The Japan Diaries: On Metamorphic Identity

It is a story told ad nauseam.

Kyoto. Photo: Sylvia Yu

I am at security in JFK, in which the man before me scrutinizes my ID: first the New York State proudly printed on top in blue, next my inconspicuous Latin first name (after the brilliant writer, my mother has said, as though legacy), and then —

“Ms. Yu?” he asks, glancing back and forth between my photographic and physical forms. Same short, blunt bangs, yes, winged eyeliner, yes. I give him a slight nod in affirmation. Our eyes meet—his, wrinkled and worn, likely from the nine-to-five work shift’s monotony—and mine, well. What does he see in them? Elucidated, after he takes a moment to cough: “Oh, excuse me—ni hao.”

You might have heard of this one already: Asian-American—note the hyphen—too Asian for the JFK security worker to default to English, too American for my immigrant family to designate me wholly like them. My mother always introduces me to relatives and friends as so: “This is my younger daughter, Sylvia. She can understand Chinese, but she can hardly speak it. Born in America, you know. She’s majoring in English.” Oh, English? How did that happen? They look and smile at me for a courteous moment but do not speak to me directly. And it feels as though betrayal somehow—the barely-Chinese girl who studies Western literature to her parents’ chagrin—and thus perpetual suspension between and ostracization from two cultures. But again, this is a story told ad nauseam. In the meantime, let us look elsewhere.

My junior year in college, I spent the fall semester abroad studying in Kyoto, Japan. Once the country’s capital, the city juxtaposes temples and shrines with buildings and shopping centers (sometimes on the same block, or even a temple within a shopping center), traditional with modern, the East with the West. I say the last part with discomforting uncertainty. However, there is also a strange, parallel pleasure derived from its dual identity; as an Asian-American in Kyoto, I had unexpected power.  

Kyoto. Photo: Sylvia Yu

Once, my host sister Risako remarked at a photo I took with her parents, my host parents, when they took me to see the Kinaku-ji: “Oyako mitai.” You look like parent and child, she said, bemused. She was looking into our mutual brown eyes, warmth of our skin tone, peace signs, even, maybe. In other words—perhaps—in Japan, I had the potential to pass. I look like you, but I am not you.

So resurfaced: in order to take the photo, I asked a woman, who I subconsciously assumed could speak English by virtue of the fact that she was white, to help us. “Oh!” she said with a start at my voice, peering curiously first at me, then over at my host parents. She agreed, took the photo, to which I said thank you, them, arigatou gozaimasu. What did she see in us then? Was I discernibly an imposter?

During those four months abroad I quietly rode public transportation and walked through the streets with dark hair. Locals spoke to me in their tongue on the basis of my seemingly familiar eyes. I knew enough Japanese and the accompanying mannerisms to get by everyday life unsuspecting. One time, even, a group of tourists bashfully asked me for directions before I admitted I was also simply a visitor. And yet: “Amerika-jin,” the table next to us would whisper when I was sitting with some white friends in a restaurant. Americans. Only by association did my facade crumble. Is it, then, self-deprecating to say that “American” continues to conjure the image of white skin, from which I am excluded?

In Japan, I was Japanese until proven otherwise; I assumed a privilege there I had not experienced in America, being Asian-American. My identity in Japan was malleable, metamorphic. It was convenient. I assimilated on the most shallow terms: my East Asian appearance and code switching were enough to feel in place on a congested train or grocery store. Then, if inconvenience arose, if I faltered with my words or failed to recognize a sign, I could laugh it off, saying, “Amerika-jin da kara.” It’s because I’m American; any misunderstanding could be rectified. Further: among a group of Japanese friends in an ethnically homogeneous country, I was the token (Asian) American, courtesy of the romanticized West. I could fit in or stand out according to context or even my mood. In America I am always going to be Asian-American; in Japan, I was either Asian or American—I was, for the first time, whole. Lingering, though, was a sort of guilt, the product of exploiting the system and discarding my hyphenation when the plane landed in Japan.

In America, there is always an asterisk, a need for further explanation. My mother’s introduction for me, revised: “This is my younger daughter, Sylvia. She can understand Chinese because we speak it to her in the household, but she cannot speak it herself because she grew up disconnected from the culture and responds to us in English. Born in America, you know. Named her after a white woman, read her books before bed in English, sent her to an after-school program to learn how to write in English, so now she’s majoring in English.” It is an explanation well-suited to yet unactualized in America—who will listen? In Japan it could be simplified to a few words; it was a privilege and it was euphoric.

How difficult it was, then, to relinquish power and retrieve my identity again on the returning flight.

Sylvia Yu


Sylvia is likely wearing a black beret. She's a fan of ruminating, admiring everyday design, and shopping at the dried fruit aisle in Trader Joe's (in no particular order) - sometimes all three at once.

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