I am Japanese. In fact, I had been Japanese for 21 years before coming to Tokyo to live for the first time in 2006. You might not consider that very Japanese, but I think I’ve passed all the tests.
For instance, when I was 10 and living in Portugal, I endured hordes of people shouting “Hey Chinese boy! What are you doing?” I’ve been stopped from entering bars in various countries because of a “dress code,” while other underdressed Caucasian kids were let in. I’ve had people tell me, “Japanese people are weird. Have you seen that show 'Takeshi's Castle?'” They are referring to a TV program that was popular in the ’80s, despite the fact that we have well entered the 2000s.
Because of all this, I expected that when I moved to Tokyo, I would finally be able to blend into Japanese society. How naïve I was! I didn’t realize that I would have job interviewers sniggering at me because I spoke perfect Japanese, or neighborhood women in a store praising the shop clerk for “his bravery to talk to the foreigner.” Or having the dreaded question “Are you haafu?” being asked over and over again, even by strangers.
If I reply “Yes,” I am presented with a stream of other questions and comments — nothing is too personal for them to ask: “Is it your mom or dad that is the foreigner?” “Where did they meet?” “So, do you speak Spanish? No? Why not? But you’re fluent in English.” “Well, you do look Latino. Look at your body hair.”
If I say “No,” I am met with “Whaaat? Really?!? Oh my god! That is like the seventh wonder of the world!”
Some people, namely celebrities, do capitalize on their biracial origins, wearing the “We’re different” sash proudly. But that’s not me. I don’t get paid for how I look or how much I stick out in a crowd. When I moved to Japan, I was simply a recent college graduate struggling to fit in.
Everyone goes through an identity crisis at some point. But most of us haafu are constantly forced to confront the fact that we are “the outsider.” I’ve always accepted being the only Asian among my friends, and being stared at when we went out. Sometimes people would come up and ask me why I am not dating or hanging out with “people of my own race,” but they were quickly shot down by my friends for being racist. Just once in a while, I wished I knew somebody else who could understand how great it is to drink warm green tea after eating the undulated sweetness of azuki-filled mochi.
After the 1,000th time I was asked “Are you haafu?” and after repeating the same set of answers three or four times a day, I'd had enough. Not only that, I started feeling pangs of indignation when the locals seemed eager to point out how much I didn’t belong here — the very country I'd identified as my homeland since birth! I wondered how other haafu coped.
Well, ask Google and you shall receive. I found a local group of half-Japanese people on the web. Having never met anyone else like me, I seized the opportunity and decided to get together with a group of strangers.
Two years down the road, I am still hanging out with the people I met at that first haafu gathering. They were the first true friends I made, the first people I met in Japan besides my relatives who didn’t approach me to satisfy their curiosity and view me as “an interesting being.” I found people who I could go with to my first Japanese matsuri. People who I could rant to and who would understand my frustrations. Whether I was hanging out with half-Chinese, -Peruvians, -Greeks or -Palestinians, my race never became an issue — none of my new friends made a fuss when I was able to belt out a popular B’z song at karaoke. By befriending other haafu, I was able to be who I truly was, and not what my race was.
As I’m about to leave Japan, I would like to say thank you to all my friends who have kept me straight from the beginning. Friends who made me feel confident that, even if I ended up in a jungle, it would be OK if I was the only one enjoying green tea and wagashi.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today