Friday, August 17, 2007

"I" is for Identity

Which is what? What is my identity? I am. . . American? An expatriate? A foreign wife? A Gaijin? Do I qualify as international?

Am I over-the-hill, old, an obaasan--a mother, a wife, a footnote to my former self?

If identity is in part based on origins, mine lay in the mid-west of America. My father's family is all from Illinois and I was born in Kentucky. We lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Illinois from the time of my birth until I was in the second grade. I remember bits of Pennsylvania (we lived in Hershey, Pennsylvania--who can forget the smell of chocolate after rain? The street lights shaped like silver wrapped Hershey kisses?) and all of our time in Illinois.
My mother's family also comes from the Midwest--Pennsylvania and Michigan. But my parent's marriage was a kind of shining-knight-rescues-damsel-in-distress deal so I grew up in the knight's compound and didn't really mix much with the clan from whence my mother was taken.
But my father re-located our Midwestern family to California in 1976 when I was nine-years-old. In California we had only our nuclear family which means that I was raised in the universe of my parents. It was a fascinating sociology experiment. A bit like the movie "Mosquito Coast" just tamed down and camouflaged. And my parents remained there for the next two decades. They relocated back to the Midwest, to Indiana, after my father's retirement from teaching.

So all my pre-teen (tween as it is now fashionably called) years and teen years were carried out under the optimistic strong glare of the Californian sun--tattoos, liberalism, fresh oranges a buck a crate, the smell of suntan lotion and burning asphalt and the glorious rebirth of the foothills in a brief baptism of green until spring runs away and summer lays her golden mantel over the Sierra Nevadas. But somewhere in my background is the tenacity and the humility of farmers who settled in the plains of the Midwest--humidity, home grown tomatoes, lightening bugs, real green grass lawns, front porches, lightening storms and hail the size of baseballs--Midwestern reserve and Bible belt morals.

My educational background, another element in forming identity, was a small private liberal arts college in Oregon, followed by graduate school at a California State University and then my formal education ended in Reno, Nevada where I was working on a Ph.D. in English literature. That I never completed. And I feel it so keenly that I am convinced that any doctor to perform an autopsy on me would be able to cut me open and point out, "Ah, and see here? This is where she was unable to complete her doctorate program."

And really, now that I have metaphorically got myself up on the slab, cut open for inspection, we get closer to how I feel about my identity: Bits and pieces. Bits and pieces that for a time here and there are able to form enough cohesiveness to pass for "me."

Most of the bits and pieces of me have reached the shores of Nihon, the land I call home and the home of my children. They don't all fit in here though, although I can't say for sure that they fit perfectly in the U.S. either. Being Gaijin here helps the western immigrant keep a tight perspective on their cultural heritage. I will never be Japanese and so I can unburden myself of the albatross of cultural assimilation. I learn the customs and the ins and the outs of living in Japan, but I don't have to remold my soul to fit anything at all here. I am fundamentally foreign and safe to remain so.

Does this make the American me more American? In the beginning, I realized that living outside of America did highlight for me what it meant to be American. Ironically I won the sixth grade speech contest, "Why I am Proud to be an American." It's ironic, because I can't remember why I was proud at that point in life. And ironic because I realized that I had no clue what it meant to be American until I left America years later.

Now that I have lived outside America for a decade I realize that I am unable to come up with the necessary cultural passwords. I use the Internet to try to fill in my American cultural gaps--I read about Britney and Hilton, about the political scandals and the homegrown backyard victories. I listen to the top ten and watch American Idol, spell bound.

But when I was home for a visit four years ago and sat in front of the evening news it hit me for the first time that I was an American living far from America. The first news that scrolled across the screen were the names of local soldiers who had died in action. We were at war. The next morning when I took my parents dog out for his morning walk my mother pointed out the homes of those who had loved ones over in Iraq. The yellow ribbons on the trees, I kept wondering, why hadn't I noticed all the yellow ribbons before?

In Japan, I knew we were at war, the U.S. and Iraq. I knew it, but I didn't feel it. Just like I know that my children are Japanese and American, not one nor the other but a combination of both--incomplete in some areas of each, but whole in the sum total. This is easier to see and accept on an intellectual level than witness in action. When we drove in from the airport to my folk's house in Indiana my children shrieked with delight, "A park! A park! Can we stop?" over and over again. They were pointing at backyards filled with climbing gyms and swing sets, something that they don't see here in Japan. Swing sets and slides are for public parks, not private homes here.

The disappointment that became palpable at meal times in my parents house when my children refused American favorites, pizza, jam, SpaghettiOs, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie. . . making it hard to swallow. The resignation when my mother offered up the rice cooker ( a gift we gave my folks years ago) and rice. The greed and glee with which my children danced around the steaming rice cooker, squealing with delight, "It dinged! it dinged! The rice is done!"

