Haafu, pt. 4 – authenticity in the red

(parts 2 and 3)

The “self” in “self-hating ____” is not really you.  It’s the version of you that other people think you’re supposed to be, based on what you look like and where your ancestors came from. “Self-hating” is an accusation of not living up to stereotype.

Rejecting, ignoring or simply not taking the necessary years to learn the culture and language of your grandparents is not an act of self-abnegation, because your grandparents are not you, and the version of you that you’d be denying is from an alternate dimension where language and culture are passed down genetically.

You’re born in suburban Michigan to parents who both speak English.  You grow up around friends who also speak English.  You half-heartedly study Spanish in high school.  What part of this picture inclines you naturally to know Vietnamese, Korean, Polish, or any other language, just because your last name is not Anglo?

The accusation of being inauthentic or self-hating for not embracing the culture of one’s ancestors is seldom leveled at people in the ethnic majority.  Only minorities are made to feel they must justify their existence by contributing some ethnic spice to vanilla Americanism.  No one calls Dwight Eisenhower or Andy Richter self-hating for not learning German.

Yes, learning a second language is always good, and a language that someone in your family already speaks may seem to be a natural candidate.  If you’re not burdened with the expectation that your whole identity is wrapped around your minority ethnicity, it makes sense to make progress, however meager, toward a second language that perhaps you have a unique amount of access to.  But as a nominal member of the group whose language that is, taking a step towards learning it doesn’t mean going from 0 to 1. It means going from -100 to -99.

I don’t look very Japanese, and most people in Japan when they hear my last name assume I got it by marrying into a Japanese family. That is, I’m a gaikokujin learning Japanese, and my account balance on language skill is positive.  When people hear that it’s actually the last name I was born with, they have a moment of “oh, so that’s why…” and their perception of me changes.  The explanation for my language ability becomes genes rather than effort and I transform from mildly proficient to a curiously deficient.

It might have been easier for me, and I suspect many minorities, to simply avoid “their” language and avoid putting that negative balance on the books.

Born in debt.

11 thoughts on “Haafu, pt. 4 – authenticity in the red

  1. Well said and gratefully read. I called myself a Finn in northern Minnesota until our fifth grade teacher explained to our collection of “Finns, Swedes, Germans, and Poles” that we were all, in fact, Americans. Then I went into the Peace Corps in Botswana, Africa where some African American volunteers were wrongly thought to be putting on airs because they didn’t step off the plane speaking the local language. I took my Japanese wife’s family name so that our children growing up there might feel more at home. For the most part, they have and do, I hope. One will travel to the U.S. for the next four years for college to study sustainable agriculture and, perhaps, explore her own identity deeper and wider.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, quite a life you’ve led! American identity is a funny thing, such that recent immigrants can call themselves unambiguously American and some people who’ve lived there for their entire lives can feel alienated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Are you from Michigan by chance? My children were raised in Michigan but nearly completely in the Japanese culture until they began attending gradeschool; but of course they aslo attended Japanese school on Saturdays. My son, 26 now, looks entirely Japanese but has turned into quite a hippie; my daughter looks ethnic, probably Asian to most, and for good reason has all but walked away from her father’s culture (PTSD-related). My hippie child always says he wants to visit Sado Island again, but I think he doesn’t understand the burden he will feel in that he has lost a lot of his language skills but will be expected to perform by his appearance. You remind me of my son at that age.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually I grew up in California, not in Japanese school or anything. To this day my brother who doesn’t speak Japanese and has never lived in Japan has nicer hiragana than I do, probably because he did go to Saturday Japanese school for a year. Despite your son’s advantages over me in this regard he will probably feel as alienated as I do if not more because the gap between expectations and reality will be even more apparent. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


    2. Well now that I’ve read your book I can say I certainly understand your kids’ alienation from Japan. I look forward to hearing what your son thinks after his trip if he makes it. As for your daughter, I wonder what it would take to redeem Japan in her eyes. Not that this needs to be a priority – the entire point of this post is of course that we don’t have to show special affinity for the cultures we “belong to”. Thanks again for the comment.


      1. Hello Mr. Makino! Not many days ago I received a letter from Japan, in Japanese of course, asking me to please convince my son to travel to Niigata soon for his grandmother’s sake. I did my job and spoke to him about priorities and making some schedule to go. Not once was his sister mentioned; nor has she ever been. Since the crimes were reported it is as if she has fallen off of the earth. My son said he thinks it is because his Japanese side just doesn’t know what to say. It is true we do not have to be bound to our cultures of birth; nor do we have to accept blindly any part of it that does not fit with our world view.

        Thank you for reading the book. I hope it was ok for you in general. I never know how younger people will take it. If you haven’t done so, I’d really appreciate your critical review on Amazon. It would mean a lot to me. Stacy

        Merry Christmas…or happy holidays if that fits better! Best regards!


      2. Well, I liked it, although I may not be the foray into younger demographics that you hoped for. It’s weird to ask for a sequel to an autobiography, but if you ever write one I’d be interested in reading that too. I hope your kids find some way to square their experience with a reasonably optimistic perspective on the world some day. Happy holiday(s) to you too!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I will keep writing but I doubt it will be a continuation of that story. I may write on business philosophies or a completely different culture…who knows. My intention is to keep a low profile up north at our cottage/cabin where life is pretty darn simple.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Coming late to the party but had to leave a message – excellent post! People also forget that out of country, any foreign language requires maintainance.

    “It might have been easier for me, and I suspect many minorities, to simply avoid “their” language and avoid putting that negative balance on the books”.

    Have also struggled with this question and sometimes still do.


      1. Spot on with the heritage language and identity issues.

        Also interesting is speaking a language that corresponds to an ethnicity you are often perceived as, but which you actually have no connection to.

        So some people expect you to speak the language and you actually do speak it. Sometimes it’s of little consequence in a passing exchange. Sometimes they later find out, not that it matters.

        I hope you write some more about haafu identity – I like what I’ve read so far!

        ~ fellow “halfie”

        Liked by 1 person

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