Jul 21, 2016
On exchange in her mother’s homeland, the New York-based author reclaimed her identity.
My parents met in Japan in the ’60s. My father was an exchange student at a Tokyo university; for a short time he was hosted by my mother’s family, as one of her sisters was studying English and wanted someone to practise with. There’s a photo of him taken during that period, which I love: standing on the docks in front of a Japanese shipping container, dressed in Reservoir Dogs-style sunglasses, shirt and trousers, his tie flying in the wind.
When I was 17, I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and spend six months in Japan on exchange. Having just completed Year 12, I yearned for new experiences and the opportunity to stretch my wings.
Above all, I wanted to find myself. Growing up in suburban Sydney, I felt ambivalent about my ethnic identity. In primary school, my sister and I hid our bento boxes and demanded our mother make us Vegemite sandwiches instead. We tolerated family holidays in Japan but preferred Australian summers and lazy days at the beach.
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In high school, I secretly felt different to my Caucasian and Asian friends. Perhaps it was because we weren’t part of a Japanese community – the culture was always there, haunting the edges of my existence, yet out of my reach. I decided that living in Japan would allow me to reclaim the missing piece of my identity. With enough time I’d feel complete.
But soon after I stepped off the plane in Nagoya, I realised my mistake. In an instant, I had shed my compact 165-centimetre frame and quiet demeanour and become a gaijin: a lumbering foreigner who talked too loudly and blew her nose in public. The first few weeks of my stay were a crash course in Japanese decorum. I tried to hug my host family when we first met, accidentally wore indoor slippers to the bathroom and received cold glares when I ate snacks on trains.
Haafu [people who are ethnically half-Japanese] were everywhere – smiling coyly in advertisements, giggling on TV – but they seemed a world apart from me with their long legs, doe eyes and lilting Japanese. Occasionally I passed for a local but as soon as I opened my mouth, the illusion disappeared.
I’d expected to be shaken up but I didn’t think I would have to build a new concept of myself. In the absence of anyone I’d ever known, I was forced to reassess every facet of my identity. Why do I like the music I like? Why do I dress the way I do? Is it innate or simply what my friends back home are into?
There was so much about living in Japan that I loved – the food, the festivals, the spirituality – that I exhorted myself to stay. I got lost on a mountaintop amid a blaze of autumn leaves. I soaked in an outdoor onsen while snow fell around me. In Kyoto, I cradled a sacred rock and made a wish.
But, after six months, I was relieved to return to Australia, to my mundane family and my friends who wore corduroys and Cons and listened to Nirvana. Somewhere along the way, I realised that the half-formed, ill-fitting version of myself was already complete. ￼