Arts  •  December 12, 2017   

Immigrant vs. Second-generation: Difference in Asian-American Experience

I’ve always been fascinated by the difference between immigrant and second-generation Asian-Americans in how they experience life. I’m an immigrant (moved here when I was sixteen) and I have a daughter who is half Asian who will experience her life as a second-generation Asian-American, at least to some degree. So, I watched a semi-autobiographical film called “Good Luck Soup” by Matthew Hashiguchi with keen interest as it is about a half-Japanese person growing up in America. Several years ago, the director had emailed me about promoting his Kickstarter campaign on one of my sites, AllLookSame.com. I agreed to post a blurb about it on my site, and I also contributed some money because I liked the premise of the film. It is primarily about his own grappling with identity but he traces some of the influence back to his grandmother who was incarcerated in the Japanese internment camp during World War II.

In general, I think immigrant experience is much more straightforward because it was our choice to move. We weren’t dealt a card; we picked a card from the deck. We made our decisions with the expectations of the challenges and uncertainties we might face. We also look the part. I look Japanese because I am Japanese. Being seen as a foreigner does not bother me because I am a foreigner. There is no discrepancy between how I appear to the public and who I am. However, all these aspects of our identity flip for second-generation Asian Americans.

In one scene in the film, an old lady asked the filmmaker’s grandmother a question about Japan and she answered that she doesn’t know because she is not from there. I’ve always figured questions like this must be annoying for second-generation Asian-Americans. When I meet people for the first time, and when we seem to have nothing in common, the conversation always defaults to something about Japan because that is the most obvious topic they can initiate, like “What’s the weather like in Japan?” I have no problem answering these questions because I know the answers. But second-generation Japanese Americans must feel like saying, “Why am I expected to know this? I’m an American!” Sadly, another part of them might also feel they should know because Japan is indeed part of their heritage. They would feel guilty and annoyed at the same time.

I’m married to a white American just like the director’s father, so my daughter is half white and half Asian. Since I have seen many Asian Americans go through painful identity crises in their youth, I often think about how to prevent it for my daughter. For instance, I insisted that she has my wife’s last name because “Suematsu” would trigger people to form preconceptions about who she is. I never taught her Japanese and never sent her to weekend Japanese schools even though both are common among Japanese families in the US. I just wanted her to be an American. If she ever becomes interested in Japanese culture, I’d be more than happy to teach her but I saw no reason for me to impose it on her.

In our early childhood, we prefer to be just like everyone else. We naturally tilt towards the center of the Bell curve. This is partly why, in elementary school, we listen to the same music and watch the same movies. In middle school, we begin to seek music that differentiates us as a way to assert our own identities. That is, it takes a certain amount of courage and maturity to deviate from the norm. For that reason too, I did not want to add anything to my daughter’s life that made her deviate from the norm any more than necessary. I figured, she will, when she is ready.

One of the scenes in the film that struck me as odd was the one where the girls were learning traditional Japanese dance dressed up in kimono. The director described it as a “tradition.” But many girls in Japan don’t learn how to do this, and there is no reason why Japanese Americans need to worry about this “tradition” dying because there are plenty of people in Japan carrying on that tradition. If anyone is interested, they might as well go to Japan instead of Cleveland. As a Japanese American, if you don’t want to be pigeonholed as Japanese, why do such a thing? By promoting such a “tradition” publicly, you would be inviting others to ask you questions about Japan to which you have no answer. If traditional Japanese dance is what you happen to love, then that’s great, but otherwise, you would be reinforcing the misguided public perception. It is particularly problematic when parents force this type of identity-forming activities on their kids.

Identity is not something we should teach or impose on anyone. We need to come to terms with our own identities in our own ways. Self-discovery is a journey we must take alone. My daugher’s fifth-grade teachers were passionate about identity politics and they not only taught the history of it but designed a curriculum that encouraged their students to think about their own identities. My daughter learned for the first time that she belonged to an oppressed minority, and they prepared her impressionable mind for the upcoming oppression. That year, her conversations at home and with her friends were dominated by the topic of race. She called herself “whaian” (white-asian) and formed a whasian support group at school with the encouragement from her teachers.

To her teachers, this may have been the reality, and from their perspective, anyone with a differing view was denying the reality. But this by no means is my daughter’s fate. It’s perfectly possible to look at the ways in which she can take advantage of being biracial. One of the young men interviewed in the film said he liked the fact that his racial identity was fluid. Having an ambiguous identity can indeed be advantageous if you know how to exploit it. David Bowie is a good example of someone who exploited gender ambiguity. Ambiguity draws people’s curiosity. Research has shown that setting a textbook in a hard-to-read font increases retention. Something slightly unusual makes people’s brains work harder and becomes more memorable. Today in our identity politics, victimhood is a way to gain power through negative attention. The problem with this formula is that you must become more miserable in order to become more powerful. You develop a dependency on your own misery.

