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.

A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

I am disoriented, the world around me murky, as I grasp for answers. The at-home DNA test results I’m viewing this Friday afternoon show that a quarter of my biological makeup is originated from Japan. This is impossible, you see, because I am descended from a long line of proud Germans and a cuvée of English, Irish, and French. Both sides of my family have done the genealogy to prove it.

Bewildered, I navigate to the Family Tree, mostly bare with dotted lines for the names of relatives I know by heart, but who have not submitted their own biological building blocks to be meticulously analyzed. There are a few names I recognize on my mother’s side: a first cousin who now lives abroad, a distant cousin I last saw at a Thanksgiving gathering about 20 years ago, a woman who shares the same last name as my grandfather. Other names and thumbnail photographs of faces I’ve never met. My mind is generating theories. Perhaps this brand of DNA test just isn’t as popular as others. Maybe Dad’s side haven’t submitted DNA since they are certain of their origins in Germany. I see no one with my maiden name, but there is a surname, Hibler, that is similar to my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Could it be a misspelling? Was it anglicized when they emigrated? I send another follow up text message to Dad to ask if it rings a bell.

In the gap between my question and his answer, I think of the myriad times I’ve been back to Dad’s hometown since I was a child, arriving after a long journey in the back of a minivan with a stiff neck and a little dried saliva on my cheek. Bleary-eyed, we would emerge from between rolling waves of corn like the Israelites from the Red Sea if the desert were less arid and more attractive to ConAgra. We’d stop first at Grandma’s house to unload some luggage, stretch our legs, and make small talk while I eyed up her candy dish of Werther’s Originals. After an hour or two we would drive over to the family farm a few miles away, where Dad and his two brothers spent their adolescence and where my cousin, Matt, and his family still run the operation alongside my Uncle Reynold.

From the vantage point of the long gravel driveway, the farm looks like it could be cut from a classic postcard. The white farmhouse is now outfitted with a wraparound porch (an addition some time after Dad had moved away), and there’s always been at least one German Shepherd whose barking will make you triple check that you’ve got the right address. More than once I’ve sat immobile in the car, hatching an escape route in case the dog forgets I’m related to her people.  The original barn stands in the classic red and white Midwest uniform, and in recent years they’ve added additional large shop buildings and engineered an impressive grain silo and truck-loading facility. It’s a whole thing.

While Dad would make his way down to the shop to do man things with the guys, surrounded by tractors and other larger-than-life farming implements, Mom and I would shout, “Hello!” while simultaneously letting ourselves into the kitchen. In the early days we might find Aunt Barb soaking some sweet corn for dinner or tidying up her otherwise immaculate house; Kellie and I would wander upstairs to do whatever preteen girls do — admire a collection of stuffed animals, talk about school, or spy on the rest of the family walking back and forth on the lawn outside.

If we stayed through Sunday, which we almost always did, it was imperative that we attend the Sunday morning Lutheran church service. I knew not to wear high heels to this event, because to get inside the building we’d drive for about a mile on a white gravel drive, kicking up clouds of dust that looked more like a dense fog. More than once I’d teetered over the rocky road precariously walking from the car to the church building, praying I wouldn’t turn my ankle and embarrass my entire family line before we got inside. I always had the sense that they knew we were coming ahead of time and were watching the road as if in advance of a parade.

The outside of the Trinity Lutheran Church building was fitted with white siding and a stately steeple; inside the nave of the church were prim and perfect rows of wooden pews facing an intricately painted altar, complete with a large statue of Jesus in purple and yellow robes. As a child, I felt like Technicolor Jesus and I could have shared clothing, we were so similar in size.

It’s the basement of that church that I envision now as I consider my 9% German DNA. Downstairs from the sanctuary is a portion of the wood-paneled fellowship hall papered over with family portraits. Some are official framed family photos, some are printed in black and white on paper, and all bear the names of family lineages. Multiple generations. Dietrich. Engel. Andorf. Müller. Badenhurst. Schroeder. Engelhardt. Each pale face staring hard at the camera as if this picture is just one more burden — one more task they must complete to fulfill their duty as upstanding citizens. They look tired (and a little pissed off). Over the years I’ve met several of the great-aunts and great-uncles or cousins once and twice removed, many of which are descended from the people in these photos. I can never remember exactly who is related to whom and who is merely a neighbor, but it’s safe to say that even neighbors are family after years in the same community. Everyone’s fate feels intertwined.

