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 Letter to My Mother

A Letter to My Mother

The vow you made years ago
in the safety of your heart
was to launch your own ship onto a rocky reef,
to keep the treasure in the hold
from the hands of a watery god.

You were weather-worn, soaked in sea brine,
skin cracking from the salt spray
and thirsty.
You threw the bowlines,
dragging the anchor of your own wounds
deep along the ocean floor–
Prayers shouted to the gulls
and all else who would hear.

I am thirty four now,
awaking on an unknown shore,
battered, bruised, sun-blind from sudden light.
I cannot see you, but I sense you are there.
You left me! I scream,
eyes wet with rage.
My fists drum a frenzied beat
against the trunks and mussel shells.
I stumble through bracken,
counting the leaves as if they are sins.
The sharp edges slice cloth from skin
and skin from flesh.
I draw a map from scar to scar
and sing the bitter refrain:
You left me!

The forest cracks open, a cocoon of green.
I find you, smiling.
You are a child, pink and glowing,
not yet met with time’s erosion.
I shout, raw and ragged ー You left me!

You clasp my hand with tiny fingers,
saying: Listen.

You were the treasure.
You were the boat.
And you were the storm.

My child, how could I leave you
when you are the destination?

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 Ancestry.com 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.

A World of Discovery: When DNA Doesn’t Add Up

A World of Discovery: When DNA Doesn’t Add Up

After three weeks of staring at the order’s progress bar, my at-home DNA testing kit has been processed. I’ve texted my friends from college to joke about how many shades of mayonnaise will appear on the ancestry breakdown, but I’m actually curious to see if there are any thrilling discoveries. It’s true that I’ve never felt especially romantic about my German and Irish heritage. I have a first cousin who studied German in school and was smitten with the language and culture, passing up a Fulbright Scholarship to start her career abroad immediately after college. Other friends have been to Dublin and Galway and returned with tales of haunted Irish castles and pints of Guinness, but these destinations have been further down my travel list, after most of South America and a smattering of countries between the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea. Maybe, just maybe, I could be convinced to bump them ahead in the queue if friends plan fun social trips in the next year or two.

DNA testing isn’t the first activity I’ve planned to fill my time during this banal COVID-19 cycle of sleeping, eating, Zoom calls and walking the dog. I’ve already read several novels that had been on my nightstand for months. Mailed away for a compendium of Flannery O’Connor works. Started a nutrition journal. Repainted a pantry. Racked up thousands of DuoLingo points practicing Spanish. Colored elaborate scenes in adult coloring books. So why not finally spit in a tube and mail it to a lab to see how much Neanderthal DNA I’ve inherited?

I’ve mentioned the test to my husband, Alex, in passing; his tepid response includes a comment about not wanting to give his DNA to corporations. Alex is used to my oft-spontaneous initiatives. However, while I think of them as whimsical and adventurous, he frequently tolerates my impulsivity with a not-so-subtle eye roll. I have no qualms about sharing my DNA after having read the copious disclaimers, however. I’ve read about how law enforcement used DNA databases to narrow the list of suspects in the Golden State Killer and Bear Brook cases, and as far as I’m concerned, sign me up. The world feels tenuous and broken, anyway, and I may as well be shouting, “C’est la vie!” and “LEEEROYYYY JENKINS!” as I click Accept on the Terms of Use.

Thus, as soon as I receive the email notification, I click the embedded link to log on to the 23andMe website, where this world of DNA discovery is waiting. The page is dense with information — tabs for ethnic and racial breakdown, genetic health indicators, likely physical traits, a page for my family tree. During the weeks-long wait for results, I’ve completed some of the voluntary research questions that the company poses to participants. Which is your dominant hand? Do you ever experience Restless Leg Syndrome? Do you taste soap when you eat cilantro? At this point, there’s not just one way to explore this page, and I’m hungry for the meat of it, so I go for the section that I find most interesting — Ancestry Composition. 

I see color-coding in a pie graph, the key expands when I click on the arrows. Each opened section drops down to offer up more information — 75.4% Northeastern European. No surprises there — I dissect it further. I’m 52.3% British and Irish. I click into that section; it takes me to a map of regions in the British isles, highlighting specific locations where my ancestors were most likely from, as well as ranked by where the most recent generations originated.

