Despite my pedigree (parents who met through the Asian student union at Cal; a great uncle whose name is on the San Francisco Chinatown branch library for contributions he made to Chinese American studies), I never really - never truly - embraced the Asian American identity until I went to Asia. No, not just went to Asia but actually spent considerable time there. Previous visits were a whirlwind of sightseeing, getting stuffed with local delicacies and going out at night, but this time was different. Camped out for a week or more in one spot, you realize that even though from the outside you look more at home than anywhere else you've ever lived, your mannerisms and your words betray you. Consider it a different form of passing, one which the locals are always quick to spot.
Growing up half-Japanese American and half-Chinese American (fourth generation on both sides) in the Pacific Northwest, I've always unquestionably thought of myself as Asian. After all, that was the box that I checked each time I took a standardized test. I had a sense that our family wasn't quite like some of my peers, whose parents were immigrants, but I felt secure in embracing that identity. People could tell by looking at me that I was Asian, and if pressed I felt confident claiming both halves of my heritage, even though I don't speak either language and by most standards would be considered "white-washed."
But then I went abroad to Europe, and suddenly the image I had of myself and who I was no longer matched up with what others perceived when they looked at me. It was like standing naked in front of a funhouse mirror. To foreigners, I could not possibly be American, as I claimed. (Because Americans are obviously either black or white). But nor did it make sense (to me, at least) to say that I was Asian because, under the circumstances, it would imply that I was from China or Japan. The simplest explanation, because of my Japanese name, was to say that my father was Japanese and leave it at that, but even that felt misleading. If I thought that somehow I would be more accepted traveling through the nations of my ancestors, I was quickly disillusioned.
The Japanese are too polite as a society (at least to your face) to do more than look pleasantly surprised when you claim ancestry and exhibit a toddler's grasp of the language, but the Chinese are brutal. When stepping out with any non-Asian acquaintances, they will automatically address you first, in Mandarin, and then make no effort to conceal their scorn when your inability to understand manifests. If they are elderly Chinese, they will repeat themselves, louder and slower, as if that will help.
"But..but you look Chinese!" splutter the ones who can speak English.
A Chinese who can't speak Chinese is unheard of. I'm sure the same train of thought runs through the Japanese subconscious, but they just don't say it out loud in front of you. To them, living in [relatively] ethnically homogenous societies, language may as well be passed down through DNA. I wish it were.
I didn't jet over to Asia with the pretense of "finding my roots." Even though other relatives have located our distant relations in China and Japan, it wasn't a reunion that I particularly yearned for. Because, even if I could communicate with them, what would I say? What is there to say? All of the family I've ever known are American born and bred. If there's anything in our genes, maybe it's identity crisis.
The lack of understanding between Asians and Asian Americans is practically tangible, perhaps on one side of the Pacific more so than the other. Being judged, ridiculed and stared at in disbelief when you can't read a menu but you recognize the food on sight; it's something that only other Asian Americans can relate to.
I think I know who my people are now. And they're not in Asia.