I'm not Asian, I'm "Japanese".

reflections Apr 05, 2020

Two years ago, I visited my favourite aunty in rural Japan and during my stay, I remember telling her about “Asian Australians” and how I’d been thinking a lot about “mental health for Asian Australians”.

In one conversation, she asked about the kinds of issues that existed for “Asians” living in Australia. I explained to her a few broad themes like the model minority myth and the bamboo ceiling. After a little back and forth exchange on the topic, she asked me, “そうなんだ。。。じゃあ、日本人は?” = “hmm I see. So what about Japanese people?”

I was like, “huh?”

And she was like, “eh?”

And then I remembered. Oh, Japanese people don’t consider themselves as “Asian”. How could I forget.

~

When I contribute to this discussion about Asian Australian mental health and wellbeing, I find that there is a strong duality in my experience.

On one hand, my experiences have been similar to all East Asians growing up in Australia in the 90’s. Like many Asian Australians, I still face the same stereotypical expectations of being an Asian woman; of being cute, polite, quiet and agreeable and I still face the same passive racism that many other East Asians experience. Similarly, I still feel disconnected from the land on which I was born, from the culture that my ancestors created and from the language that ties me to the norms and values of an ancient, spiritual tradition. And like so many Asian Australians, I still experience so many cultural misunderstandings with my parents, my extended family and with Japanese people who grew up in Japan.

But on the other hand, I identify as “Japanese” and this means that I come from a deeply xenophobic culture and that I have lived with many implicit messages that help me and others reinforce how amazing I am just because I’m Japanese. I cannot forget that I come from a culture that caused the most horrific occupation all across Asia and that it is specifically because of Japan that so many people in the world live with the impacts of intergenerational trauma and subsequently feel disconnected from their own cultures. I cannot deny that my experience of immigrating to Australia with my family because they “wanted a relaxed life”, is vastly different to someone who was forced to flee their country and found themselves in Australia.

And I think this duality exists in so many of my experiences as an “Asian Australian”. 

For example, on one hand, when I hear Trump talking about the “Chinese virus”, I’m disgusted. I’m fully aware that these two words have really serious consequences for the safety of so many Chinese or Chinese-looking people AND that these comments are fuelled by the resistance to China’s power in the world. Yet on the other hand, I can’t deny that I wonder about what will happen to Japan in a China-led world (if it isn’t already).

On one hand, I’m pissed off by the inner-city Melbournians who notice me coming down the supermarket aisle, widen their eyes in fear and quickly u-turn out of the aisle before I can move towards their space. But on the other hand, I realise that I did exactly the same thing to a group of Chinese tourists in the Ginza Uniqlo store in early February.

On one hand, I’m so passionate about improving the support systems available to Asian Australians but on the other hand, I rolled my eyes told my husband that he didn’t-know-anything when he told me that Iran is an “Asian” country (which by the way, it is - sorry). 

I think (or I hope) that this kind of duality is not unique for Asian Australians. Asian diaspora live with the shared experience of being “Asian” in Australia, however we still exist within the very strong and very recent tensions between the countries that we originate from.

I think of the divide between Chinese people vs Vietnamese people; Mainlanders vs Honky’s/Singaporeans/Taiwanese; light skinned Asians vs dark skinned Asians; ABC’s vs international students… and the list goes on.

And perhaps it’s because of these divides that we find it hard to build a strong, inclusive community as Asian Australians.

I have no solutions except for that we should probably bring these conversations to light a bit more. There are macro issues going on, like the overt racism that is increasing towards Chinese and Chinese looking people, but there are also so many more narratives and stories that are playing out and informing the way we engage with the world. 

Perhaps if we can talk more openly about the divides between our respective cultures, we can then engage more with our shared experiences of being Asian diaspora without feeling overlooked or slightly misplaced. Just an idea.

~

To finish my story, my aunty now knows that I am Asian Australian. Does she and all the other conservative Japanese people believe me? It’s hard to say. But what I feel she did bring to light in that comment was that it is a little simplistic to think that all Asian diaspora have the same needs and concerns as each other.

I’m interested in your experience of being a “something”-Australian. What kind of biases have you been brought up with or are currently living with? If you care to share, please comment below or email me.

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