BY SAKURA YONEYAMA
I won't attempt to dramatize or prioritize my problems over other people's struggles; I am certainly more privileged and lucky than many of the people in the world.
But that also doesn't mean I will compartmentalize or belittle my own past and the times when I've felt alone.
Up until fifth grade, I had a completely fun, carefree childhood. My personality became well adapted to my moving around; I could make friends in almost every atmosphere. I hate to admit it, but I was also a bit of a child manipulator. I could easily sway people to do things for me or act in my favor.
As a result, I was constantly surrounded by friends who became accustomed to my flawless English; I had completely shed my Japanese heritage and identity. Instead, I cloaked myself in a boisterous, stereotypically “American” personality to please my peers. And it worked.
Until my move to Japan. I went from a diverse, international school in Brazil to a completely Japanese setting. Here, at my new school, English books and the language were shunned (except during the allotted English class time).
I knew how to speak Japanese, but it was heavily clouded with an American accent that became even thicker when I felt nervous or unsure. My grammar and vocabulary were limited at best. I knew vaguely of Japanese culture and mannerisms, but I knew nothing about how people my age acted and spoke. I knew nothing of the slang and trends of incoming middle schoolers. The Japanese part of my identity I had tried so hard to suppress had quietly disappeared during my years abroad.
On my first day of school, a group of girls kindly invited me to go outside with them during the lunch break. On the way downstairs, as they introduced themselves, I saw a clear power dynamic between the two girls and the taller, bossier girl. She teased them by poking their insecurities, and as they fake laughed and ran down the stairs, I left to go to the library.
I would learn later on that Japanese culture emphasized unity, staying in line, and everyone being the same. American culture emphasized individuality, outspoken, and loud individuals. I thought nothing of me leaving for the library, but those girls thought everything of it. From there on, I was shunned and seen as a foreigner, Japanese but not quite really Japanese.
Despite this, I grew to love and embrace Japanese culture. I loved matcha soft serves and boiling ramen broth; I loved elegant kimonos and stories about Japanese warriors fighting. I could not get enough of the Shibuya crossing, mini photo booths, Totoro, and the efficient train schedule.
While my love for Japan blossomed, my social life did not do so well. I had trouble reading profound, complex books and instead retired to reading books about imaginary characters learning how to cook with imaginary animals. I despised J-pop─and still do─and I couldn't fathom why girls my age wanted to wear such unappealing clothing. As a result, everything the girls and boys my age loved and talked about, I could not relate to. I was alienated on my own little island, somewhere between Japan and America (and maybe a little bit of Brazil), but not fully part of one country.
I loved and still love American culture: big commercial malls, huge grocery stores teeming with too much food, pop culture, clothes, shows, movies, books, The Office, music, everything. I loved the spacious green lawns of American suburbia and the morning dew on the lawn of every American two-floor house. I loved my American friends and the sound of the New York accent, the highway that seemed to stretch on forever. I loved the adamant patriotism every American seemed to believe in, I loved how Lana del Rey would croon about American capitalism and big, shiny dreams. And to young me, if loving these things meant rejecting Japan and my heritage, I would throw out the East without a second thought.
Not long after the stairway incident, my classmates learned to leave me alone as I read my thick English books in the back of the classroom. I secretly longed to be a part of them, but I couldn't find a way how.
I remember when a certain window to create a new connection presented itself to me. It was after a long session of practicing for the relay, for an event called "Undoukai," where we would play various sports and games outside on the dirt field for a whole day. I was in the changing room with two other girls, one with whom I was faintly friends with and another girl from a different class. They were talking about some kind of cultural festival, and the girl from the other class said something funny. So I laughed, thinking if I could edge my way into the conversation by laughing at their jokes, I could make friends.
But when I laughed, the girl turned around quickly, and retorted, "What are you laughing at?" I was taken aback, I didn't know what to say. I don't quite remember what I did after, but I recall whispering something back before quickly grabbing my things and running home. That night, as I lay on my futon and listened to the sounds of my sister sleeping, I wished and wished for a way to get home, back to Brazil, where my friends were, where my comfort crowd was.
Eventually, I would graduate from that horrid school, and move on to a middle school that had a small population of kids like me, called "kikokusei." There, I finally met people who felt the same way I did, who were also maybe shunned at their Japanese elementary school.
Although my one and a half years at that school were terrible, it truly made me grateful for my dual identity. I think it was a necessary experience for me to immerse myself in my own culture for once, and to learn how to adapt and embrace my heritage.
As of now, I dearly miss Japan and hope to go back this summer. I hope to be able to go back this year, embrace my friends, and eat more mochi. And one day (hopefully soon), I hope to be able to wake up, fully content with every part of my cultural identity.