In fact, whether I’m right or her teachers are right is beside the point. What is important is that we allow our kids to form their own sense of identity, and this is not possible until they fully develop the ability to think critically and independently. Fifth grade is far too early for that. Imposing a sense of identity on someone is not teaching but indoctrination.

The Japanese dance scene, I believe, also reveals how they cope with the discomfort about their own identity. When we feel insecure about something, we often go out of our ways to expose it publicly in order to overcome our insecurity. For instance, some women who are under chemotherapy for cancer throw parties to reveal their bald head. The scene of traditional Japanese dance, I felt, had an element of this. But the difference between those fighting cancer and the Japanese Americans struggling with identity is that in the latter, the problem is imposed by the public, from the outside. That is, they are not fighting their own problems.

What I perceived throughout the film is that, for the director’s family, the ancestral association with Japan is nothing but a flaw. It offers no benefit to them. Japan is not part of them because even the grandmother wasn’t born in Japan, but the association is imposed on them by the public, so much so that she had to be incarcerated in the internment camp just for that association.

As an immigrant, I don’t have these problems. I simply keep the aspects of the Japanese culture I love, and discard the aspects I don’t. For instance, I rarely speak or read Japanese because I don’t care for it; I like English better. I love certain Japanese foods, so I still cook and eat them. I like their popular culture, technologies, and philosophies, so I can speak authoritatively about them to gain people’s respect. Because these things are not permanently attached to my body, I can choose to keep or discard them. The parts I cannot discard, like my physical appearance, do not require any integration because there is no discrepancy between what the public perceives and what I am.

For the second-generation Asian Americans, the work to integrate the discord is forced. The public insists on looking at them as something they are not. Instead of the public making the effort to integrate the discord, they are forced to carry out that task. Because they are not Japanese and know practically nothing about Japan, the association has no advantage, only disadvantages. Even if the association offers some superficial advantages—like Japan’s reputation for craftsmanship, simple beauty, and high technology—taking advantage of them would make them feel like a phony (because they are not actually Japanese). Sadly, there is no honest way to benefit from the association.

Some second-generation Japanese-Americans move to Japan as a way to “be in touch with their roots.” This is another common strategy for integrating the discordant identity. Because the public views them as Japanese, they figured they might as well be Japanese for real.

In the film director’s case, the integration problem is further compounded by the fact that his father too perceived his Japanese-ness as nothing but a flaw; at least, he came across that way in the film. He rarely looked at the director while being interviewed. He talked as he worked in his garage which expressed a sense of reluctance to talk about the subject. Overall, he sounded like a defeated person. The fact that his mother was incarcerated for being Japanese reinforces the idea that the Americans view Japanese-ness as a flaw.

If his father was an immigrant like me, the director would have grown up with someone who enjoyed and took full advantage of being Japanese. We are all greatly influenced by how our parents perceive the world. If our parents viewed something as a flaw, we would naturally feel the same way. But, I wouldn’t blame the director’s father because his Japanese identity was imposed on him by the public and he had no way to take advantage of it either. To him, it really was a flaw.

Then, how should second-generation Asian Americans address this problem? I don’t think there are any easy answers but I think it’s important to fight the urge to see yourself as a victim. What this means is that you should reject the imposition of any identity from outside. For instance, you might feel that you should embrace more Asian values because your body is Asian, and because the public views you as Asian, and also because you don’t want people to think that you are trying to be white or that you hate being Asian. These are internalized reverse racism. Just because your body is Asian, it does not mean that you should have Asian values. The American culture originated primarily from Europe. Sure, it was influenced by many other cultures but the white-European culture is the most dominant one. So, as an American, there is nothing wrong with your value being mostly white-European. That’s only natural and reasonable. It does not mean you need to reject other cultures or that you think other cultures are inferior. Don’t let the reverse racism complicate your own life.

There are many white people who live in Japan because they love Japanese culture. Nobody thinks of them as self-hating white people. White people can dye their hair black and nobody criticizes them for trying to be someone they are not. If you want to dye your hair blonde, you should go ahead. Don’t let reverse racism spoil your own freedom. Just do what you love. By giving into the public pressure to match who you are with how you look, you would be taking on the work they should be doing to integrate the discord, prolonging the problem further.

I act white because I like the white-European culture. In today’s politically correct environment, this probably sounds wrong to most people, because “white” is supposed to mean “evil” and “oppressors.” Well, fuck that. There is nothing wrong with liking the culture created by people of different race, just as those white Japanofiles love Japan. After all, if I liked Japanese culture better, why would I move here? If you are a second-generation Japanese American who happens to love Japanese culture, by all means, move to Japan. (They would love you because their population is declining.) Just don’t do it as a way to integrate the discordant identity imposed on you by the public. Be what you want to be, not what the public wants you to be.