The Japan Diaries: What Is Lost

It was, perhaps, the beginning of a cultural affair. 

Japan Diaries chinese-american
Photo: Sylvia Yu

In endless childhood summer when my sister was six and I four, on the days it was too hot we spent them indoors, basking in the air-conditioned cool as we parked ourselves in front of the old analog TV. We had everything: popsicles (grape for my sister, orange for me), a PlayStation 1 with two controllers, and bootlegged games our dad brought back from China that spanned several CD binders. Most of the games were in Japanese which we didn’t understand, but with enough trial-and-error and countless hours of playing, we became enchanted by the vibrant graphics of Captain Commando and Pop’n Music, knew which buttons to mash to perform special moves in Street Fighter. In one of our play-fights once, my sister clapped the ends of her palms together, thrust them forward, and shouted—in Sakura Kasugano fashion—”Hadouken!” I was, of course, defeated immediately by a surge of fictional energy.

It was around the same time that Japanese popular culture was especially booming in the American mainstream. Other afternoons we were collecting Pokémon on our Game Boys, playing rounds with our holographic Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, watching reruns of Sailor Moon and Hamtaro whenever they came on TV. A particularly proud moment in my artistic development was when I drew a picture of Hello Kitty with lopsided whiskers, crudely colored far outside the lines. The resemblance—if you squinted as hard as you could—was practically uncanny. My mother proudly hung it on the fridge for months in its complete, disfigured Crayola glory, blinded by love. “My daughter’s really good at drawing those Japanese cartoons,” she would tell other parents at parent-teacher conferences. “Pikachu? No problem.” 

From a young age, though, I had subconsciously constructed and internalized an ethnic hierarchy with my own Chinese identity at the very bottom, forgotten. Within the context of America, Chinese culture holds second-class status; it is synonymous with cheap restaurant take-out, bootlegged goods in bulk, a congested, chaotic Chinatown. Maybe we are undervalued because there are so many of us, and lingering, always, is a desire to be anything but what you are—I would spend days in summer camp doodling those Japanese cartoons on the margins of my notebook instead of learning Chinese. “I met a girl named Jamie today,” my friend Sophia told me excitedly once after class, stars in her eyes. “She’s super stylish and super smart. Oh, and she’s Japanese.” At the expense of glorifying Japan via its depiction in and our consumption of its popular culture, so spawned our implicit self-loathing that has endured since. 

It hurts to write, but I didn’t want to be Chinese. I didn’t, I didn’t.

Kindergarten onwards, I made the resolution to speak English in the house, Chinese only by absolute necessity. As a result, by the time I was in high school I had the language capabilities of a small child; I was sixteen and struggling to express something so simple as what I liked and what I didn’t, stunted by my stagnant vocabulary. And it was frustrating, presenting myself as the foolish American in familial setting, my tones fickle and fumbling, that I eventually preferred not to speak at all in fear of further embarrassment. 

Chinese-American – as with any identity – involves a spectrum: I have friends whose Chinese is nearly as good as their English and converse well and often with their relatives, those who may not know specialized vocabulary but can at least get by conversationally, and close to the bottom is me, disconnected and disinterested. In college I was presented two choices for a foreign language to study: Chinese, which would grant me access to family, or Japanese, which would grant me access to my interests. I chose the latter.

“You look Japanese,” my mother said to me before we separated in JFK; I was headed to Japan for a semester abroad, a sort of culminating trip in my fascination and inspiration since childhood, two years of studying the language in college. She was referring to my choppy bangs, all-black ensemble, clunky Doc Martens. It was as though she wasn’t speaking to her own daughter, but a stranger that had grown before her. I did not say, “I don’t look Japanese; I look like you,” despite our eyes connected by blood, but rather—secretly flattered—I bid her goodbye and walked off with my luggage rolling behind me. My mother later texted a picture of my departing back and wrote, “My girl, so big now!” 

. . .

My host mother resembles my own mother in many ways. They are both East Asian women in their fifties, youthful in their energy and colored hair, always texting me to get home safe, and emerging into my bedroom at night with a glass of water and a plate of peeled fruit. “What is she like?” my host mother asked one evening after dinner as I was sitting at the kitchen table, hands warmed by a cup of roasted tea. She was cutting up persimmon, my favorite; the news was playing idly in the background. 

“Stubborn, but strong,” I said. You could see her Chinese upbringing in the way she’d charge onto the New York City trains—disregarding any passenger trying to get off—in order to secure us both seats. You can’t go through life being so kind, she would tell me in Chinese, as bitter white businessmen glared at us in our comfort. You are going to get eaten. She’d cut through lines, barter with cashiers in stores in which there was no bartering, and discreetly sample fruit in the supermarket to ensure the sweetest for her children. The adult version of my mother displaying my artwork on the fridge is framing it, instead, on the walls. Every time I return to my parents’ home in Brooklyn, I am greeted by a self-portrait I had drawn in sophomore year that my mother not only posted on WeChat, but also hung by the staircase. Chinese culture, then, is one brimming with implicit love. 

I am a product of my Chinese mother’s being. And how could I hate what she has given me? 

“There is no one else in the world like her,” my host mother said, placing a plate of sliced persimmons in front of me, to which I could only nod. “Your mother will always be your mother.”         

Japan Diaries
Photo: Sylvia Yu

Once, my friends and I were in a restaurant in Roppongi in Tokyo. It was tackily decorated in lights and lanterns, had a number in its name, and there were no white people to be seen inside: all the signs of a good Chinese restaurant. The workers were also undoubtedly Chinese; it was the way they spoke to one another with loud, animated voices—I glanced every so often in their direction, following their homey sound, thinking of my mother. If she were here, she would be quick to socialize and become friendly with them, probably boast about my sister and me before asking them about their own lives; it was her tactic to get a little discount on the bill at the very end. But I was without my mother this time, and without our language; at that point—a point in which I finally wanted to be seen as Chinese—my Japanese language capabilities had surpassed my Chinese ones. I knew few words. Look at me! See me! It was solidarity unrealized: I ordered in Japanese, asked for where the bathroom was in Japanese, requested the bill in Japanese in defeat.

When we were full of roasted duck, rice, and bok choy, about to leave the restaurant, the waiter came to our table once more to clean up what was left. In my poor Chinese, I uttered the bare minimum, the remains of my mother: xie xie ni. Thank you. He looked up at me with familiar eyes, connected by blood, and smiled.    

Did he know? I wonder.

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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