vastly different–from the mainstream. This view might evoke curiosity in an American–how many have been told they seem exotic or asked if they knew a martial art? Those who have asked me “What are you?” (re: previous entry) perhaps felt an obligation to “recognize” and “tolerate” the diversity that enter their life. The view that JAs are different was once applied as a tool to make a social point. Does anyone remember the term “Model Minorty” from the 70s? (Okay, everyone’s too young!) It suggested that JAs did not not complain, did not riot, did not try to overturn society. Some may argue that this was a way to demonstrate that JAs improved their lot in life by working within the system, but there is a hidden subtext. Never mind the implicit comparison between races–JAs are models, why can’t you be like them–which more radical elements identify as a divide-and-conquer strategy practiced by the mainstream. On a more basic level, the term itself suggested to me that I was simply different from the mainstream. I always wondered, “Why don’t they just call us model Americans?” The obvious answer was that I am different from the rest of America, and hence a minority. Was I/were we set apart because we were “studious” or “good in math” or “respectful”? Are members of other groups less studious or less respectful? Do we have a monopoly on these characteristics? Of course not.
The point is I was, and often still am, made to feel as though I’m different. So when Capt. Gaijin–truly well meaning, of course–says that we are all Americans, he doesn’t recognize that I, and maybe some others–“feel” different, that his comment strips away the one thing that American society has allowed me to revel in–my ethnicity–and as a result, his comment can be construed as insensitive. While he has suffered discrimination in Japan as Mr. Gaijin, he was subjected to it as an adult, not as a child of 4, 7, 10 or 15 who may not yet have all the tools to objectively analyze a potentially emotionally affecting situation.
So in short…I mean long, I disagree with Capt. Gaijin, as well. While it may be ideal to think of myself as an American, it is difficult when I have been subjected by Americans to a large dose of “you are not really an American” most of my life.
I think I should stick to Hay Fever.