Growing up as a kid in the States, I didn’t have the language to talk about race. How could I, when I was just a little snot-nosed Japanese girl in lily-white, suburban Indiana? In the absence of words like “institutional racism”, “intersectional feminism”, “model minority myth”, “Vincent Chin”, “No-No Boys”, and “internment camps”, all I could really do was whine that they were mean to me, Mama, whenever stuff happened.
And stuff did happen sometimes: like when a girl in kindergarten pushed up her eyes at me, that oh-so-familiar gesture now, which I couldn’t comprehend as racism then. Or when my classmates wouldn’t quit asking questions about what I was eating during lunch, so eventually I stopped bringing my box lunches to school and bought hot lunches and milk, just like everybody else. Like when a little boy sang, “Chinese, Japanese, na-na-na-na-nahhhh” in the playground and danced just out of reach, goading me to chase him. When a Chinese family moved into our neighborhood, and every morning, I dreaded when the school bus pulled up in front of the new boy’s house, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t sit next to me, because then all the other white kids would tease me about my new boyfriend.
But I didn’t know it was racism, so these isolated incidents, scattered few and far between, didn’t trouble me very much. People were mean sometimes, and that was that. My childhood memories of Indiana were idyllic: pink cotton-candy sunsets, deer coming to nibble at our tulip bulbs, clouds of fireflies at night, snow so fluffy and abundant that we made snow angels and igloos every winter, and hot, dry summers where we swam in the neighbors’ backyard pool and lazed about eating frozen Go-Gurt and garishly colorful popsicles.
Our family was only there temporarily because of my dad’s job, and we moved back to Japan when his stint there was over. I missed America dearly; I considered America to be mine, too. I’m sure this is true for all non-Americans, because of the vast influences of America’s soft power (or the corrupting impact of Western imperialism, whichever you prefer) — everyone grew up watching American movies and listening to American music, eating at American chain restaurants, wearing American brand clothing, even speaking American slang that somehow snuck its way into our native languages. Our politics, cultures, and wars are shaped by yours, to some extent. We look to America with a mixture of childish love and longing; we believe with unfounded confidence, that we would belong, that America would accept us, if only we lived there.
Or at least, that was the case when I moved back there for college. At 17, I’d still held tightly onto those nostalgic memories of my childhood, still clueless as to how Indiana lay on the Bible Belt, was snidely referred to as a “fly-over state” by urban folk, and only had a vague understanding of white conservatism or racism, since I’d spent most of my adolescent years in Japan, a largely ethnically homogenous and monolingual society.
I thought it’d be like “going home” in a way, that I’d settle back in as if no time had passed. My parents had enrolled me in an international school after returning back to Japan, because they thought that it’d be a shame for me to forget my English. I therefore spoke English with an impeccably American accent, or “no accent” as they say, a fact that I was far too proud of. I felt ready; I was eager for my American adventures to begin.
Looking back now, it seems unbearably naive of me to have expected anything more, but no amount of exposure to the sticky-sweet attractions of American exports could have prepared me for the sobering reality check that was living in a Republican, highly conservative state, where 88% of the population was white. Purdue University was a public institution, and yet blown-up posters of bloody fetuses and tiny white crosses symbolizing said bloody fetuses routinely cropped up on the grassy plains of our campus, not to mention all the earnest white people that accosted me at every corner to shove Bibles at me and inquire if I just had one minute to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And then there was the racism again, which I recognized this time. Purdue University was the go-to college for many in-state residents, so I knew that many of my former elementary and middle school classmates were attending it, too. I was still friends with some of them on Facebook, and we made vague promises to eventually reunite in person. But that was back in the day when it was still cool to write on each other’s Facebook walls and I saw a public exchange between two of my close friends in middle school, complaining and joking about all the Asians in the campus library. Something about studying at a different library later, because the other one was frequented by too many Asians. I quietly unfriended them.
A “Purdue Asians” Twitter account was created during my year, where the anonymous user posted pictures of mostly international Asian students with mocking captions. Intrusive pictures, taken without their knowledge, close-ups or at a distance, of them sleeping on the bus, at the library, walking around on campus, simply existing. At its height, the account had enough followers that it was escalated to the university, but a representative merely recommended that we ignore it. Every time I viewed the Facebook page for my class year, it seemed like there was another new meme about Asians. There were so many that they all eventually blurred into one other — tired jokes about their driving, their fashion, their accents, but I remember seeing one in particular with an angry-looking cartoon character declaring, “ALL THESE ASIANS ON MY MOTHERFUCKING CAMPUS”.
Not too long afterwards, I was assigned to do a group project in one of my classes. My two (white) group members were perfectly civil to me and we completed the project without any issues. It was only afterwards that I belatedly realized why that particular meme had stood out to me — it was because it’d been posted by one of the guys in my group project, that’s why his name had seemed strangely familiar to me. It chilled me to think how nice and just how normal he had been towards me, when he had made this meme himself and posted it to a group of thousands using his real name, that I hadn’t been able to deduce this from his outwards persona somehow. How someone could smile at you and still hate you.
Every racist meme, every microaggression, every racist comment I heard within earshot, every disappointingly lukewarm response from the university, every backhanded compliment about how my English was so much better than that of all the other Asians, every drunken shout of “Nihao” I received, they began to pile up and weigh on me. “I feel like I don’t belong here”, I confessed to one of my Asian-American professors. Like a one-sided love that had turned sour, a spurned lover, I grew angry and disillusioned.
After four years of college, I opted to return back to Japan and search for a job there. Staying in America was out of the question. And there was immense relief once I came home: I immediately became invisible again; nobody ever looked at me, because I was part of the majority again and extra-ordinary. I fit in. It was a bittersweet loneliness that was different from the one that I had felt in Indiana; it consumed me less.
I cannot begin to imagine how much more it must hurt for Asian-Americans, who were born and raised there, who have so much more claim to America than I do, to witness this violent surge of hate again in their own lifetimes. To be deluged with a ceaseless flood of viral posts and articles about yet another hate crime against someone who looked just like us. Hate crimes that aren’t called hate crimes. Another day, another stabbing, another fatality. To feel so naked and easily identifiable, a black head in a sea of white.
But even if America couldn’t be mine, it’s yours. Even if it doesn’t feel like it now, it is and never forget that. Fight for what is rightfully yours.