People walking around exist because of a long line of ancestors who met other people and started families. Those people then met other people and so on and so forth. The result? A world full of unique backgrounds to celebrate and learn about.
But with all the diverse ancestors who came before us comes a difficult question: What percentage of a certain heritage is needed for it to count?
As a one-quarter Japanese woman, this is a question I’ve faced on a routine basis. Here’s my story.
You can’t judge a book by its cover
If you saw me walking down the street, you’d see a 5-foot-2, brown-haired, hazel-eyed white woman. None of my features are particularly Asian.
But if you knew more about my family, you’d learn my dad is half Japanese and was born in Japan. You’d understand that being part Japanese is not only my go-to fun fact but also something I’m extremely proud of because it represents generations of family that came before me, notably my late grandmother who was 100% Japanese.
And Asian culture has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I had a distinct first experience eating sushi when I was around 7. My dad took me to a local, family-owned spot and ordered a California roll (not technically “real” sushi) and a tuna roll. As I fought the chopsticks in my small hands and raised the first piece of sushi to my mouth, I felt proud. And then, I was redirected to the shock of something hot. “This rice is spicy, dad,” I said.
The look on his face was priceless and is forever ingrained in my mind. “I forgot to tell them no wasabi!,” he exclaimed. I, of course, had no clue what that was as my mouth continued to heat up. Eventually, we cured the burning sensation with a Sprite, and all was well again. I’m happy to report I’ve recovered and have been able to eat sushi without a problem for the last two decades.
Welcome to the real world
In the many years since my wasabi fiasco, I’ve been met with facing my quarter-Asianess head on. From doctor’s offices to standardized testing and job applications, I’ve struggled to know what to mark when asked to fill out the ethnicity portion of official forms.
I’ve been left wondering if being one-quarter Japanese is “enough” to include or if I go the simpler option of just choosing “white.” My dad, who is half Japanese, had a different experience when I asked him how he fills out such forms.
Quite plainly, he said he checks “white” and moves about his day. I was shocked to hear this because he’s equal parts white and Japanese.
“It’s easier,” he said.
To me, that’s a very sad statement. It appears like choosing between your two sides of family instead of being able to claim both.
More to be done
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to live in a world where we can move away from the boxed-in categorization of people where the “easier” option is what’s selected. I’d much rather see more inclusion of all people, backgrounds and heritages, Asian or not.
I’m proud to be one-quarter Japanese and have decided that I am Asian enough to check both boxes. I’m allowed to represent my heritage in whatever way I choose, and I no longer have hesitation about it.
Being majority white and looking the way I do undoubtedly impacts my lived experience. I will never know what it’s like to live life as an Asian person and the obstacles that can accompany it. I will never be the victim of anti-Asian hate. However, that doesn’t invalidate my heritage.
So, I will continue to proudly claim my entire makeup, including Japanese, whenever I can. I will speak fondly of the culture I’ve learned about and experienced in my own way. And I will listen to those who are living lives that look different from mine, including but not limited to people who have more Asian in their makeup than I do.
That’s really the point of diversity. We celebrate what we know, learn what we can and try to do better. That in and of itself is worth acknowledging.