Remembering to search for what was lost
Updated: Mar 28
During this month in my Artist Residency In Motherhood experience, I recollected memories about my loss of cultural identity and the process of reclaiming it. This post is a story about why pursuing Japanese style printmaking (Mokuhanga and Kamihanga) became important for me.
Remembering to search for what was lost,
9 x 12 inches, mixed media collage
with Kamihanga (Japanese style paper collagraph) and packing tape transfer
In May 2022, I went back to Japan for one month to learn Mokuhanga (Japanese woodblock printmaking) and Nihonga (Japanese watercolor painting). The above image captures what it was like for me to stay there. The image brings me back to the experience of learning the cultural beliefs, customs, and history of the country through acquiring the skills and knowledge of the traditional art forms. The experience felt much like I was getting back what I had lost.
What did I lose? That’s a complicated question. About 15 years ago, I started to notice something was getting away from me — the Japanese part of me. This was 10 years after I moved to the United States, and a couple of years before we had our daughter. It felt like I lost a part of who I was. I felt that a part of myself that was supposed to be there was diminished to almost nothing. Fear of losing that part of my identity completely provoked a search for knowledge and words to describe what I was experiencing. “You’re just becoming Americanized” was hardly an acceptable answer.
What made this search difficult was that I was not sure exactly what I lost. It’s not like I wanted to move back to Japan. What was it then? The connection to my home country? Closeness to my family? Japanese language fluency? Appreciation for my culture? It seemed as if all of these were lost, but at the same time I could not articulate how I could possibly lose them—after all, I was still Japanese, and being Japanese was what people noticed about me. To my friends and colleagues, I was still their “Japanese” friend. How could I lose my Japanese-ness while still being recognized as Japanese?
Some years later I was finally able to find exact words for what I experienced in the book Racial Melancholia and racial dissociation: On the social and psychic lives of Asian Americans by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han. They write that Asian Americans may not have words to describe what they have lost in relation to their motherland (or their parents’ motherlands) and culture, due to many factors, including the immigration process along with the sociopolitical context and racial dynamics of the United States. We lose parts of ourselves when we feel a need to value the mainstream culture over our own, or to survive a society that fails to make space for our differences. The unclear and incomprehensible loss creates melancholia—a long lasting grief reaction without a resolution. In addition, racial dissociation occurs when Asians in American society are conditioned to downplay their race. In addition to a sense of loss and other emotional tolls, racial melancholia and racial dissociation also put one at a loss when it comes to figuring out what one needs in order to feel like a whole person in the future.
We can’t heal from a loss when we don’t know exactly what we’ve lost or when we don’t allow ourselves to accept that we lost it. In addition to lacking the words to describe my loss and the pressure I felt to assimilate, others’ racist actions and internal racism made it difficult for me to claim that my culture and ethnicity were important to me. For a long time, I could not safely say, “I have lost pride and respect for my culture while I lived in the United States. I have lost opportunities to appreciate and learn my culture and the Japanese way of living. I am mourning these losses, and I want them back.”
The more I was able to articulate my feelings and experiences, the more healing I was able to bring to myself. I was able to feel like a whole person who does not need to sacrifice a part of my identity for the sake of belonging. The trip in May 2022 was only the most recent act in this long healing journey. Small acts of reclaiming what has been lost do help, and investing time in learning Mokuhanga and Kamihanga are one way I have learned to heal.
Memories of the past blend into the present: Paint brushes I've had since middle school, the Kamihanga plate made out of snack packages, and two Japanese snacks that both my daughter and my younger self love. They were used to create the image below.
Three women, 9 x 12 inches, mixed media
with kamihanga (Japanese style paper collagraph), watercolor, and color pencils
Purposely introducing myself in Japanese to English speaking audiences is another act to heal. A Dine (Navajo) art therapist McKeon Dempsey once taught me the power of introducing ourselves in our native languages, as these languages carry our histories and identities. Inspired by her teaching, I’ve shown up to my presentations, classes, and board meetings with Japanese greetings first before I spoke in English. And each time I felt a sense of loss diminishing. It was a way for me to get my cultural identity back.
I know what I have lost now and how I lost it. I also know how to get it back. I just need to remember to reclaim it piece by piece.
Thank you for reading—and let’s stay in touch. Wishing you the best for your creative journey...