Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage

Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage

It’s easy to feel like a fake. The voice in my head injects its unsolicited input: You’re overdoing it. Stop trying so hard. If it’s not natural, you’re doing it wrong. Do something else. Somewhere along the way I collected an inventory of ideas like this—gleaned from neighborly advice, books I’ve read, newspaper headlines, offhand comments from friends. I’ve even used this arsenal of judgments to silently criticize others. The tone-deaf troubadour singing off-key tunes in the coffee shop? It’s just not natural for him. The woman wearing leopard print spandex at the grocery store? That outfit is….a lot. The guy in class I just couldn’t find attractive? He’s so desperate.

I struggle to articulate why, in those moments, it feels urgent that I distance myself from others who I deem too much or not enough. Cognitively I support equity and justice for all. I love Lizzo and Jameela Jamil and all the other women pushing body positivity forward. I care about black and brown folks and those who are differently abled or neurodivergent or under the poverty line or living in bodies that don’t match their gender. I truly want all of these people to thrive. But if someone doesn’t have an obvious label that reminds me to be kind, why do I still recoil when watching them fail?

Whatever that reflex is, I also use it violently against myself. I am afraid of coming on too strong or seeming overly confident in abilities that others deem inferior. I know from conversations with female friends that we all grapple with impostor syndrome to some degree. Every new creative endeavor or project idea or clothing choice, for that matter, comes with a caveat. I’m new. Please be gentle. I wouldn’t qualify my choices, even laughingly, if there weren’t some imminent threat of judgment.

Earlier this year, I discovered that I am 25% Japanese. I have a biological grandmother from Japan who married a GI during World War II. This news came after a lifetime of socialization as a white girl. I was German and Irish, as far as I knew, and I could count on two hands how many people of color attended school in my rural Texas town. The majority of those folks were Hispanic. I’d always passed for white, with the exception of a few confused inquiries from people over my lifetime. A childhood boyfriend once told me I looked Chinese when I tanned darkly in the Texas sun. I told him he was stupid. The African grill cook at my college restaurant job asked me if I was mixed—maybe part Asian? No, I laughed, “But thank you,” and walked away.

With this DNA discovery, I was suddenly cataloguing any Asian person I’d known or cultural experience I’d witnessed. Were there any clues to this secret ethnicity that I missed along the way? I’d never been to Japan, and I’d never met any of my Japanese or Japanese-American relatives. I’d never had an affinity for broadly Asian culture other than loving sushi. I can’t count that—everyone loves sushi. That shit is delicious.

I mean, sure, DNA technically puts me in this category, but I don’t have any of the other street cred. I don’t know the language, the clothing, the music, the food. My life is devoid of the lived experience that many Asian-Americans know. Am I a fraud if I suddenly check the Asian/Pacific Islander box in my demographic information? To add to the sense of isolation, all of this information came to light during a pandemic. I couldn’t attempt to meet my newly discovered relatives and, even if I could, they might not want to connect. Cultural festivals were canceled, in-house dining at restaurants was closed. What should I do? I resorted to the Internet.

I found Eve Sturges’ podcast of other people who had discovered secrets in their DNA. One of the podcast guests mentioned a private Facebook support group, and I met others whose ethnicity was different from what they’d been raised to believe. We each shared our stories and traded frustrations. We recognized our deepest fears as headlines spread about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. We didn’t want to be fakes. We weren’t pretending to be BIPOC for personal gain. Please, god, don’t let us trample on the cultures we’re just trying to learn. How proudly could we, or should we, claim ownership of this heritage?

Someone in the group affectionally called me a “hapa”—a Hawaiian word used to refer to someone of mixed Pacific Islander or Asian heritage. I read blogs by others of varying racial backgrounds. Someone coined the term, “quapa,” meaning a combination of “quarter” and “hapa.” Is this me? I thought. I kept researching. I discovered NPR’s Code Switch episode, “Who Gets to Be ‘Hapa?‘” Nope, I was not Hawaiian. Maybe I should use a label that didn’t offend the people who invented it.

A friend connected me with Jo Oyama-Miller, the woman who leads Madison’s sister city relationship with Obihiro, Japan. She explained that the Japanese use the term, “hafu,” which is a transliteration of the word “half” from English. Even in Japan, where they value homogeneity, people of mixed race are considered inauthentic. I wouldn’t be considered Japanese by my grandmother’s country, either, even if I had been born there.

So where does this leave me? I can’t write Japanese kana, I never learned how to make miso, and I’ve only ever seen one Studio Ghibli film. Sure, I can take cooking lessons and read books about aspects of my culture. I can watch documentaries and listen to the Asian Enough podcast, but there will always be the risk of seeming like an overzealous white girl. Then again, maybe the most authentic thing I can do is to do it anyway, internal voices be damned. Perhaps the experience of being too much and not enough is what it means to be Asian in America. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.

