Japanese Hairs

by

I have Japanese hairs. Coarse, stiff, black Japanese strings intermixed with my wave of fine American strands. Sometimes I find them as I run my fingers through my hair and pluck them out; I tug them between my fingers, marveling at their strength and ductility. They are strong, resilient—much stronger than my American hairs. I wind them around my fingers, roll them into complicated knots, and then slowly pull until they SNAP. Then I sift the pieces onto the ground.

I am always fascinated when I find these evidences of my Asian heritage, pieces of my body that remind me of who I am. I am a half. A mix. My mother is from an island in the pacific, my dad is a homegrown Idaho potato. And my face is where these forces converge. Two nations, two countries, two families—me.

People are often confused when they meet me. A glance, then a double take, and I can see the reels whirling in their heads as they flip through every racial photo album they own. Mexican? Polynesian? Italian? Then they ask my name.

“I’m Moe.”

“What?”

“Mo-eh.”

(pause)

“Oh, like the MOA? That’s cool!” “What is that?” “What is that from?” “Does it mean anything?” “Are you Chinese?” “You are so unique!” “Sounds like Moana. Can I call you Moana?”

I have always laughed at these responses; I expect them now. I joke with my friends about the different ways to say my name and about how hard and weird it is—like trying to fit a mango in your mouth. But there is a deeper part of me that feels like I’ve never really been known by most of the people in my life. I feel like they’ve known a version of me, have perceived a hint of the essence of who I am—but they don’t know me. They can’tknow me—my name is the key to me.

In my subconscious self, I have always known the people that are in my inner circle: there are those who can say my name and those who can’t. And it hurts that sometimes the people I love most are on the outside.

I remember I almost cried when someone said my name correctly at BYU. I was at work, and a half-Japanese kid came in for help with his paper. He looked a little lost, and I was eager for Japanese conversation, so I quickly went up to him and introduced myself. He told me his name, and then I told him mine, and he said, “Ah, Moe!” and I was hit like thunder. The reverberations of my name flooded through my chest—I felt a warmth, an exhilaration that I had never experienced. For the first time, I felt known at BYU. I felt understood, comprehended—like someone could see me in all of my light, see me for me. All barriers went down; I loved him instantly.

***

In America, I am the Asian girl. The representation. The one who keeps the class diverse. But I talk American. I walk American. I stand American. I shout American, laugh American. And yet, I catch myself folding my hands neatly in class, bowing slightly when I meet people, covering my mouth when I speak, employing the passive Japanese glass face when I do not want others to know how I feel.

I am the girl who brings strange, smelly food to school in a little bento box. All the kids stare. I am the girl who gets straight As, who can’t have playdates during the week, who practices math over the summer and attends summer festivals in bright kimonos, watching fireworks burst over the sky. I color every room I walk into—ethnically ambiguous. Different. American, but not quite. This girl is not quite one of us. She is from somewhere else.

When I go to Japan, I feel like even more of a foreigner than I do in America. I find that I am simultaneously an insider and an outsider—which is almost worse. I am thoroughly western, defiantly so, with tan skin and thoroughly-American freckles sprinkled across my face. My accent is native. But my vocabulary is limited. I can drink the bitter mugichaand eat the fermented beans, but I hate fish and can’t stomach wasabi. I bow to everyone I meet, but I have not perfected the lengths of bowing and my roughness betrays my lack of nativity—my culture in infancy, my pure blood that has been thinned with American water. A plant that has grown rough, grown crooked, a tree warped “in the very act of yearning.”

When my ego suffers, I cry American tears. Thick, hot, pulsing. When I fail, I cry Japanese tears—shame, sorrow, futility. I bring shame to my ancestors—and I feel the weight of two lines on my shoulders.

Two of everything. Two passports. Two languages. Two worlds. Two pieces of myself that can’t come together. Two ripped seams.

***

My grandmother was born during the war, when bombs were a constant threat to the densely-packed Japanese city of Makurazaki. Her mother died giving birth to her. And as the city was no place for a single father to raise a large family and a brand-new baby, my great-grandfather made the sad decision to give my Baba away to be raised by a family in the country. When her older sister, then a high school student, returned home to find Baba missing, she confronted my great-grandfather, saying, “How could you give Hisakoaway? She is family!” She then walked miles out into the country on foot and begged the family to give Baba back and spent the next years of her life raising Baba on her own, walking from door to door daily to beg for milk to feed her.

In moments of struggle, I see her—my great-aunt—begging door to door with my Baba in her arms, refusing to conform, refusing to give in. I see my ancestors rise up in unshaken determination against the hardships of the world. And with a chill, I recognize that that same tenacity, from two different gene pools, flows in me.

I have reconciled that I will never have a true fit. That I will never be perfectly at home as American or as Asian—that there is no nation of people like me. There is no one place that I belong. But that also means that I belong everywhere. I belong to myself. I am my own. I am a mix, a dynamic fusion of multiple nations, the result of the honored efforts of thousands of ancestors who sacrificed to leave a legacy worth having.

Someday I’ll sit on the line where the ocean meets the sand. I’ll feel the pull of the water and the gravity of the earth. I will look up and feel whole and complete—and my two ripped seams will be enough for me.