The distance that inevitably starts to fill the space between my American friends and I. Shared experiences no longer strong enough to build a bridge in certain areas of our lives. If I complain about the heat and the humidity to my friend who lives in an insulated, central air conditioned house. . . how can she understand mold that grows in the bathroom, on the window sills and behind the furniture on the wall? If I whine about household chores to my friend who uses a dishwasher, a dryer and an oven large enough to bake two trays of cookies at once how does she find a way to understand my frustration with hanging up laundry indoors to dry during the rainy season?

When I first came to Japan as a married woman, my Japanese mother-in-law suggested that my husband and I live tanshinfunin (a common practice in Japan where the husband lives in a different city or area of Japan from his wife and children for work purposes). I remember looking at her incredulously. I couldn't fathom the idea. When she asked me how to translate tanshinfunin into English I told her "separation" as in prior to "divorce". She looked at me incredulously.

A friend of mine is faced with a making a decision this spring. Her Japanese husband has decided on a job in a different prefecture from where they are currently living. They just bought a beautiful home in the area of Japan in which they are now. Her eldest child has started elementary school there. Her youngest is finally settled in a new day care there. I asked her if she had considered tanshinfunin? To me, it makes sense now.

There are a lot of things now that make sense to me. It doesn't bother me at all anymore when someone cancels plans or turns down an invitation just by saying, "I have plans/something came up." without offering any further details. I no longer give excuses. In fact, just saying, "chotto. . . " rolls right off my tongue. Chotto literally means, "a little", but in conversation it can kind of translate into "uhhhh . . . " and whereas it used to frustrate me to be "chotto'ed" by someone, now it doesn't offend. If feels right.

And I feel a little anxious until I know the exact age of the person to whom I am speaking. Then the ground levels out and I know exactly where I stand or where I should be standing in relation to them.

A foreign friend came to my house the other day and when she left I went outside and stood in the street and watched her car disappear down the road. When I could no longer see it I went back inside. I knew I probably didn't have to do that. She is American too. But I didn't seem to be able to stop myself from following her out the door. Waving at her. Bowing at her disappearing car.

Identity. I'm still searching for mine--the bit of me out in the street watching my friend's car vanish, the bit that has memorized all the Japanese nursery school songs and finger plays, the bit that got drunk off of Coors beer in the back of my boyfriend's car in high school in the California foot hills, the bit that hugged my professors fiercely when I received my MA degree, the bit that sang 9 Inch Nail songs at the top of my lungs, the bit that answers to the word "Mommy", the bit that wants to roll the windows down and feel the San Joaquin's heated breeze rush over my face. In the kaleidoscope of me, I sit watching the pieces fall into different patterns. Is this a constant act of reinvention? Or is it the process of being?

Identity: fractured, incomplete, incandescent, in motion, in memory, a figure in a life in progress.


Donna said...

I'm really glad you've been blogging so much more, you write so well and I always enjoy your entries.

It's intersesting to read the markers you consider being American, the things you miss, the things you want your girls to share. My daughters didn't like pizza for a long time and still don't like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or macaroni and cheese.

When Miranda was first born, we lived in a double house with a tiny yard. We went to the park almost daily. Once when Miranda was around 2 or 3 we were going to some garage sales, the people had a swing set in their yard. Miranda ran toward it happily, ready to play in the park. She was really annoyed to find out it wasn't something she could play on.

The air conditioning too, it's something people assume you have, and we don't. I was on some forum where moms were asking advice on what to do when it was too hot to go outside. Another mom said she had a great cookie recipe, they could just stay inside and bake. Not much fun when you don't have air conditioning!

Gaijin Mama said...

I was really disappointed the first time my parents served my kids hot dogs and they didn't like them. But then today, someone called my daughter an American, and in spite of her U.S. passport, I thought, "No way. She's Japanese."

Claire said...

Now it's my turn to say "Wow!" Great post. I was nodding my head in recognition all the way through, especially the bits about losing touch with the cultures of our home countries and the distance that grows between us and old friends there.

The kaleidoscope image is brilliant, too. I think we're all made up of fragments, but being in a foreign culture and raising bicultural kids makes us much more aware of it because the different pieces are so contrasting.

My kids won't touch that British staple, baked beans. I bought a six-pack from FBC once, thinking they'd make a good standby, and ended up eating the whole lot myself.

Sarah said...

Great post. A lot of food for thought. My girls are still young but I know that as they get older the differences will stand out for them when we go home for a visit.

My husband is always asking me where we want to retire. Obviously it's way to early to think about this but I always tell him that I'll probably want to be wherever our girls are but where will that be? I think the decisions they face will be greater than mine. What will they teach their children? What traditions will be important to them? What kind of man will they marry? Needless to say, I pray a lot!