By MATTHEW ORMSETH
On Tuesday afternoons in an emptied lecture hall, 20 or so students come together for an hour out of every week. Among them are upperclassmen and underclassmen, engineers, pre-meds, and hotel administration majors. The one thing they all share is some link to Japanese culture — be it one of blood, or simply an interest.
This group calls itself the Japan-United States Association, or JUSA for short. It’s a student organization at Cornell, and for many of its members it’s one of the last links to home, wherever that may be.
Some of the members are from Japan. Some are Japanese American, like myself, and some are neither Japanese nor Japanese American. At the weekly meetings, someone sets up an old projector, and we flip through slides on Japanese news, culture, and language. Every few weeks someone will organize a meal at their apartment or house, and we’ll cook curry or udon or some type of Japanese comfort food and eat together.
I’ve enjoyed my time in JUSA. There’s something about being around people who come from similar backgrounds, who understand you as only someone who has come up under comparable circumstances can, that’s immeasurably comforting. It’s why I head straight for Chinatown when I’m in New York City and in search of a meal — not because I’m Chinese, but because I grew up in Arcadia, a heavily Chinese neighborhood, and in growing up with the sights and sounds and smells of Chinese restaurants I internalized those experiences, and they became part of who I am.
But being in JUSA has also made me realize how vastly different being Japanese and being Japanese American is today. At the weekly meetings, the members of the group hailing from Japan devour the slides on Japanese news, while us Japanese Americans look on with interest that is mild at most. When a Japanese pop song is played, it speaks to them emotionally — some of them have told me how a certain tune will remind them of home, a childhood or teenage memory, a particular person.
To me, the songs are melodic perhaps, but incomprehensible. I don’t understand a word of Japanese. I’m interested in what’s happening in Japan, but my interest lacks the urgency inspired by nostalgia or homesickness — I’m much more interested in what’s happening in L.A.
And being in JUSA has helped me understand the divide that exists between Japanese and JAs back in Los Angeles — a divide that seems to be at the heart of the Keiro affair. Despite sharing a common ancestry, Japanese and Japanese Americans come from radically different backgrounds. To lump them into the same group, under the umbrella of “people of Japanese ancestry living in America,” would be wrong.
When I first joined JUSA, I thought it would be like the Jr. YBA in my Buddhist temple back in West Covina — all JAs, kids who grew up playing basketball rather than with kendama, who listened to rap and R&B, but never J-pop. Instead, I found a majority of Japanese-born kids, kids who had joined the group to hold on to their homeland, their language, their music and their food.
These kids were not living in their home country — they were foreigners at Cornell. They were living in a foreign country, and for them, the weekly meetings were about home. For me, the weekly meetings were a time when the tables were turned, when I became the foreigner, when I heard a foreign language spoken all around me. I learned that we share a common ancestry, but beyond that our respective experiences in America have been wildly, vastly different.
Perhaps this is how the Nisei felt with their Issei parents, which is a strange, even a terrifying thought — to feel so unalike your own parents, your own blood. But above all, being in JUSA has helped me understand my own community back in Los Angeles, one that counts both JAs and Japanese nationals among its ranks, and the cultural similarities and dissimilarities that both pull us together, and push us apart.
Matthew Ormseth writes from New York. He can be contacted at [email protected] expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.