I like to say that I have a transnational, multicultural, multiethnic identity. I am hapa, haafu, I am both/and, Japanese AND American. But I know that many others still see the world in dichotomies, as either/or, Japanese OR American.
I know what I look like. I’ve seen my face in the mirror before. But I forget that others might see me differently than I see myself. And I know who I am. But I am aware that others usually do not know me.
I was reminded of this while riding in a taxi with my 108 year-old grandmother in Matsuyama, a city on the island of Shikoku. Incredibly, she still likes shopping and chatted excitedly as we drove downtown to Mitsukoshi, her favorite department store. The taxi driver eyed me for a while in the rear view mirror before asking the inevitable question, “Where are you from?” I tried to dampen his curiosity. “Tokyo,” I answered curtly. But he was not easily discouraged, “I mean which country?” “Country?” I repeated, as if it was a dumb question. “I think Tokyo is in Japan, isn’t it?”
He looked at me strangely before laughing nervously. He was puzzled. He expected me to say America. Of course I could say America. My father was American and I lived there half my life. But I could also say Japan. I was born here, my mother, wife and children are Japanese and I have lived the other half of my life here. Then again, I could also say that I am multicultural, multilingual, multinational, transnational, international or a global citizen, not just a citizen of any one country.
My grandmother sitting beside me interrupted my musings by declaring to the taxi driver, “He’s an American, from the United States.”
I was about to protest, “Yes, but I am also Japanese,” but knew that it was futile; after all these years living in Japan, working for a national university, even legally becoming a Japanese citizen, she still thinks of me as her beloved American grandson.
In 1966, after studying at the University of Hawaii for two years, my mom Sumiko Carroll (née Namihira) went to Tokyo, intending to enroll in a Japanese university. However, while in Tokyo, she read a 2-line ad in the Japan Times (an English language newspaper), seeking flight attendants for Northwest Orient Airlines. Mom says, “I didn’t think I would get the job. I went mostly because I wanted to see who else would show up, but when I got there with my resumé, I was the only one there!” What followed were 5 days of tests, a different subject for each day, including English and math. Two weeks later, she was told to pack and prepare to fly to Minnesota for training. Along with Mom, only two other women were hired.
After working for Northwest Orient for a year, Mom was hired by Pan American Airlines. Pan Am intended to compete with Japan Airlines on their Asian routes, and sought out flight attendants that had already been trained. The hiring was done in Tokyo, although Mom was based in Honolulu. She says the Asian flight attendants worked the Asia routes only. Mom says “I was under the height requirement, over the weight limit, and so plain! That was back when they hired the most beautiful girls, just gorgeous, most of them looked like models. But I was fluent in both English and Japanese, and that’s why they hired me.” Personally, I think they also hired her because Mom had a reputation for working hard - her nickname was “Little Tiger.”
Mom is seated in the center. From left to right, the other women are Motoko Hanyū, Hisako Kobayashi, Kyoko Ōtake, and Miyako Kuroda.
Submitted by MK Carroll (Honolulu, HI).