I go back to diagramming family relationships on the back of a napkin. The DNA match with my maternal first cousin means that we definitely share a grandmother. Here I’m connected to this surname Hugoe, which matches my maternal grandfather. I know that Mom’s parents divorced and remarried more than once, so I start to wonder if there are more secrets held over from that generation, passed down to us quietly amidst the chaos of blended families and hardship.

Mom calls me with the answers to some genealogical questions I’ve sent her. She confirms the vague memory that my great great grandmother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma,” and was part Indian. Could her ethnicity have been misattributed during that time in Texas? I begin constructing a nest from the small details I glean –each hunch becomes a thread, a feather, a windward leaf as I try to make sense of this information. I flit from here and there sending cryptic messages to the unfamiliar connections with whom I share part of my self via the 23andMe website. I tell them I’ve just gotten my results and would be interested in discussing which ancestors we have in common. I reactivate an old account and begin scraping the database for the vital records and newspaper clippings of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. There is no rest. There is no stop. There is only the perpetual roving — a frenetic mental movement to push ever forward. The thrumming between my ears becomes a word, chanted in monastic rhythm: More. More. MORE.

Although this mystery of the Japanese DNA initiates a Nancy Drew-like investigation on my part, I wish I could say that I am completely scientific in my approach. Yes, I have an articulated list of possibilities written out, however, when my brother jokes, “Are you thinking Mom isn’t telling you something?” I immediately laugh it off and tell him my theory of Tiny Grandma’s true ethnicity. I am fixated on the assumption that the secret is generations removed and born of a time when the Texas census responses were handwritten and often misspelled or illegible. After all, I reason, it would have behooved her to assimilate into White culture in a Southern farming community in the 1890s.

Around 6:00 in the evening, I press pause on my scrambled research and join my husband and some friends on a social distancing “Happy Hour” via online web conference. We are among the throngs of people who have turned to digital engagement to try to stay connected in the age of COVID-19. We’ve fixed ourselves cocktails and are sitting in the upstairs office, side by side, grateful for some semblance of togetherness as we regale them with anecdotes about our dog, Arrow, and exchange updates about job status, headlines we’ve read, and funny Internet memes. One part of my brain has been expecting a call from Mom, and I’m subtly checking the clock on my cell phone every 15 minutes or so.

Finally, at 7:00, a few hours earlier than anticipated, I see the incoming call and duck out of the room to answer. Finding an isolated spot in the kitchen downstairs where I can lean nervously against the counter, I say, “Hi there!” There’s a buzzing energy in the air as I hear her greet me, and without hesitation she says, ” There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just say it.”

This is not the first life moment where I’ve received difficult news, and I meet it dry-eyed, measured, even. It’s as if I’ve gained the superhuman power to move faster than time, and so from my vantage point each detail Mom shares is lofted smoothly into the air, drifting calmly toward me. I gather them from their suspended trajectory, as if to set the details down on the counter top for later inspection. My peripheral vision is a swirling mist, but I am focused on making sure that she (and our family) will survive.

There was an ex-boyfriend. She and Dad were on a break. The ex-boyfriend was half-Japanese. She is very remorseful. She has found an obituary from 2012. Will I be okay? She has told Dad. He has gone on a drive.

Mom and I hang up the phone. Time returns to its standard cadence, the transcript in my mind parrots our conversation back to me. I love you don’t focus on shame I will be okay I love you we will work through this I will call Dad make sure he’s not drinking I will be okay call me if you need me I will be okay I love you this will be hard everything will be okay I love you.

I leave a voicemail and text message for Dad: When you are ready, call me. I love you. Don’t drink about it. I sit back, hoping to get word that my life hasn’t completely unraveled in the matter of minutes I’ve been standing in this kitchen. The fresh knowledge of this secret, held for three and half decades, is moving through our family like a cyclone, and all I can do right now is wait to see where the houses land.