The Search for Identity and Community Through a Return to One’s Homeland
By Maya Kashima
Growing up, I was told I wasn’t Asian. Well, not that I wasn’t Asian, but I wasn’t really Asian, you know? I had lenient parents. I wasn’t on a STEM track. I didn’t go to Saturday school to learn an ancestral language; all my family spoke was English. My dad made frozen potstickers from Trader Joe’s for dinner. My quarter-white, three-quarter-Asian blood produced a thicket of frizzy black hair that girls in my P.E. class would touch, expressing fascination at the fact I was one of them, but also not.
It wouldn’t be until college that I finally saw validity in my Asian-American identity. For the first time, I met others who occupied the same liminal space as me, who felt just as insecure and confused about where they fit in the world. My studies helped me understand my family’s Asian-ness within a broader context, too — my mom’s white father and Korean immigrant mother, who married before Loving v. Virginia ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, shied away from raising children too culturally Asian to survive in 1960s Wisconsin; my dad’s second-generation Japanese-American parents lost much of their culture to incarceration during World War II.
While I came to embrace my identity as a mixed-race Japanese/Korean/Asian-American, I still felt a sense of loneliness. In my late teens and early twenties, I battled with myself searching for a sense of connection to my heritage, again becoming the same young girl who wished she could be “Asian enough.” I learned Japanese, developing a working proficiency and slowly mastering the culture my grandparents might have shared with me had Franklin Delano Roosevelt never signed the executive order that stole their dignity. I grew tired of it, though, once I realized that my peers didn’t see Japanese culture as anything more than a hobby, and that I was the only one for whom studying was an emotional burden.
In her 2016 novel, “Homegoing,” Berkeley-based author Yaa Gyasi writes of similar struggles faced by descendants of the transatlantic slave trade. One of her protagonists, a master’s student at Stanford, decides to study African-American culture for reasons not unlike why I took up Japanese. He too wrestles with the dissonance between academia and an existential longing to belong. Lost in thoughts of wishing he could know the lives of those who came before him, he takes note of a particular “feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.”
I felt the same sense of transcendent time as I stepped off my ten-hour flight to Tokyo in December 2017. I had come to Japan with the Kakehashi Project, a seven-day program in which Japanese-Americans, as well as a handful of non-Japanese Asian-Americans, travel to Japan to learn about their heritage and become cultural ambassadors for U.S.-Japan relations.
Kakehashi, started in 2014 by the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), is only the latest in a group of programs helping diasporic youth connect with their ancestral homelands. Perhaps the most well-known among them is Israel’s Taglit-Birthright. Started in 1999, Birthright has sent approximately 600,000 Jewish young adults to Israel. There, they visit cultural sites, engage in dialogues about Judaism and Jewish culture, and spend time with same-aged peers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. The program was “born out of a concern that assimilation was leading Diaspora Jewry away from engagement with Jewish life and the State of Israel,” the program’s website states.
Most government-sponsored youth programs serve the dual purpose of encouraging cultivation of diasporic cultural identity and promoting a certain brand of ethnic nationalism. Whether Birthright’s Zionist tenets and ties to the IDF are positive or negative depends on who you ask, and the same goes for Kakehashi. We attended lectures from officials who spoke in favor of Japan’s current conservative administration, which is perhaps expected from someone representing the Japanese government, but were not told to adhere to any specific political ideology. The trip’s general aim, at least on JICE’s end, was to spread the word about all the positives of Japanese culture and encourage us to live and work in Japan.
I never thought I would consider it, but being there, I did feel a renewed desire to connect with my Japanese roots. During a homestay in rural Kyoto Prefecture, I served as an interpreter for two other participants staying in the same household. Our okaasan and otousan (mom and dad) couldn’t stop marveling over how much one girl, who always felt she didn’t look Japanese enough, reminded them of their daughter. The trip was full of affirming moments like this, a testament to the great value of these programs.
“I always felt pretty distant from my Japanese-American side,” says fellow Kakehashi participant and Berkley City College student Noelle Fa-Kaji. “It just didn’t seem like there was a big community around [Berkeley].” It was something of a revelation, then, to be halfway across the world and experience belonging.
At first she thought the program would focus primarily on tourism and promoting Japan, given its emphasis on cultural ambassadorship. “I was expecting, like, ‘come and see the sights and then go home and tell everybody else how cool Japan is!’ And then I got there and was like, ‘Oh, so we’re thinking about our place in the diaspora.’”
In this way, the trip fulfilled its goals — to bridge gaps between cultures and communities (Kakehashi literally means “bridge”), it helps to cultivate a community of one’s own.
“That was something I didn’t expect to get out of it,” Fa-Kaji says. “I think that was the most valuable thing, over any of the programming or anything like that. The human connection.”
At the top: The author pets a deer at Nara Park in Nara, Japan. Photo Credit: Maya Kashima