Sunday, 9 August 2009

Good Will Ambassadors

When our daughters were little, an acquaintance of ours came back from a trip to the U.K. with a disturbing story. Her half-Japanese daughter had gone to a birthday party with a relative and another child there had mocked her and called her 'Jap'. I was shocked by this and I wondered how our daughters would react if they heard this term. They got called gaijin -- foreigner -- occasionally, mainly whenever they were out of the neighborhood where they were known and accepted, but they had never heard the word ‘Jap’, though I had told them what it meant. I wondered what their reaction would be if they heard another child called this.

“What would you do if you heard someone use that word?” I asked our eldest daughter. She eyed me narrowly. “I'd call them gaijin,” she spat.

My jaw actually dropped at this; it was the last thing I was expecting to hear. “Why would you do that?”

She stuck out her lower lip. “Because if I'm a Jap, they're a gaijin.

For the record, my eldest daughter doesn't look even remotely Asian. She has blue eyes and blond hair.

“No one would call you that,” I assured her. “I meant what would you do if someone called one of your friends that?”

“They'd better not call us that,” she sniffed. “Because if they do, I'll tell them they're a gaijin.

This was the first time I truly realized how strongly my daughter identified with being Japanese. She'd grown up in Japan, played with Japanese children, spoken Japanese as a first language. She knew she didn’t look Japanese, but she couldn’t help feeling Japanese. And how she felt was everything. I remembered visiting a Caucasian Canadian couple and their little boy in Nagasaki, years earlier, before I even had children. One day the mother was walking through a supermarket with their five-year-old son when he saw a Japanese classmate and his mother in the next aisle. “Don’t say anything in English, Mom,” he whispered, “because they don’t know we’re not Japanese.” I’d thought that was pretty funny at the time, but at least her kid knew he wasn’t really Japanese.

When we first moved to Scotland, our daughters had a terrible time understanding people’s accents. At a classmate’s birthday party, our eldest sidled up to me when I came to pick her up. “I don’t understand a word they’re saying!” she hissed -- in Japanese. They spoke to me in Japanese a lot during our first weeks in Scotland.

I smiled when I first heard my girls developing Scots accents, but it broke my heart when they stopped speaking to me in Japanese. When they stopped wanting onigiri, rice balls, in their lunch boxes. “You don’t get it,” the eldest one told me when I asked. “They make fun of us at school. They call us Japs.”

I didn’t believe this until one day when I saw them walking home on the opposite side of the road where there is no sidewalk.

“Why are you walking on the opposite side of the road?” I demanded. “It’s not safe!”

They screwed up their faces and exchanged a look. “Because we don’t want to walk by Gavin’s house.”

“Why not?”

They wouldn’t look me in the eye. “He and James are always hanging out there. We don’t like them.”

“I don’t care if you like them or not, you stay on the safe side of the road!”

The eldest gave me an exasperated look. “They call us Jap girls.”

I may well be the only non-Asian mother in Scotland whose non-Asian kids have been called Japs. Who has had to go knock on the door of a stranger’s house and persuade her to make her kids stop using this word. Now, the term 'Jap' carries a whole generation's worth of historical baggage that I can only guess at. I’m not daft enough to claim I know how it feels to be heckled and bullied as an Asian minority. But I do think I've at least had a little nibble around the edges. And thanks to our situation, my kids and I have had the interesting experience of being called both gaijin and Jap.

For the record, Gavin’s mother was lovely. She agreed that it was an ugly word and an ugly thing for her son to do, and she got Gavin to stop doing this. James’ mother was nice too. Amazingly, we became friends.

Not long after this, both daughters started speaking Japanese again, even when we were out in public. They started asking for onigiri in their lunch boxes again and writing Japanese sentences on their hands. I would come into the kitchen and find them showing their friends how to write kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese.

Five years later, James started walking our eldest home from school and hanging out in front of our house. When questioned about this, she shrugged. “He’s okay, but I don’t want to go out with him.”

“It’s not the Jap thing, is it?”

“No.” She smiled. “He’s crazy about Japanese now, especially Miyazaki movies. He’s got more anime and manga than I do.”

Our eldest never went out with James, but she did tell him a lot about living in Japan and he could hardly get enough of it. The last I heard, James was learning hiragana and katakana. By this time, he might even have moved on to kanji.


Miss Footloose said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post and your children's reactions.

