Personal Reflections: On Assimilation, Dissonance, Family, Wholeness


Written by: Kei 

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Unmoored boat, 2017
Site-specific installation with video projection, hand-carved wooden boat
The video shows a kitchen sink half-filled with water as a small wooden boat floats on the surface. Projected onto the sink from top is a video projection of a tree shadow and rain shimmering on the horizon, viewed through glass doors.


From my residency at AIR Yamanashi in 2007

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It is October 2016. I am 27. At the time I’d spent the past year burning out as a freelance art educator, paralyzed with what my next move would be in NYC. My father suddenly called me from Tokyo, asking me to join him, my grandmother, and sister to be by his younger brother in a hospital there. My uncle was dying. I flew over and spent the next week commuting to the hospital with my sister feeling strangely comforted while experiencing nothing more real than watching a man on his deathbed.

「なんか、久しぶりに日本語しゃべってて頭使わなくていい。楽。」”For the first time in a long time, it feels like I don’t have to strain my brain speaking Japanese.” Later back in the US, my therapist would tell me our first languages are often the language of emotion. It was there in Japan that a few weeks prior I’d thought, “Maybe I could find a life here in Japan?”

My uncle passed a week and a half after I had arrived. We mourned his sudden untimely death, and I was awed and ashamed that it was not until preparing for the funeral that I saw how richly he had lived his life as a photojournalist**. There I was, similarly trying to carve out a creative life as he had. Questions flooded inside of me, so many questions about his life and how to survive as an artist and it was too late.

I returned to NYC. Later on I had a vivid image inside of me of a boat, having been tied down to one dock, suddenly unfurl its ropes and drift into open water, lost at sea. The clear American identity I had clung onto suddenly began to blur and I began yearning to be back in a country I had always said I would never go back to.

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I am 9, 11, 18, 23. I visit Japan to see family. Once, I fail to pick up my ticket stub in a Tokyo train station for my transfer and seek the station conductor for help. He looks me up and down and asks me, “How did you not pick up your ticket?” I feel judgment and suspicion in his eyes—to him I was an ordinary Japanese girl who didn’t know the obvious routine of the ticket system in Japan. My face flushes and I curse him out in my mind, the rage piling up inside of me each time I feel out of place and misjudged by other strangers. Every visit there is some kind of similar interaction, something that says to me I am an imposter in my own country. 

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I am 14. I had begun commuting to my ballet school in the city on a full-time schedule. I am in the last crucial years as a dancer, a few years before I would audition for a spot in a ballet company to dance professionally. My family had already sacrificed themselves financially, physically, emotionally, and mentally for me for years.

But I am miserable. I am blanking out during class, escaping mentally, my teachers all snapping their fingers at me, asking if I was paying attention.

The one friend I confided to there says to me, “It’s because you speak too much Japanese. Like on your phone to your mom. That’s why you’re not focusing, that’s why you come across as stupid to everyone.” Memory has blurred the exact words she used. But the statement stuck, and I immediately began associating myself far from speaking Japanese as much as possible.

It was only many, many years later that I realized it had been a statement that made no sense, words of ignorance from a teenager too young to understand what it meant, especially for a white girl like her to say what she did and the ignorance it implied.

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Lately I have been thinking a lot lately about assimilation. About the ways in which it comes from the urgency to survive, because assimilation means survival.

As a child, assimilating meant desiring to be white, while I never could be. Assimilating meant perfecting a language and culture to sound and act native enough to pass as American. I think about how often I grew up in white spaces, from an upper middle-class town in New Jersey to the ballet world in NYC. White meant America. In a country that always politicized Asians (particularly East Asians) as its model minority as a tool of anti-Blackness, it was being accepted into whiteness while always aware that we could not be truly white, or perceivably American. The moments when I stumbled upon my words in English or had trouble articulating myself were when I felt betrayed by my Japanese-ness. As if I were not American enough because I was not loud enough, opinionated enough, not taking up enough space with my individuality enough. In ballet where white supremacy has always been on a pedestal in golden pointe shoes I was not pretty enough, thin enough, white enough with the right proportions.

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In the US I always felt shame whenever I revealed that I was not a citizen, as if it was a disservice to every Asian American who has always had to answer that question of, “But where are you really from?”

"I'm from Japan." "But you're so American."

I would never know how to reply to this, unable to ask what their idea was of an alien and American citizen.

There is a gap between what the country tells me what I am, what the state tells me what I am, and how I feel inside.

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Identity is a spectrum, existing in all aspects of our lives---social identity, cultural identity, familial identity, sexual identity, gender identity, spiritual identity. We are multiple truths at once, an entire universe within ourselves containing all of the realities we have lived. They cannot be contained by the identities the institution, state and country tell us what we are. I now reclaim this truth because I did not have the language to do so when I was younger. I wish I could have explained to myself sooner that I did not have to choose to be one or the other, that I could be two truths at once. That the things that I felt at war inside of myself would one day lead me to my freedom. That I was nowhere near alone and I would find allies that felt a similar cultural dissonance.

It is 2020. I am now 31. In Kyoto at my service job, I now shrug off the stares I get from customers that are similar to the train conductor from my memories, whenever I cannot find the proper words, whenever I let slip an odd word here and there. I see it clearly now, the ways in which the train conductor acted the way he did, the way men and women play their roles, the way society works here. I can see the mechanisms at play here in this country, how ethnocentrism and communality affect the ways in which people perceive myself or others who pass as ethically Japanese. I am no longer uncomfortable with my core, of myself and the ways in which I am who I am.




When I first spoke of moving to Japan, my therapist suggested that perhaps my uncle’s death had triggered a yearning in me to be closer to family. There was nothing more real than witnessing my father lose his brother, that something in me was triggered to return to my roots in order to feel whole. I had continuously run away from my family while growing up, furthering myself from the parts that did not fit neatly into my American identity. I had to reclaim my family identity in order to find that I was, in fact, enough.


The boat is free to roam and does not have to station itself at any dock. There is truth in its boundless navigation and privilege in its freedom.


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Tl;dr In summary, 
 @itsmesubhi

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**My uncle’s colleagues have created an archival project of my uncle and his 30 year career as a photojournalist here

My uncle’s original site

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Cargo Collective COMMU 2021 (USA, JAPAN)