"Where Are You From?"

A dilemma of multiple identities

Posted Nov 12, 2014

The taxi driver is politely quiet but I notice that he is eyeing me in the rear view mirror. I have seen that look of curiosity before.

The taxi is cool but smells of tobacco, like the old Japan. We ride through the late afternoon city traffic, dodging the uniformed children on bicycles returning home from school. My grandmother asks about my plans for the evening and the work that I will do in Okinawa.

The driver is still looking at me. Finally he asks the inevitable question: “Where are you from?” shifting his eyes to my grandmother, perhaps hoping she will translate, though we’d been speaking Japanese all along.

I look out the window. "Where are you from?" How can I answer such a simple question? I could say, I was born in Japan. I grew up in the U.S. I live in Japan now. Can I say I’m from both places? Or do I have to say one or the other? Am I homeless, a man without a country? Is the world my home? Could homelessness be my home?

I glance in the rear view mirror. The taxi driver is looking at me waiting for a reply.

I try to dampen his curiosity. “Tokyo,” I say curtly.

But he is not easily discouraged, “I mean which country?”

“Country?” I repeat. “Isn’t Tokyo in Japan?”

The taxi driver looks at me strangely before laughing. He seems puzzled and dissatisfied by my answer. He must be thinking, how can someone who looks like me be from Japan? But I was born in downtown Tokyo. My family has been here as far back in time as we can trace. My mother, wife, and children are Japanese and I have lived half my life here. I have a Japanese passport, work for a national university, and live in housing for civil servants. Even growing up in America I never forgot that I was from Japan, and can thank my childhood antagonists for reminding me that I was “Made in Japan.” So I could say I am from Japan, though some people may think this odd.

But when they get to know me they tell me, “You're American on the outside, but on the inside you are Japanese.” Sometimes they go even further and say, “You are more Japanese than the Japanese!” I know they say this as a compliment, but how can a Japanese be more Japanese than the Japanese?

We pass silently through the neighborhood where the house we lived in after the war once stood. My grandparents accepted my American father into their home as the husband of their only daughter and my older sisters and I were born there. I wonder if my grandmother is reminiscing about those times. I hope she’s not remembering that painful day we departed on the great ship for America. The three grandchildren she raised were gone, and she told me that she cried every day for two years, alone in the empty house.

I suppose I could just say I'm from America. The taxi driver would nod his head and maybe say that's he what he thought. And in fact living in Japan makes me aware that I am also American as nearly every day, someone talks to me as though they think that’s where I'm from, lest I forget.

I suppose I became American that day our ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. My father’s photo on the piano is a daily reminder of the half of my life spent watching Leave it to Beaver on television, eating McDonalds’ hamburgers (before they went global), and rooting for the San Francisco Giants (not the Tokyo Giants). While strangers taunted me with “Jap” or “Chink,” my friends claimed that I was as American as they were, as "American as apple pie." They didn’t even think of me as Japanese, they assured me. Funny, but I can’t remember ever feeling American like they seemed to. I wonder what it feels like.

I know what I look like. I’ve seen my face in the mirror before. But I don't see Japanese or American—I just see me and my father and mother and other ancestors. I forget that others seem to think I look different until someone reminds me.

Stating that I am Japanese, or that I am American, doesn’t seem to satisfy some people. “But what else are you?’” they reply, or counter with a condescending smile, “Okay, but where are you really from?” And it never really pleases me, either, to say that I am just one or the other. I want to assert that I am from both countries. I want to proclaim that I am multicultural, multilingual, multinational, transnational, international. I want to shout out that the complexity of my being can't be contained in their boxes that separate. I want to declare that I am a global citizen, intimately connected with all the people on this earth.

But why should I have to reveal so much? I don’t even know the taxi driver. I will never see him again. He doesn’t need to know who my father and mother were. I don’t owe him an explanation of who I am. I don’t have to tell him my life story. This may be a teachable moment and it may be my responsibility to educate him but I choose my battles.

My grandmother suddenly interrupts my musings by declaring to the taxi driver, “He’s from America.”

Her words stun me and protest wells up inside me. I want to say, “Yes, but I'm also Japanese!” But I know that it is futile. My grandmother has known me for fifty years. I want her to declare that I'm Japanese, just like her. But why worry that after all these years that she still regards me as her beloved American grandson? Is her love for me any less because she thinks I am different from her?

“He’s from America. That’s why his Japanese is a little funny,” she explains. I wince. Does she really need to say that? And after all these years, is my Japanese really that funny? It seems I can’t disguise myself even in my speech.

"Oh, so that’s why; I get it, he’s from America! I thought so, because he sounds a little strange,” the taxi driver says, a little too insulting and self congratulatory for my taste. He speaks freely as if convinced that I couldn’t possibly understand a word he is saying. “Japanese is really a hard language, isn’t it!” he declares.

It can’t be that hard if you learned it, I am tempted to say, but keep quiet. I don’t want to upset him or my grandmother. I am not used to anyone pointing out deficiencies in my language ability, and have been spoiled by constant praise for speaking Japanese so well. It doesn't take much. Just a few words of fluid speech from my mouth, from this face, is enough to elicit that familiar refrain, “My, you speak Japanese so well!” This double-edged comment means that you regarded as a foreigner because you look different and sound different.

But to me, I am one of many people who may look different and sound different from the majority but are citizens of Japan and therefore Japanese. All citizens must be included in the word Japanese if it is to mean the people of the nation of Japan. We can be from somewhere else and still be Japanese. I even think that some of those who are not legally citizens but have lived here a long time, or their whole lives, could be regarded as Japanese, if that is their wish. Many of us may not “look Japanese” in the eyes of people who think in terms of “Japanese blood.” But this is the reality of what Japanese are today -- an increasingly diverse and multicultural people.

I am often reminded that not everyone thinks the way I do. To my grandmother and the taxi driver, a person is either Japanese or American, one or the other, but not both, and can’t be both. Nations have borders and people must fit within their boundaries. For them, Japanese is defined narrowly and does not include those who look different, or who talk or act differently.

After I leave my grandmother at the nursing home I walk for a while past some now out-of-place inner-city rice paddies, listening to the raucous but soothingly familiar chorus of bugs and frogs. The early evening air is refreshingly a little cooler, but still heavy, hot, and humid. I watch some children playing with firecrackers and sparklers on the riverbank before hailing another taxi to return to the hotel. The driver eyes me in the rear view mirror before asking, “Where are you from?”


Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu teaches human development and ethnic studies at Stanford University, mentors adult learners at Fielding Graduate University and is President of Nichibei Care. He is the author of When Half is WholeMulticultural Encounters, and Synergy, Healing and Empowerment.


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Illustration by Nomura Junichi