When we lived in Indonesia, our two blue-eyed, blond daughters had their cheeks pinched over and over by Indonesians, an affectionate gesture the girls did not at all appreciate. One time a Philippine friend of ours was reading the younger one a book and somehow got to talking about their skin color. Our friend was quite dark-skinned, darker than most Indonesians. They put their arms together and compared, but our daughter insisted our friend was NOT brown next to her white skin. Why was she not brown? "Because you don't pinch," my daughter said.

And so it goes in the mind of children!

Charles Gramlich said...

It goes to show that most of those kid's attitudes were just ignorence and that once they learned stuff they overcame it. I wonder where it comes from though in the first place.

MG Higgins said...

Wonderful, eye-opening story. You're descriptions are so evocative, I felt myself walking down the street with your girls. Thank you for a lovely start to my morning!

Robin said...

I love how innocent kids' perceptions are. Even James, when he was in his mocking phase, was sort of innocent. He didn't even really understand his own insult.

When I was 13 we moved to a town in Boston that had a large population of Jewish people. Before that, I had never really come across much prejudice. But, a girl in science class called me a Jap (Jewish American Princess)! So I guess Jap is a universal birdbrain insult. Tell your daughters I feel their pain.

Vijaya said...

What a wonderful story about race and perception ... my father thinks/pretends/wishes he's Yugoslavian :)

Angela said...

Wow--again this reminds me of the wonderful cultureal exposure your family has had--so sad tho that they saw the ugly side too. You handled it well speaking to the mothers. A lot of people would have just avoided the conflict!

A Paperback Writer said...

I didn't know that anyone too young to remember the War personally still used the word "Jap." My father, who fought in the Philippines during the war, still uses the word, but ONLY when he is talking about the Japanese soldiers and their atrocities. I've never heard him put that word to another use in about 3 decades.
We have few Asian kids at the school where I teach, but I've still never heard any of them called "Jap" -- of course, I don't think any of them are actually Japanese.

Oh yes, I still fight racism on a daily basis at school, as I teach in an area that is working class and extremely xenophobic. (Okay, let's face it: Utah as a whole is pretty xenophobic.) But it's usually the Hispanic kids who are the brunt of racism at school.
Now I like the image of your kids mixing Scottish Standard English with Japanese. Funny.
I have an American friend who married a guy of Cantonese-speaking Chinese heritage who was born and raised in Scotland. Like most educated Scots, he speaks English, but can break into broad Scots when he pleases. But he can also speak Cantonese, so it's quite fun. I wonder if he ever got called "jap."

Great story.

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- Our kids could swap some stories, I think.

While living in Japan, we realized that childrens' perception of race and otherness was entirely different from adults'. On the whole, I greatly prefer their way of looking at each other.

I'm not a huge fan of having my cheeks pinched either, so I'm all for dividing people into cheek-pinchers and non-cheek-pinchers myself.

Charles -- This is one of those things adults pass on to kids. When you hear a kid saying, "You started the war," or "You bombed our city," you can bet that 'My Dad says' or 'My grandma told me' is behind it somewhere. Kids may look for differences in others, but they don't restrict their prejudices to racial differences, as defined by adults. Adults help them do this.

MCH -- Thank you. They'd have loved having you walk down the street with them, actually -- a few times they even wanted ME walking down the street with them, past Gavin's house.

Robin -- Neither James nor Gavin really understood what they were saying, they'd just picked it up and figured it was worth something when they saw our girls' reactions. But how do you NOT react to something like that?

I've heard that other definition of JAP and my kids were intrigued by it too. They like this definition better: it sounds funnier, more regal and a little less obnoxious.

Vijaya -- Thank you. Did your father grow up in Yugoslavia? If so, he has a perfect right to feel Yugoslavian! If your father did not grow up in Yugoslavia, I'm VERY intrigued.

Angela -- Weasel that I am, I put off going to the mothers as long as I possibly could. But when I saw the kids walking on the unsafe side of the street, something snapped. It could have gone a lot worse than it did, too, so I counted myself very lucky.

Sue Millard said...

Hi Mary, Nice to see you are still telling the stories of your Japanese experiences.

Can you contact me privately? I only have your old email address and it's telling me that it's full so clearly you have another one now.

Sue Millard

Kim Ayres said...

For the record, when we came away from Dina's after seeing you just shortly after you came back to Scotland, Rogan commented about what a really interesting family you are with your collections of travels, languages and cultures :)

Lily Cate said...