These numbers pull me to the stories of my maternal great-grandparents, both sets of which resided in the Lubbock area, a small city almost halfway up the length of the Texas Panhandle. My grandmother’s parents were one of the 33 families selected for a New Deal-era initiative called the Ropesville Resettlement Project. Those among the chosen few had survived the Great Depression only to meet a decade-long drought causing devastating dust storms across large swaths of the country’s farmland. Applicants who qualified had a track record of hard work, strong reputations among the community, and a pattern of debt repayment. According to my grandmother, Lena, prior to her birth her parents had lived in a grain silo together with another couple for a time. When they applied for one of the farmstead loans there were 1,200 other hopeful applicants. Lena’s parents obtained the right to live on a 120-acre farm and received a loan to plant the first year’s crops and obtain milk and livestock. Over time, they were expected to pay back the loan and would have the opportunity to buy the farm from the government.

There is a picture taken by Arthur Rothstein, one of President Roosevelt’s commissioned photographers, of my great grandparents standing at the doorway to their new farm; my great-grandmother, Jane, is pregnant with a son. He will be the first boy to be born on the project, and they will receive $50 as a congratulations gift for their fortune. She sweeps her left hand to her forehead, a grin on her face, as she blocks the sun from her eyes. My great grandfather, Emmette, leans against the doorframe with an angular jaw supporting a tight-lipped smile; the tan line of his hat falls squarely at his thick eyebrows. The wind is up, as evidenced by a few locks of Emmette’s dark hair and the swaying pant leg of his frayed coveralls. 85 years later, the prop master for a Netflix show will stumble across this photo and include it as plot point in a modern treasure-hunting story. The windfall of the Netflix show is different, but the desire is the same — Emmette and Jane’s legacy lies, not in the ocean, but in the land.

Their ancestors had also come from a long line of farmers, originating from the British Isles and filtering through Mississippi before making their way over to Texas. As was the custom, each generation had a bevvy of children and not enough pennies, making for expansive and gnarled branches of the family tree, decorated by cotton bolls and dust.

I claw my way back to the main Ancestry Composition report, having burrowed down several layers deep into the rabbit hole of British ancestry information. My eyes sweep the page, looking for familiar pieces of myself. French & German: 9%. Scandinavian: 3%. Broadly Northwestern European: 8%. I pause. Wait, only 9% German? This scant number seems odd given that my maiden name sounds like a type of bratwurst and that my father spent his 60th birthday visiting the small German village from which his grandparents emigrated. He’d told me all about standing outside the Lutheran church that his ancestors attended, and shared pictures of himself in front of modern shop signage that still bears the family name. Could there be secrets from the old country? My mind spins a yarn of excitement and intrigue in a far off land, illustrated in shades of gray.

And then I see it — at the bottom of the page, dangling as if it were the plumpest peach — 23.9% East Asian & Native American. The number breaks down further — 20.5% Japanese. 1% Korean. 1.2% Broadly East Asian. Even though the number is highlighted in red, I can’t make sense of what this could mean. My brain has already been running through a maze of possibilities, and this detail feels as if I’ve stumbled upon a hidden path, unfamiliar and bewildering in its placement.

I could tell you that I immediately know what this implies — that it is a grenade lobbed into my lap and the particles of my body begin rapidly expanding outward in a fiery blossom– but it isn’t like that at all. Instead, it is as if I’ve been overcome by an insatiable hunger, a rabid, frenetic compulsion for sustenance. The compulsion drives me from pantry to refrigerator, roving from room to room looking for a morsel of what will abate my appetite. My brain tastes different possibilities, unwrapping thoughts like candy bars. Great Grandmother Hazel’s mother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma.” They said she was part Indian. Could it be? People crossed the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas to become Native American. Surely that’s it. My maternal grandparents have been remarried a few times. And on and on.

I begin a Word document on my computer and type out the various theories in a list, trying to make my approach methodical, rational, sleuth-like. I cross out and eliminate possibilities. I begin sketching out my known genealogy. I text my parents. I text my brother. Their collective responses are to effectively say, “Weird.” They offer no insight. I was not prepared for the magnitude of this discovery, and now despite attempting to go back to work, all I can think of is finding an explanation. What started as another frivolous hobby in the midst of a pandemic is now a full-fledged mystery of ethnicity and identity, and I’ve only begun to work the case.