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.