What a great story.
My husband grew up in a navy family.
They travled a LOT, and spent a few years in Okinawa when he was a kid, but from what I hear, his family didn't make any efforts to, you know, see anything off of the navy base. It's a shame they missed out on so much of that experience, although, with the military aspect of it, I can see where it might have been diffucult to just take a stroll around town.
All of my husband's and sis-in-law's "friends from Japan" are other American navy kids.
Now as an adult, I think he wishes he could have had a more involved expereince while he was there.

Charlie said...

"I may well be the only non-Asian mother in Scotland whose non-Asian kids have been called Japs."

If anyone read this sentence out of context, they would think you've fallen over the mental edge . . .

I had a yound Navajo woman tell me that she was FBI: Full-Blooded Indian.

Anonymous said...

My mother is full Japanese, born and raised in So. Cal. My father is part Greek and then a whole bunch of European stuff. My sister who married a black man says she is white. My sister who married a South American says she is Asian. One of my brothers says he is Greek. My roomate in college was surprised to find out that I wasn't Mexican. The only thing that really, REALLY made me mad was in the third grade when some kid called "Ching-chong-chinese!" after me. He got all apologetic when I yelled, "I'm Japanese, not Chinese. There's a difference, Stupid."

Robert the Skeptic said...

Years ago I worked in a large corporation with a Japanese-American woman. She had actually been born in an internment camp in Idaho; she spoke no Japanese at all.

One day at work she showed me a letter she had received addressed to "Ms. O'Saki". Being of Irish ancestry myself, we both thought this quite amusing. For several years following I would give her a St. Patrick's Day card every year.

kara said...

i got called "white girl" every so often when living in the south. i'd just always be like, "um...well, yeah".

and then sometimes i got called "hippie" and i unleashed hell.

Vijaya said...

Mary, my father's love for Y has to do with folk dancing ... coming to think of it, he probably fancies himself a Hungarian as well :)

Eryl Shields said...

I used to get called 'Wog' at school by certain boys. I had no idea what it meant but I knew it was bad and it hurt. One day, feeling particularly bolshie, I asked a boy who called me it 'what do you mean, exactly?' before he had a chance to answer a girl, standing nearby, said 'he means wonderful original girl!' This girl, one of the school's pretty girls who had never spoken to me before, changed everything: from then on when someone called me 'wog' I couldn't help smiling, and so they soon stopped.

Mary Witzl said...

Sue -- I can't seem to stop myself. It's the one thing I could write about until I dropped and still have stuff left over to go on about...

Kim -- Awww... You have artists, photographers, bakers and musicians in your family, so we can certainly return the compliment. And most importantly, Rogan likes The Right Music. You have no idea how disgusted our youngest is that so few people have the faintest idea about what The Right Music is. Rogan in particular, is among the elite -- make sure to tell him that.

Lily -- I feel so envious: oh, for the chance to live in Okinawa!

Over my years in Japan, I met a lot of Navy people in Japan, and it saddened me that some of them didn't seem to prize their experience overseas. But one Navy wife I met was the complete opposite: she was delighted to meet someone who could tell how to ask for certain foods in Japanese; she wanted to know where to go, what to see, what to eat, what music to listen to. And Carolie, whose blog is Adventures in Japan and who sometimes comments on this blog, is the very best possible Navy wife and should give classes in how to do it right.

Charlie -- So little of what I write in this blog would stand up without context...

Love that FBI, which beats FBNA. I'm FBH myself: full-blooded human.

edawn -- How sweet that your heckler was apologetic, but I'm wondering what he would have done if you had been part Chinese...?

Funnily enough, I was going to blog about how irritating it is when people lump all Asians into the same vague category, not caring about whether they're getting it right or not. I have a whole collection of careless mistakes I've caught over the years, from casual comments to things I've found in perfectly respectable books and magazines. My kids are driven wild by this too. If someone refers to, say, Jackie Chan, as Japanese, they froth at the mouth.

Robert -- I love that story!

I once heard of a dentist called Ohara who actually changed his name to O'hara; he got a lot more patients that way and once people saw how good he was, it didn't matter what he was or wasn't. If only my name could be so easily rendered into Japanese. Pizza delivery people could never get their heads around my last name.

