By Samantha Masunaga
I remember being about four years old when my mother first tried to explain my heritage to me. “You’re an American of Japanese descent,” she would tell me, but at the time, I really did not understand what that meant. Fourteen years later, I am still trying to figure that out.
Even for a Yonsei, I am relatively distant from immediate Japanese influences. My grandparents spoke English and my parents never learned Japanese, so I never really learned how to speak the language. In fact, most of my cultural upbringing came in the form of attending summer Obon festivals, eating traditional New Year’s foods, and reading Japanese children’s stories, like my favorite, “Momotaro.”
When I was eight, my parents joined the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center so that I could play basketball in a JA league. At the Center, I had the opportunity to gain a much greater awareness of my heritage and culture, but I never really took advantage of it. I enrolled in Japanese school for three years, but the knowledge that I gained was short-lived. Looking back at my short experience in Gakuen, I remember less of the kanji that I learned and more of the friends that I made.
This came back to haunt me during my senior year of high school, when I visited Japan for the first time. The entire trip was amazing, but my lack of conversational skills became extremely apparent when my friends and I decided to have lunch in a small restaurant in one of the cities that we visited. When our server began to address us in Japanese, my friends looked to me for help. They should have known better. After struggling for several minutes to say, “Can we have some water, please?,” I reverted back to the most basic knowledge of Japanese verbs that I had learned while in first grade at Gakuen. I ended up telling the server “We drink water, thanks,” hoping that she would understand my awkward sentence.
While this experience should have encouraged me to become more involved in Japanese culture or language groups, instead, I continued to think that I could always do those kinds of things later in life.
When I entered college last fall, I had grand aspirations of the student groups that I would join. While looking at the list of campus groups, I planned to join a community service group, the student newspaper, and the Nikkei Student Union. In addition to the community service that the group performed around Little Tokyo, I was also attracted to the club based on the opportunity to learn taiko, a skill that I have wanted to learn since I was young.
However, this plan did not really come to fruition, as the only activity to which I was entirely committed was the student newspaper. I spent the rest of my free time playing basketball with friends, studying, and attempting to be a good member of the community service club.
In my defense, every Tuesday, I would try to go to Nikkei Student Union meetings, at least in the beginning. I would write it on my calendar, tell myself that this was the week that I would go, but when the day came around, I was always too busy or too lazy to get out of my dorm room. But strangely enough, I was never too busy to go out with my friends. Yet again, culture and heritage ended up on the back burner.
It was not until I started my internship at the Rafu earlier this summer that I began to gain a greater awareness of the JA community in Southern California. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by Japanese culture, whether it was writing about the tanabata festival or finding out about the existence of the Japanese consul-general. Learning about my heritage was no longer an option—it was the norm. So far, it has been a great experience and my meager knowledge of the JA community has more than doubled.
In contrast to the limited view that I had when I was younger, I now realize that being a JA is much more than attending Obons or eating mochi. It’s about understanding where those traditions came from and why they are important to continue. Moreover, it relates to the preservation of culture and heritage, for without these, we lose a sense of our ethnic identity. Maybe it’s time for me to take my own advice and listen to those “Learn Japanese” CDs while driving to the Rafu.
Samantha Masunaga is a Rafu staff intern and can be reached at [email protected] Ochazuke is a staff written column. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.