In the playground by the train station in Hadano, Japan, my three-and-a-half-year-old son is standing on a circular brick wall that encases a small cherry tree. He is solemnly examining a group of six giggling Japanese teenage girls, whose pastel colored underwear occasionally peers out from under the hiked-up skirts of their uniforms. I assume my son and I will recommence our game of hide-and-seek. But we don’t.
The girls have spotted my son, very out of place with his fair hair and his blue-green eyes. They are giggling harder. Then, triggered by an inner machinery that I have assumed until now was only reserved for me, my son holds out his arms. He is a little doll. He would like to be picked up. The girls gasp. The prettiest one glances in my direction and I nod. So she puts my son on her hip. I hear her ask in Japanese: “Where did you come from?”
“New York,” he chirps, his Japanese perfectly inflected. Nyū-yō-ku.
“But what are you doing here?”
“Oh, I’m just here on business.” I think: he got this phrase from me. Because in fact I am here on business. I am here on a research grant. With the help of my Japanese family and friends, I am doing my work, and my son is absorbing the lessons of a childhood in Japan.
These lessons now apparently include his every whim at the playground being attended to: he is carried, swung, bounced, cuddled and photographed to a soundtrack filled with irrepressible exclamations. Occasionally he tosses me a look as if to say: “You understand, I just have to experience this for a bit.”
A little background. My mother is Japanese, as in from Japan, and my father, Caucasian and American. My husband is Scottish. As a child visiting Japan, I was often the first “gaijin” or “foreigner” Japanese people in rural places had ever seen, and I, too, was feted. These days Japan has many more visitors from abroad, so Caucasian faces are less rare. But to see a small specimen of foreignness who can converse with the natives is still a miraculous thing. For we are more than visitors; we have some cultural fluency, which people find fascinating. How extraordinary that we can function within this intricate culture—for the Japanese know their ways are precise and unusual—that we can take off our shoes without falling over, that we can sit at low tables, and eat foods which make other foreigners blanch.
I have grown accustomed to pouring out of one location and into another, at once not standing out too much, while also standing out a great deal.
I also know, from friends who are of mixed race and grew up in Japan, that it is not easy to be so clearly marked as different in this mostly homogenous culture. It’s to be a fascinating other. My simplistic wish was just for my son to love Japan and value it for the unique place that it is, but I did not want him to be too exposed to the negative aspects of being a minority.
After the incident with the teenager girls, however, I begin to worry that he might come to believe that there is something essential about his person that deserves this indulgent treatment. I think: this must be how racism, privilege and entitlement become braided together.
I feel a bit like a grain of sand when I travel. I have grown accustomed to pouring out of one location and into another, at once not standing out too much, while also standing out a great deal. Native Americans who run motels in Wyoming look at me twice. Latino waiters throw me an extra roll of bread. Pakistani cab drivers tell me I look like a girl from home. I also pick up my background. If I am next to my mother, I look more Caucasian, and if I am with my father, I am Asian. On a plane, seated next to each other, my father and I were once asked how long we had been married (though I think we share so many features, I attribute only a lack of imagination to missing our relationship). My mother was once congratulated for adopting such a nice child. With my son, I become whiter, and people do not question our connection.
In a way, I am relieved when we come back to the United States. He will experience privilege here. But I find the level of singling out he undergoes in Japan to be bewildering and unhealthy. I want him to be in a more diverse society—to see diversity as a baseline. I feel more committed to the idea of diversity than I ever have in my life.
Once we relocate from New York to San Francisco, we are lucky to find a public school with a Japanese bicultural and bilingual program; it is also one of the most diverse schools in the San Francisco district. One day my son comes home and asks: “Mommy, is there still a camp in Wyoming?” Part of the summer has been devoted to a drive through Wyoming on our way to the family farm in Nebraska. I thought perhaps this was what he meant. But he was referring to the Japanese internment camps in remote parts of the west where thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to during World War II.
I want him not to default to skin color, but to look at all the other signals of what makes people, people.
“Are you worried Mommy might go to camp?” I make things much worse when I ask this. He had been thinking that he, my mother, and I would be sent away to camp together.
He still does not know that he is white.
A few days later I mention something about the new character in Star Wars who is “black,” and he asks me: “Black? Like the pants?”
“No,” I say. “His skin. You see his skin. We often say that someone who is that dark is black. And you are white.”
He begins to panic. “I’m not white. I’m pink!”
“Well, yes. But…people will say that you are white.”
He has never thought about these words before. When we were in Germany, sitting inside an Italian restaurant and looking out of broad windows at a large square filled with tourists, he said to me: “Oh look. A Japanese family.” There were a mother, father, and child in a sea of people and my first response was to say: “They might be Chinese. Or Korean.” But the family came inside the restaurant and a moment later, I could hear them conversing in Japanese. It wasn’t the features my son had seen, but something else. A familiar way of moving or interacting that told him that here, in this foreign country, there was a small pocket of familiar Japanese-ness. He was happy to see them. When they sat next to us, he sidled up beside them and said hello to their baby.
If racism is something that they learn, then we can in fact create a world in which outdated prejudices do not rule.
I tell myself I want to preserve this way of seeing that he has. I want him not to default to skin color, but to look at all the other signals of what makes people, people. I want to say: Look inward at who you are; this is where the true you resides. Everyone else will have a true self inside them too. Let this way of seeing guide you. Please look for others who view the world as you do.
But this is not enough. I also have to teach him that we do in fact live in a world that created internment camps—and worse. And that many will look at him and will not see a small Japanese boy. They will see a white boy. They may not see that he is kind, and that he is trying to see them as people. And this scares me too.
One of the greatest things I have learned from my son so far is that we do in fact learn, very early, how to see. Let me make myself more clear. We teach our children to be racist. We teach them to seek difference, and graft these differences onto a social apparatus. We teach them terms, and we teach them bias. They do not start out this way. If racism is something that they learn, then we can in fact create a world in which outdated prejudices do not rule.
It is the weekend, and I take my son to a show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It is called “Looking East,” and is about the influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh, Monet, and others. We play a game called “Japanese or European,” and look at each installation in the exhibit. There is one of Monet’s Giverny bridges displayed alongside a Japanese print of a similarly arched bridge.
My son studies the Monet. “Definitely European,” he declares.
“How do you know?”
“Because, Mommy. That bridge is ugly.”