Kara -- Do you get called hippie too? I can't figure it out: just because I wear my bushy hair in braids and have a lot of beaded shirts and Birkenstock sandals!

Vijaya -- I love that! And based on this, I'm a citizen of the world. Whether it's food or literature or scenery or music or dance, there is SOMEthing to love in every culture. Considering food alone, I'm about 45 different nationalities, straight off the bat.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Our posts crossed.

My God, your comment brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful original girl SHE was too, and what a great story this is. Please, PLEASE write this up!

laura said...

What a story! Children learn from adults and terms like Jap etc... don't just pop into their heads unbidden! Unfortunately wars, and most recently terrorism, feed this kind of behavoir. One night I watched a war movie with Hans, my daughter, and her boyfriend. Hans is German and his father was in the German Air Force (shot down twice in WWII), my daughter's boyfriend was half Japanese (his grandfather was also in WWII on Japan's side)and there we all sat watching this movie. War and the resulting name calling are such a waste, I wish everyone could embrace the fascinating lifestyles of others instead of hating them.

Eryl Shields said...

I think this is one of my eternal themes: the transformative happening. I worry, a bit, that if I write too much about my actual life, memoir style, that I'll exhaust the material I plunder for my fiction and poetry.

Chris Eldin said...

I love stories like this...the ripple effect of positive interactions. And I love these tidbits into cultural identity. My boys plant themselves firmly as Americans, and I have to admit it's because I lobby for this. I don't want them to feel unrooted because we spend so much time in Dubai. But hopefully they are more multi-cultural. I do seem them as more accepting of others than their peers--it's nice to see what simply exposing kids to other cultures can do.

Chris Eldin said...

I love Eryl's story!

Kappa no He said...

I'm thinking there might have been a period there when they were speaking Japanese and were gaining their Scots accents. What an adorable mixture!

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- What an interesting experience, sitting there watching a WWII movie with members of the former Axis and Atlas both represented! Was it one of those awful propaganda ones?

I visited Pearl Harbor in 1981 with a German and a Japanese friend. We felt a little sad that we didn't have an Italian with us, and very privileged and grateful to belong to this generation. I can forgive people who suffered through the war their prejudices based on what they endured, but I find it heartbreaking when they pass them on to their children and grandchildren.

Eryl -- You can't use that stuff up! Do what I do and Frankenstein bits together -- a little of this person, a bit of that. Then there is always eavesdropping, and delving up old family stories. Whatever the case, that one HAS to make it to, at the very least, a short story!

Chris -- For better or for worse, my kids are a weird mixture of three cultures, and that has both good and bad points. Americans think they are British and Brits are convinced they are American. Japanese people, of course, think they are gaijin. Like your boys, they are much more accepting of people who are different. When any non-Scots kids turned up at their school, my girls watched like hawks to make sure no one gave them a hard time. Even a hint of bullying and my two were ready to spring.

I love Eryl's story too! If I ever hear the term 'wog' again, I'll be well prepared.

Kappa -- It's fun to hear Scottish kids trying to pronounce Japanese. And thanks to us, dozens of kids now know that onigiri are not sushi and sushi does not necessarily entail raw fish.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I think that if I were part Chinese and had said, "I'm only half Chinese. Can't you tell the difference?" he would have started stuttering apologeticly, too.

Marian said...

Hi Mary,

If I wasn't afraid I'd mispronounce it, I would commit "gaijin" to memory for future reference.

I was born in Sri Lanka, but left it after six years, then spent twelve years in the Middle East and eight years in the States and have lived in Canada for three years now. Kind of a patchwork, but then again, patchworks are often more interesting than solid colors, aren't they? ;)

Mary Witzl said...

edawn -- If only ALL bullies could be so easily tamed! I used to get a little irritated with Japanese people assuming that I was American just because I was Caucasian. As it happens, I am, but what if I were Icelandic, say, or Australian? I felt they should not just assume -- that I could easily look Asian and be American, or look Caucasian and be something else.

Marian -- 'Gaijin' is pronounced 'guy-jean' and you will definitely hear this if you ever go to Japan, so be forewarned!

You've got a rich life experience with Sri Lanka, the Middle East, Canada, and the U.S. -- my congratulations. I love patchworks and I love living in different countries and reveling in the different people who live in those different countries, both native and imported, like me. I think it makes for a much more interesting life in the long run, and my kids seem to agree. But maybe they just gave up and gave in...