I’ve been flummoxed by so many people asking their friends who are of Japanese descent about their family and friends in Japan. While always well meaning and caring, I’ve talked to so many Japanese Americans about this and everyone says the same thing: “Why are they asking me these questions? My family lives here, my parents live here, we were all born here, and I don’t even speak Japanese!”
Many people seem to forget that just because you do not have a Caucasian face, it does not mean you are a foreigner or a recent immigrant. There are 4th and 5th generations of Americans of Japanese descent. They have no more connections to Japan then any other US citizen would have.
The only time it makes sense is when the person asking is a recent immigrant, or because their parents were the immigrants. In this case, the context that they are familiar with is one where they personally have friends and family “in the old country.” However, when the person asking is also of multiple generations removed from the immigrant experience, then this takes on a different meaning. To the recipient, a person might as well be asking, “How are your family and friends in Turkey doing?”
Because of the US’s history of laws that discriminated, legally, against Asian Americans, in a manner that made Asian immigrants in the 1800′s to be considered ineligible for citizenship, much of this mentality is still carried in our psyche that Asian faces living here are not really citizens. Similar laws occurred in Canada. The US had the Chinese Exclusion Act (1883), The Immigration Act of 1924 (severely limiting the numbers of immigrants from Asian countries, which accounts for the smaller Asian American population compared to European populations, and other laws to exclude Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Canada had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. I was talking to a friend in Canada, whose ancestry is Malay. She told me that someone in her extended family actually told her that she’s not a real Canadian citizen because she is not white. You can imagine how well that went over with her. It is similar to some of the narrow concepts of citizenship we’ve had here, particularly in the early and mid 1900′s.
It is what Professor Frank Yu referred to as, “The Perpetual Foreigner’s Syndrome.” Although this seems to be another wave of the same tide, albeit in caring and well meaning intent, for many of the older generations of Japanese Americans who know their parents, grandparents or great grandparents lost everything they owned so they could be ported off to live in barracks in the desert in the name of not being American citizens as equal as non Japanese Americans, it can bring up a lot of intra-generational pain.
When I talk to my friends, their reactions occur to varying degrees. One of my friends told me that he was really hurt when a long time friend asked him if his family was okay, when they grew up together and his friend knew that his family and grandparents were all living here in Chicago as long as his friend’s families have. He told me it made him feel “less than accepted as an American.” Given the situation, I can understand his feelings.
It also seems that when people first ask, “Do you know anyone in Japan?” then that phrasing softens the message. I believe that because there is still a lot of psychic damage to what was done to Americans of Japanese descent from EO9066. As a group, the children and grandchildren are particularly sensitive to being considered anything less than American first.
In contrast, when there was news of genocides in Africa, I don’t recall hearing from any African Americans that I know that people asked them how they felt about that, as Africans. Somehow the history of slavery has given them the mark of really being American.
Interestingly many of the laws this country had in the 1800′s and early 19th century to exclude Asians from citizenship and thus, from fully participating in American society, were also used against Mexicans. It isn’t too surprising that many older generations of Mexicans also seem to experience similar issues, which is also complicated by the fact that Mexico is geographically very accessible, versus Japan, which is an Ocean away. I know someone whose is a 6th generation Mexican American. Her ancestors lived in Texas when it was Mexico. People don’t understand why she doesn’t speak Spanish. She does, but about as well as anyone who has recently taken a language class and her comprehension of verbal Spanish is difficult for her, yet because of her Latina face, people expect her to know Spanish. It is for this reason that when one wants to practice their Spanish, it is always best to not assume they can prattle on to someone with a Latin face.
That being said, I think we should all be concerned about what is happening to Japan. Japan is a major Global Economy, a US ally, and one of the most advanced nations on the planet. If that isn’t enough, just remember, we are all citizens of the same planet Earth. And, in case anyone forgets, in the end, we are all members of the same race: the human one.
The World Class LA Times also has continued to provide some of the best coverage I’ve seen, along with a haunting photographic segment under their Framework section. Their slide show is undeniably one of the best.
God help us all.