The History of My Understanding of My Identity

Written by: Rachel

I feel like I’m not enough of any one thing to be able to claim a piece of the identity cake. My sweet tooth isn’t sweet enough for a piece of American pie, and my palette isn’t refined enough for the delicate balance of wagashi. These are total lies, I will eat pie any day of the week and my tastebuds are directly from my obaachan, so the complexities of elaborate wagashi are justly appreciated. I don’t even have a bowl and a spoon to be in the area for the rainbow sherbert of sexuality, but that’s an essay for another time.

Basically, I’m the one at the identity party that gets hella anxious and ends up in the stairwell smoking a cigarette and contemplating whether to walk or take the train home. But, that’s when I hear some noise and laughter closeby. Around the corner, there is a crinkling of snack bags and the sound of chu-hi being cracked open and I immediately feel a sense of warmth and a relief bubble flow through me. The Kansai kids made their own setup outside of the identity party inside because they didn’t want to pay the entrance fee, and although I’m looked upon with suspicion and hesitation at first, as soon as I speak I’m readily osmosed into a conversation about how the cake was 30% off because someone bought it close to closing time at the supermarket.

関西人 (Kansai-jin: someone from the Kansai area)  are very much considered Japanese. This is one of the most important reasons why I cling to this identity until my knuckles turn white; it makes me feel like I get to have a fastpass to the title of “Japanese”. The moment of “wait… are you from Kansai?” feels like a far more validating question to hear compared to “Why are you so good at Japanese?” This is what I mean when I feel like I get the fastpass. The Japanese identity is a given when the focus of the question I get is where in Japan I’m from.

I’ve been determined to become intimate with the idea of dichotomy for the past two years. The idea of two opposite ‘somethings’ existing at once is something my lazy brain doesn’t like to compute. But alas, life’s terms and conditions cancel mine out, possibly for the best.

As someone that has a desperate need and obsession to orient themselves and understand how much physical space they have in the world by utilizing an almost clinical level of observation, it’s ironic that I have such an uncertain grasp of my own identity. I guess this goes to show how much more work I need to put into understanding dichotomy still. In my mind, the idea of identity is a bit of a scary, uncharted world to me. I don’t have any problem with other peoples’ identities; I find myself inspired and in awe of those who claim and bare their identity, or lack thereof, as naturally as plants show their leaves to the world.

Learning more about how other mixed (race and/or culture) kids like myself  understand and come to peace with the concept of identity makes me feel both clueless and territorial of my own experiences and awareness. It seems like a lot of biracial/bicultural people I know go through similar experiences, and it’s always a shock to me when I see that they denounce the whole concept of identity. I pine for the confidence and certainty that these people have in themselves, sometimes in spite of, but most times because of the lack of a solid basis of identity. The unapologetic ownership of their identity sometimes makes me feel like I showed up too late in claiming my own piece, that there isn’t enough of it left for me.

After some amount of reflection, I realized that my weak grip on my identity stems from my childhood experiences- what a surprise! I was bullied pretty badly growing up in Japan because I was always either the only non-fully Japanese kid or one of three mixed race kids in whatever environment I was in. Being the outcast in almost all social situations, I developed a hyper-awareness of body language and social cues as a means of survival. The kids I considered my peers would be mean to me one day and nice to me another day because I looked cuter when I came to school with pigtails. I don’t remember most of my childhood, but this conscious understanding of the fact that I was different, and not in a good way, didn’t occur to me until the end of kindergarten. 

Growing up with the kids that lived in the same apartment complex as me, I learned that in order to be included and tolerated as a part of their group, I’d have to do whatever they told me to do and that it was an act of luck or kindness when they included me for no discernable reason. This was further reinforced by my dad’s belief and attitude that my being in a bad mood put the people around me into a bad mood, so I should hide my feelings to keep the peace in the room. I can understand the intent, but it went in the wrong direction (as easily as it sounds like it could), and reinforced the idea that in order for people to like me, I needed to behave in a way that would make whoever I was around happy.

Moving to rural, bumfuck New Hampshire when I was eight years old was a reinforcement of the fact that I was different. Moving from one homogenous environment to another confirmed the structure of the world I had already created in my head- that I was not the same as those around me and the lens that I saw the world through was inaccurate because it was a different prescription than the lens that everyone else looked through. My social shapeshifting continued, but with an added layer of hyper-awareness. I had to closely study the actions and reactions of the people around me because I was now in a new place with a language I didn’t have full command over and a culture that I was clueless about.

I doubled-down on shedding my sense of individual self, and thereby, my understanding of my identity. Since I wasn’t Japanese enough in Japan and “just different somehow” in America, the category of Cultural Identity wasn’t one that I found important. The idea of “me” as an individual that is separate from the world was overwritten by the idea that I needed to be amorphous and conform to an identity that people wanted me to be. Obviously, this is a normal human thing to do to an extent and I’m realizing the more I write, that my relationship with identity is nowhere near unique. I do, however, think I took the idea of identity shapeshifting pretty far because I still struggle to define or label myself with anything. But whether I knew it or not, one of the few identities that has been strong and consistent throughout my life was that I was a 関西人 (Kansai-jin: person from Kansai).

The distinct characteristics of the stereotypical 関西人 are something I (grudgingly) have a more conscious understanding of. It’s been a fairly recent realization about how much my attitudes, opinions, family quirks, and disposition have been shaped by my roots in Kansai. I sometimes face imposter syndrome when I’m speaking Japanese because I now have an awareness of how Kansai I sound, and I get nervous that I seem like I’m putting on an act. It feels similar to when someone tells you to take notice of your breath; you breathe automatically without any thought, but once it’s pointed out, you can’t help but get a little self conscious about it. I guess I’m not as Kansai as I wish I was because I still deeply care about how others perceive me. There’s that dichotomy again; a 関西人that cares about what other people think.

The concept of identity in general is Fucking Weird because it’s an ambiguous, shapeless idea that has no objective and uniform components. Maybe it’s also not as big of a deal as I make it out to be because humans are multi-faceted beings that don’t need a singular title to define and explain their existence. For me, the Kansai identity that I get to participate in makes me feel like I’m allowed to consider myself Japanese and serves as a justification for this “indulgence”.

Cargo Collective COMMU 2021 (USA, JAPAN)