Rocks in the Riverbed

Rocks in the Riverbed

Ask yourself about your childhood. Was it a happy one? When you recount the story of wiggling your first loose tooth with your tongue or the time you got the chicken pox, is the sun shining in the background? What about the trip to the park where you flew kites with a neighbor kid? Or visiting Santa at the mall? Or falling off your bike? Or the stray kitten you found in the alley?

I realized recently how often I recite stories about my past beginning with, “I had a pretty happy childhood.” The stories I tell are often accompanied by a rye, self-deprecating humor where I retroactively giggle at the failures, the scrapes, or the desperation with which I navigated the world as a six-, ten-, or fourteen-year-old. I have many a joyful image stored away of tromping through the underbrush in our rural backyard with a gaggle of friends, dancing to Ace of Base albums with the neighborhood girls, or dressing in homemade Halloween costumes expertly crafted by my mother. The girls that lived across the invisible property line from our tan brick-and-stone house used to say that our family was “All-American.” Two parents, still married, one son, one daughter, all churchgoers and involved in the right amount of extracurricular activities.

That image of us as the perfect, normal family used to hang in my mind like a postcard on the fridge. Of course, I knew it was a generalization and would humbly say, “Nah, no family is perfect.” However, even that response was part of the glossy print I’d composed of our life. Polite people don’t brag, I thought, and besides, my brother and I had just been fighting over who could use the desktop PC in our family’s dining room. How human. No one close to me had died. I wasn’t battling betrayal or divorce or abuse. I had opportunities to hone musical skills, compete in spelling championships, read books, play sports. I was #blessed.

However, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Life, uh, finds a way.” As I graduated from teen to adult, the reality of complex wounds, bereavement, and guilt began to crack its way through our family’s smooth shell. Drama and in-fighting among church leadership cast shadows on my belief system. I formed adult relationships and navigated the pain of infidelity, molting the chaste innocence that my mother had wished for me. I supported my boyfriend (now husband) through his father’s untimely diagnosis and death from malignant brain cancer. I helped my mother coordinate an intervention for my alcoholic father. I discovered via DNA test that I am not biologically related to the man who raised me, and that the man who passed me his genes also passed away before I could meet him.

After the intensity of the last decade and a half with grief building in new, creative ways year after year, I adopted stoicism as an advanced guard against fear. The longer I live, the more grief I will see, I quoted to friends on multiple occasions. I thought of that mantra as my form of the Doris Day song, “Que Sera, Sera” — that it wouldn’t keep me from living life, but perhaps I wouldn’t be so taken aback by pain if I knew it was waiting for me in the wings. I became bold and forward with my feelings, keeping no secrets and defiantly opening my arms to the world, sharing my authentic woundedness with friends and acquaintances alike. I saw myself as a rock protruding from an inevitable river of grief — holding forth bravely to fight against its slow, steady erosion of my being.

This approach sparked a fascination with family secrets — so much so that I imbibed every word of Dani Shapiro’s podcast of the same title. I listened to it in the car while running errands, while jogging around the nearby lake, while walking the dog in our Midwest neighborhood. I read books and watched documentaries about them. And then, amidst the stories of others who have uncovered life-altering revelations, I heard the words of Dr. Gabor Maté:

“Trauma isn’t what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”

The world stopped. I paused the recording. I rewound it and heard it again. And again. And again. My vision of the rock in the middle of the river, whittled and smooth, blurred into a fine mist, and a new image took its place. I am not the rock. I am the river. I am in constant forward motion. I cannot change my origin, and the path where I have been is set. Instead it is grief that is the protrusion, the sudden push displacing me from where I’d intended to go. I will tumble around it, regrouping and coming back to myself, and grief will be the one that eventually sinks beneath the surface, worn to a pebble in my riverbed.

These boulders of grief are part of my story, but they are not my destination or definition.

I am the whitewater. I am the rapids. I am the river.

A Reflection

A Reflection

I’m on a kind of runner’s high ー that euphoric inner glow, fed by adrenaline and endorphins, my brain’s reward to a body that has gone the distance. I’m just across the finish line of this past weekend’s Rise! Yoga and Writing for Transformation retreat, led by Molly Chanson and Julie Tallard Johnson. I’ve spent three days alongside poets, writers, and bloggers, each of us delving into the inner sanctum of our hearts to surface the truths we’ve buried out of fear, shame, guilt, and vulnerability. It’s this, the realism, that will form our best work.

As part of this discovery, we are instructed to find a myth that most clearly illuminates our writing intentions and aids us in wrestling with the dynamics that muscle us away from the important work of meaning-making.  I begin, reciting my own intention as a mantra: Listen to my heart. Listen. Listen. Listen. I name the equal and opposite force that works against this endeavor ー the silencing of my one and precious voice. I am afraid. My fear makes me hesitant, small, quiet. But out of the silence, I hear her name:

Echo.

