Turning Japanese American

June 28, 2010

For years now, whenever non-Asian people have attempted to bond by announcing to me that their spouses are some flavor of Asian, I've made a mental W sign and probably rolled my eyes. Usually they're implying that they're cultural insiders because of these spouses, a notion I've found to be just so much baloney.

But I probably can't afford to be quite so dismissive going forward because, I dunno, am I doing something similar?

Last year I married an awesome Japanese American guy. His family -- three generations removed from Asian immigrant neuroses -- is also awesome. That I'm psyched to have an alternate model of love and family, I get. What surprised me and kinda weirds me out is that I'm also psyched about now having a personal connection to, oh, Japanese American internment camps.

We visited Penryn over the weekend, to see his aunt and uncle. Penryn is a town an hour west of Sacramento, population 5233, according to the road sign. To reach his aunt and uncle's place, you turn right at a mailbox and drive down a dirt road, around some tractors.

Visiting them was my idea. And what I knew about my reasons for going was that they're sweet people and we should pay our respects. What I discovered when I got there was my delight at having my husband's uncle tell us how their family moved onto the property in 1928. How they'd farmed oranges and persimmons there, and the Japanese American farming families would help each other bring the harvests in. How, as a Japanese immigrant, his father was not legally eligible to own property, but eventually purchased the land in the name of his American-born children. How, after their release from the internment camps, those families that owned land came back, but many others didn't.

Mind you, I know this history. I've taught it, to thousands of undergrads. But it was never mine, before. Well, it's still not my parents' history, nor my sister's, but is it mine? If my husband and I have children, this history would most certainly be theirs.

And here's the thing: When I was little, I longed for an attic. Not the kind with insulation and rafters, but the kind with trunks, full of great-grandma's combs and letters from grandpa. And it felt like an immutable misfortune, that all my refugee family had brought to the US was what we'd been allowed to carry. When our stay at Camp Pendleton ended in 1975, our sponsors gave us two suitcases; all my parents had to stash in them were rolls of toilet paper, excess saved from the rations during our weeks at the camp.

So here I was in Penryn, looking at fruit trees and rusty pickup trucks and not one but three tractors -- feeling like I was finally discovering American roots.

It was everything a little refugee could ask for.



erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



At least you have an understanding of the history of your spouse's family. Revering that is leaps and bounds of ahead of saying you have a Japanese wife so that's why you found The Last Samurai so intriguing. You can't use your spouse as a "get into the club" card, but you can have them be a door towards a meaningful story or dialogue.  
Don't forget to get the background history on all this. See here for a start: http://home.comcast.net/~eo9066/Contents.html

i do hope that there's a difference between me and the annoying folk, in the vein of what you're each describing -- the understanding of history, in context, etc.  at the same time, i think i inevitably have a little more sympathy than i used to, for people i imagine as wanting to associate themselves with a new culture and history, b/c of something they feel to be missing in their own.

This post made me go "awwww." A heartfelt longing for belonging and understanding.

I love your total honesty --and congrats on getting married! (I married a Japanese American guy too, we can start a club. Ask me about the JA internment POSTER hanging on our wall). And the longer I'm married, the more I realize just how much your spouse/partner/significant other can give you access to worlds previously off limits. For people who are thoughtful, reflective, and open minded, this can enrich your life and profoundly change you. For fetishists who carry that culture-consuming, feed-me-your-lumpia-I-am-so-in-touch-with-Asian-women pallor, marriage doesn't help them. I don't know what does. Anyway, we can tell the difference between the two, and trust me Erin, you have nothing to worry about. It's really sweet that you have taken on your husband's history as part of your own now.
Hi Erin, I loved your post! I almost feel like I could've authored it, right down to the longing for an attic full of trunks and great-grandma's memorabilia. I, too, am Southeast Asian American (1.5 generation) and marrying a 4th generation JA (well, half JA, half 3rd gen-Chinese American). I love my refugee history and family, but I also LOVE the fact that his parents don't have the same "Asian immigrant neuroses" of my parents. It just makes my life that much easier! If you are indeed starting a club, I want in too. =) 

I've been teasing my husband that he's the new "in" thing.  :) 

But how nice to have struck a chord.  Thanks, ladies.


Erin, As a first generation Asian American with immigrant parents, I have to ask: What exactly is this "Asian immigrant neroses" you're so glad you've avoided?  Not a gotcha question.  I really do want to know what you mean by this, since others seem to know what you're talking about.

hi, M.  ah, you must one of the lucky ones.  those of us who get the shorthand either are or know people who are intimately familiar with the kinds of pressures and anxieties that Asian immigrant parents feel and pass on to their kids.  such that certain key words or phrases -- sacrifice, debt, Dr/lawyer, your cousin got into Harvard, for example -- are enough to trigger the whole book.  keep an eye on this blog for a column we're starting in a few months on the topic.  and in fact, keep an eye out (if you're *really* curious) for my ... book on the topic.  coming out in Feb.  called Ingratitude.

Erin, Thank you for the beautiful story and connecting me to it. M, thank you also for opening up the conversation to Asian immigrant neuroses. I'd also add guilt and shame to the keywords. I'm 2nd generation pinay and I'm relieved to here that the neuroses fade after a few generations. In my blog searches and following I haven't been able to find much if at all on the internal struggles of anxiety and pressure that 1.5 and 2nd generations have to negotiate from their Asian immigrant parents. I was starting to think I was crazy for blogging about it. Will the upcoming column have a name or should I look for it under your posts? Lydia

Hi Lydia.  It is crazy-making, not knowing if anyone else is going through the same thing, isn't it.  The upcoming column is (brace for a downer) tentatively titled "Ask a Model Minority Suicide."  Who knows, we may come up with something more cheerful before it launches.  :)   It'll be a mix of personal essay, forum, advice column (?!).

What about your blog, is it public?


Hi Erin, Yes it is public. You can visit at http://kabuuan.com/blog or click on the link for my name in this comment. I love the title of the upcoming column, by the way. Maybe you know of a study that came out of the University of Washington last year about suicide rates among Asian women born in the U.S.? Contemplated  suicide rates are higher among Asian-American women born in the U.S. compared to the general population. Chinese and Filipina women had the highest rates of contemplated suicide in the study. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090817190650.htm Lydia