St. Louis, “Missour-uh,” as they say — my husband’s hometown. While of course St. Louis is not at the top of the list for being some Midwest-of-nowhere town void of Asian and Asian American culture, being the spoiled West Coast brat that I am, I have wondered myself how my husband, Kaoru Watanabe, came from this place.
After all, he is an all-around brainiac of traditional Japanese music, culture and history. The guy even speaks more Japanese than I do and probably knows just as much about Asian American issues as me, the girl who majored in Asian American studies and who lived off of J-league tournaments since third grade.
While Kaoru’s childhood was nested in a predominantly white environment, my contrasting San Francisco childhood was composed of doing things like going to Japanese language school every Saturday, being a member of a Girl Scout troop of mostly Japanese American girls, attending K-8th grade with mostly Chinese Americans, playing J-league basketball, and the list goes on.
I was nurtured in these types of communities and constantly surrounded by other Asian Americans. Buddhist church events, Little Tokyo, Nihonmachi, weekly summer Obons, taiko, Asian American social activist groups, etc. – these assets were all at my fingertips, shaping the jobs I’ve had, the designs I’ve produced and the values I’ve placed on being Japanese American.
Growing up and maturing in an environment full of these resources has been a great privilege. Not only have I been able to discover, learn about and advocate for Asian American issues, but I have also been equipped over the years with information and stories that I can pass onto other generations. Most of all, I’ve been able to feel safe and more empowered to be Japanese American because I have been surrounded by others who comprehend and recognize the struggles of being Asian American, of being Japanese American and of being a minority.
Having grown up in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I have only assumed what an absence of these resources could have resulted in for myself. Of course the West Coast has its own faults, but I sometimes feared the idea of ever living beyond the Pacific coastline, reluctant to face more apparent forms of racism or ignorance that exist within some of the fissures of our nation.
Until I married Kaoru, my intent was to always stay in California. I often thought it would be best to stick around familiar cultural communities. Now I am living in New York with Kaoru, and while this metropolis has its own rich sense of culture and multiculturalism, I still think deeply about how the Big Apple may shape my future children’s sense of self in relation to their heritage. I also get scared, worrying that my children won’t receive some of the benefits of getting to be around communities like those I found in the West Coast.
I think about what I can contribute as an individual who has been lucky enough to grow up around such a wealth of resources and people; however, because of my husband’s experiences, I also try and think about new ways of providing support to my children that will empower them to find confidence in their cultural roots.
My husband’s trail through life has enlightened me considerably because I have come to understand that a hometown or a childhood surrounded by near-endless cultural resources is only one of many ways that can equip someone to become whoever they will become in terms of their cultural identity. Cultural identity isn’t just shaped by where one grows up, but it is also shaped by how one is encouraged to explore their curiosities and supported in their search for selfhood.
Kaoru and I come from different walks of life, but in our own ways, with the help of our families, we have managed to discover our own understandings of what it is to be Japanese American and what it is to be Asian American too. While I learned a lot within my more immediate communities, Kaoru gained much of his self-awareness by traveling and living abroad in his early 20s. The boy from Missour-uh and the girl from sunny California have converged.
In a previous article, I mentioned that there is no measure to how Japanese American one can be. I’ll add to that now and say that there is also no perfect formula for how to discover one’s cultural identity. We all discover ourselves in the ways we know how, in the ways we are willing to, in the ways we are capable of.
Mari Nakano can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.