“What’s your nationality? Are you Chinese or Japanese?”
My sixth-grade classmate, Francine, and I were happily chatting while walking home from school one day, when an elderly Caucasian lady, a stranger to me, asked me the question I had been used to answering since I was a little girl in pigtails. I thought it odd that people were so curious about my heritage, but I dutifully replied when asked. But not on this day.
Francine, athletic and outgoing with short blond hair, was much taller than my 4-1/2 feet stature, barely registering seventy pounds dripping wet. She intervened before I could respond to the lady–Francine’s animated tone of voice was one I would dare not use with elders, or any stranger, for that matter.
“Why did you ask about her nationality?” she queried the lady. “She’s American–that’s her nationality, just like the rest of us. And what difference does it make whether she’s Chinese or Japanese–it’s none of your business!” I was stunned, and the lady, speechless, scurried away.
“What an idiot,” Francine muttered. “Why would she ask you something like that?”
“I’m used to it,” I shrugged. “People always ask me that question. I guess when they see my eyes and black hair, they know I’m different, and they just have to know where I came from.”
“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t answer them. It’s none of their business.” Francine was indignant.
I didn’t tell Francine what had happened to me a few weeks earlier when I encountered a group of boys. I never shared it with anyone–it was too embarrassing and humiliating.
“Ching Chong Chinaman sittin’ on a fence,” they chanted in their sing-song voices. “Tryin’ to make a dollar out of ninety-nine cents.”
I knew what was coming next as the boys walked toward me–taunting was imminent, for sure. I slipped between two parked cars and crossed the street.
“Hey, Chinaman, where you goin’?” one of them called out to me, pulling his eyelids back with his fingers imitating my narrow eyes. “He’s no Chinaman. He’s a girl!”
I heard another boy say, “Hey China girl, yeah, where you goin’? Don’t you like us? Hey guys, I think she’s a Jap girl.” They all pulled their eyelids back, mocking me.
“Yeah, she’s a Jap. Kill her!” They laughed and bantered as they shot me with their imaginary rifles. It had been over ten years since the end of WWII, but Hollywood war movies were abundant. “Kill the Japs!” hurled from the mouths of kids, and the epithets were palpable–war does that to people.
In my book, COOKING FOR HER EYES, Translation of a Sonata, A Story of Music, Food, Love, and Death, I wrote about the lives of Japanese Americans living in Hawaii. A portion of the excerpt is as follows:
“Reading books about the nisei, second-generation of Okinawan descent like my parents who lived in Hawai’i, I learned how complicated and conflicted their lives were. During and after WWII, the nisei were wrought with discriminatory, painful, and disrespectful, if not unconstitutional, incarceration of their fellow Japanese American friends by their American government. And they were shunned with disdain by many Caucasian Americans. America’s society, bringing the nisei shame and embarrassment, made it all too difficult for many nisei to discuss. It’s no wonder that sansei, third-generation like me, were left with silence from our parents…”
But the nisei were not the only ones who were silent. As a sansei, I chose to be silent about the taunts and feeling like an “other” because I didn’t want to worry my parents. My family and I lived in a practically all-white neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, and I was the only minority in my group of friends. I didn’t vent my angst to them either, because I didn’t want them feeling sorry for me. I thought discrimination of this sort was something to which my friends could not easily relate–after all, they fit into this society like a round peg in a round hole and had not yet grasped the meaning of empathy. I sensed the only sentiment at this stage of their lives would be of pity, and to me at that young age, would be a fate worse than death.
“I don’t think of you as Japanese–you’re like the rest of us–regular–you know, white,” they would say. I knew they meant no offense, and I didn’t think of myself as regular or white, nor did I wish I was. True, life would have been less complicated in many ways had I been born white, but then, I wouldn’t have the privilege of being a part of a wondrous heritage and culture of peace, compassion, simplicity, and perseverance. I was proud to be Japanese, even with the taunts I experienced that always ended up being about eyes, and the squinty, narrow, slanty eyes of jeering persisted.
I wondered what the boys saw when they taunted me? And those countless strangers who felt entitled to question me about my nationality–what did they see? There was little that visually set me apart from others except my eyes, and I suppose they felt empowered in some small way? I didn’t know. But I knew that I wanted people to see not what I looked like but rather, what I did, the art I made, and who I was beyond these eyes.
When I wrote my book, I focused my thoughts on music, food, love, and death (in the Japanese culture, the color white is often symbolic of death; hence, I chose a stark white background for my book cover). In my book content, I turned my readers’ attention to the art of pottery, the music of my piano, my architecture, and the food I created when cooking for Margaret.
It’s been decades since the childhood taunting. America is filled with people of color, and my world is no longer predominantly white. But we are now faced with a fierce global pandemic that requires us to diligently wash our hands and practice social distancing. With the lethal onset of COVID-19, believed to have originated in China, it is also imperative to wear a face covering. Worn effectively, the mask must cover our face with the exception of our eyes, leading societal focus, once again, on eyes. And like the taunting during and after WWII, history repeats as angry epithets or disdainful glares are hurled at Asian American citizens.
With a touch of defiance, I chose minimalism for my book cover design: the title, author, and a face with focused eyes looking outward–Japanese eyes–my eyes along with a hint of my nose and mouth, are against a stark white background. No longer wondering what people see when they look at me, I’d like others to wonder what I see when I look at them.