In November as the 2nd month of my Artist Residency in Motherhood, I explored my acculturation journey and how it intertwined with parenting. Key concepts that came up for me this month: Assimilation, internalized racism, influences of white supremacy culture, and my culture of origin as a resiliency source.
Collage on wood panel with mokuhanga and kamihanga, 8 x 8 inches
Ever since my daughter was born, now 11 years ago, I have actively pursued the question of what it means to walk back to my Japanese identity, an identity lost for the first 10 years of my life in the U.S. Until my daughter was born, I used various assimilation strategies to survive in the U.S.—e.g. speaking mostly English, feeling apologetic about being Japanese, and socializing with mostly non-Japanese friends. Using these strategies was the safest way to live when I moved from Japan to predominantly white communities, and I simply kept following them without thinking much about it.
The birth of our daughter prompted a parenting conversation with my White American husband. We decided that we would raise our daughter in a bicultural, bilingual environment. This decision was a result of my husband’s strong encouragement to honor both of our cultures. I was hesitant, and afraid to raise our daughter bicultural and bilingual, fearing that she might experience something negative by being Japanese in the U.S. That goes to show how assimilated I was, and how racially traumatized I was back then.
Although I wouldn’t have dared to claim it openly at the time, there was within me a deep desire to raise our daughter as a bicultural/bilingual person. I wanted her to know where her family came from. I wanted her to get to know me as a whole person, and that included the Japanese part of me. I think my husband sensed that in me, which led to his encouragement. Once our decision was made to raise her bicultural and bilingual, I needed the Japanese part of me back somehow. But how? That’s when I started reading about internalized racism and the impacts of oppression on Black, Indigenous, and other People Of Color (BIPOC).
The Shina wood plate I carved with the traditional Japanese pattern Asa-no-ha (hemp leaves)
Along this path of letting go of my internalized racism and assimilation strategies, it has been crucial to connect with others who understood my reality and who accepted me as I was—older Japanese volunteers at the Japanese Care Fund, who had lived in the U.S. for years, Japanese therapist colleagues in the area, BIPOC Sangha at IMCW, BIPOC art therapists who shared similar experiences of oppression, and therapists who helped me heal, besides several mentors. As Trieu and Lee (2017) describe, the connection to my culture of origin was an important part of the process of dismantling the internalized racism and assimilation within me.
My recent collage, “Americanized Japanese,” is a snapshot of how I see myself today in this dismantling process. In the collage, there are three distinct layers. The top layer depicts the American flag, symbolizing the Americanized communication style I acquired. The middle layer shows the life I had, with my parents and two sisters in Japan influencing one another’s lives. Much like any immigrants, I had a former life in a different country, a life that looks drastically different from my current life in the U.S. The former life never leaves me, and I will always see my current life through the lens of my past life experience in Japan. This is why I correct those who say, “If you have been here long enough, you have become American.” The bottom layer depicts a traditional Japanese pattern called Asa-no-ha (hemp leaves), a pattern often used for baby clothing as a wish for healthy growth and resilience, as hemp leaves grow straight up toward the sky without much effort from caretakers. This third layer, resilience within my culture of origin, is one I didn’t see much in the first 10 years of living in the U.S., due to my assimilation. Today I recognize the value of Japanese culture and see how it contributed to my current resilience, thanks to my daughter, my husband, and all others who have been part of the path I have been walking.
Mokuhanga print I made to use for the collage
I purposely share this piece here, knowing that I will see myself differently in a couple of years from now. Like any other person, I continue to evolve. So often we feel pressured to show up as someone who has mastered something, as someone who has figured it all out. I have come to understand that perfectionism is a belief stemming from white supremacy culture. In reality, we are always changing and evolving. Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent. And no, I have not mastered the art of perfectly dismantling internalized racism. And I will not wait to talk about it, because keeping quiet is how racism survives. White supremacy culture makes us believe we need to master our work against racism, before we are able to talk about its impact. As humans we are allowed to be in process, and we can speak about the experience of being in the process. My parenting journey continues, and so does my journey along the path back to my cultural identity.
I am working on the next Mokuhanga image. It’s about the experience of walking back to my culture with my child. You are also looking at my most recent Mokuhanga work, “Radical Self-Care (saying No).”
Thanks for reading! I will share my experience in December at the end of the month. Let's stay in touch.