What a tragic creature she was. Her voice reduced to a whisper in the quiet places. Her body rendered into oblivion not once, but twice from fickle men. Wanting her and not wanting her, each worked his violence upon Echo’s being ー her only sin having obeyed the order of Zeus.
It seems Echo’s life and legacy is centered around the punishments she endured; we use her now as an explanation for the reverberations of the songs in our own mouths. She still serves us. First employed by Zeus to distract his wife, Hera, from the god’s adulterous ways, Echo caught the full retaliation ー conscripted by the betrayed bride to a life of imitation. Echo would never speak her own sentences again.

The voiceless nymph then fell in love with Narcissus, a man who could only love himself. She had not the tools to express her heart. The effect was to reinforce that his was the view that mattered ー his voice, the one she repeated back to him. When Narcissus languished by a pool, she bound herself to him in an act of despair, wasting into invisibility for a prize she would never receive. The other stories tell of her suitor, Pan, who when rebuked, tore her limb from limb. Her body scattered from corner to corner, she only retained a facsimile of the song she once sang.

I dream of Echo ー she awakes me at night, starkly. Her story is the cautionary tale every mother tells her daughters. To raise a girl in a world filled with men who would relegate her as a foil to their own purpose, something to manipulate, rail against, obtain love from ーeach day of motherhood must feel like preparing a soldier for war.

And yet, here I am, having protected the message in my heartーnot perfectly, but with love. In the past I’ve emulated Echo in her loyalty to unworthy causes, trying to make it work out of my trepidation. In the past I’ve wrapped myself in the lie of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” In these moments, failure has been the truest miracle ー ended relationships, lost jobs, missed opportunities that were not meant to be. They’ve given me second chances, despite myself, to run across rocks, amidst fire, to push against those who would wield my voice as a weapon. To train for this moment.

So I set my intention deep within ー to sing where Echo cannot. I anoint her my patron saint, my mother martyr ー her story of self will live through the one I tell, her words amplifying my own. The gift I take from this story is edifying: I must be true for me in order to be true for her ー a voice for the voiceless.

Shaking the Snow Globe

Shaking the Snow Globe

New. Each one of us begins as something shiny, unadulterated ー arriving slippery and howling. Yes, the lettering of our DNA spells out predispositions ー handedness, eye color, height, even likelihood of extraversion or affability. We bring these gifts into the world, holding them aloft to see how they will be received.  My own offerings were generally accepted ーmy parents watered the seeds of musicality, storytelling, and creativity so that they might bloom.


Infused with this nurture was a promise of abundance ー of Big and Mighty forces I could entice to sway things my way, as long as I said my prayers, perfected my homework, and kept on the sunny side of life. I’d carried these expectations with me throughout my teenage years, hoarding good grades, achievement medals, and pats on the head, always looking for the next source of praise and expecting that it would come.

Along with a heaping spoonful of cheerful childhood, Mom and Dad also fed me the myths of their own journeys ー bootstrapping themselves upward in society, juggling young children and night classes, shopping at the discount bread store, and refinishing used bicycles for the kids. The underpinning for all of my opportunities, I knew, was that Dad worked long hours as a software engineer, balancing the family’s finances, and wielding the big stick of tight budgets. Meanwhile, Mom navigated the timing of when to tell him that my brother and I needed basketball shoes for the upcoming season. “Don’t lie to your father if he asks what we bought, but maybe…take the bags straight to your room when we get inside.”

Thus, when I arrived at college in August of 2004 I had the understanding that all my family’s dragons were slayed. I could enjoy the kingdom.
I was a small town Texas girl savoring every succulent detail of city living. I glamorized the mundane, trying on adulthood like I used to try on Mom’s lipstick. I journaled about cool professors who stayed up until 3 am, failed relationships, and sermonized about what it meant to live an upright life. One sentence I wrote from this time period sticks with me: Isn’t it great when God picks us up and shakes our little snow globe around? Right now I’m just waiting for the fake snow to settle.

Oh, sweet, naive soul, I think, you’re poised on the precipice of life’s craggy peak, pep-talking yourself to run down the mountainside.
I had no awareness that the demons my family allegedly thwarted ー poverty, broken childhoods, toxic relationshipsーhad not been banished. They’d only been relegated to the basement to hibernate and grow fat ー feeding on shame and guilt and growing additional heads. I was not yet prepared to discover the loose ends of trauma, addiction, and bereavement that were untied and dangling over the fence into my own adult life. The vulnerability and change I was feeling was a mere foreshadowing of the earthquakes to come.

Some years ago, during our family’s struggle with a dysfunctional dynamic and my father’s addiction, I discovered Brené Brown and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she delivered the words of a sacred vocation: “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story.” This was a rebuttal to my teenage observation that I’d need my snow globe world to settle down. I didn’t need peace — I needed truth. The change I was experiencing wasn’t a subtle jostling –it was the first cracks in the glass of family secret-keeping and forgotten lies. Over the next seventeen years, the religious icons I’d made of my expectations for a safe, happy, linear life would fall apart– the result of an iconoclast both painful and real.

Consider this writing endeavor an invitation to join me as I crack my life open, exposing the shards of family dysfunction and forgotten lies, and flip shame the double bird.