Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Japanese, Italian, Korean? I'm all of these

by Yukari Tanaka

Contributing Writer

One question I have always found difficult is, “Where are you from?” While most people I meet are able to answer it with a single word — Japan, England, India — for me the answer is a lot more complicated.

The question itself is innocent enough, and rolling in multicultural circles also makes it unavoidable. At worst, it can come off as a less polite “What are you?” and, over time, I’ve shortened my response to “It’s a long story.” Here’s the abbreviated version: I was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Italy. My mother is Korean and my father is Japanese. I studied and worked in the United States, but six years ago I moved to Japan and it is the first Asian country I’ve ever lived in. What am I? Well, a little bit of all of these places.

The main thing that makes me uncomfortable about the “Where are you from?” conversation is that my answer tends to involve a lot of explanation, and the process of having to explain makes me feel like I am exposing way too much of myself to a complete stranger. It can sound particularly out of place in Japanese since people don’t tend to go into so much detail when they first meet one another.

When it comes to job interviews, it can be good to talk about yourself but being too chatty isn’t necessarily a good thing. What happens in my case is that, after carefully reviewing my resume and speaking to me in Japanese, my potential employers usually react with astonishment when I am able to answer any of their questions.

“Your Japanese is really good,” interviewers will tell me. “You can speak Japanese much better than we expected.”

I imagine this is also the experience of many kikokushijo, children born here who have returned to Japan after having lived abroad for a chunk of their life.

Though, I have to admit that when it comes to kanji the level of excitement would likely dissipate quickly as I’m still weak in that area. For instance, if I find a kanji that I can’t read on a menu at a restaurant, I either smoothly skip over it or mumble it in my mouth, then throw a big smile at the waiter and leave it to them to figure out what I just ordered.

Osaka and identity

Dealing with the question of where I’m from for my entire life has left me with a different one: Given the highly connected world we live in today, is it necessary to define people by their nationality?

Recent debates on Naomi Osaka’s identity have inspired me to re-examine my own identity. Osaka, the tennis champion who has been representing Japan on courts around the world, is what is referred to by some academics as a “third culture kid.” In their book, “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds,” David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken define third culture kids such as Osaka and myself as people who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” They note that the third culture kid will build relationships with all the cultures they come from, but not assume full ownership in any.

During the U.S. Open last year, Osaka was asked at a press conference about how each of her culture heritages — Haitian, Japanese and American — has affected her.

“Well, my dad is Haitian so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York, and I grew up with my grandma, and my mom is Japanese so I grew up with Japanese culture too,” she replied. “And if you’re saying American, because I grew up in America, I have that too. So I hope I answered your question.”

Hearing that answer, I don’t know if I’ve ever empathized with an athlete so much in my entire life.

Given our multicultural backgrounds, us third culture kids are frequently asked about which cultures we think we identify with most. I suspect that the people asking those questions are hoping that the beliefs and stereotypes they hold about my different heritages will be echoed back to them. For example, more than one of my Japanese acquaintances has credited Osaka’s athletic ability to her black heritage and her well-spoken answers at press conferences to her Japanese one — a problematic assessment that I try to correct when I hear it.

In my case, people don’t usually believe me when I say I speak Italian until I actually speak it, which I guess is understandable considering my Californian English and Japanese name. When I do speak it, I’m met with a lot of surprised faces because I speak it so fluently.

However, I get similar looks when I speak in Japanese because I move my hands a lot when I talk. This is likely something I picked up from being in Italy, and it goes against the stereotype of your typical Japanese woman. That’s when I will mention that I grew up in Italy, which helps the people I’m speaking to feel a little more comfortable again.

This exchange doesn’t just happen with my Japanese acquaintances; my Italian friends will tell me I’m not a “real Japanese” because I don’t like sushi and am bad at math. The former I can laugh along with, but the latter assessment? I feel I need to correct that one, too.

At home, my brother — born and raised in Italy — and I argue in a mix of Italian and English for two main reasons: Firstly, we express frustration better in English. Secondly, bad words — combined with some hand gestures — sound so much better in Italian. Mum sometimes speaks to us in Korean, and Dad’s Fukuoka dialect will come out during debates at dinner. While a conversation that involves four different languages may sound strange to others, to me it’s normal. And, in 2019, I’d like to think this situation is becoming less abnormal in homes across the country.

Citizen of the world

When you grow up in multiple worlds, you are not usually considered “native” in any of them. I can’t speak for all third culture kids, of course, but given my complicated roots I can say that I feel like I belong everywhere and nowhere all at once. I get homesick for a lot of different places, even if I can’t pin down which one I’m from.

Do I know every kanji in the “Manyoshu”? No. But I feel like I have the ability to communicate with people in Japan, the United States, South Korea and Italy. In the world we live in these days, I’d argue that this skill might be more useful in general.

Under Japanese law, Osaka has to choose a nationality by October, when she turns 22. Watching this situation play out in the media, odds are that whatever nationality she chooses will likely be a business decision. In the end, though, I think it is important to understand that just because she represents a certain nationality on paper, it doesn’t mean she identifies with one heritage more than another.

“Everyone is different, and that’s what makes life interesting,” Osaka tweeted last year. “We all have our own backgrounds and stories. Individual things that make us, us.” I couldn’t agree more with her statement.

I’ll continue to answer the question “Where are you from?” to the best of my ability with patience and good faith. For me, however, the more interesting question isn’t where I’m from, it’s where I’m going to go next.