Being raised a Japanese American: a story about the versatility of chopsticks, and other cultural things worth mentioning.


If you don’t know already, I’m half Japanese and half Caucasian. This means that my upbringing was a healthy combination of Japanese culture and American culture, which also means my experiences and current way of life may be quite different from you (unless you’re also a Hapa Japanese American like myself, then this post will completely speak to you). My upbringing as a Japanese American was filled with chopsticks and their multi-functional qualities, the constant confusion between singular and plural, saying “shoyu” instead of soy sauce, plenty of interesting foods, and the ever-apparent struggle of looking completely different from everyone else.

The Japanese side of my family believes that chopsticks are the one-all cure-all for virtually every physical debacle known to man. Just an hour ago, I was using chopsticks to flip my bacon (there’s actually logic to that one, if you think about it). Here’s a small list of everyday accomplishments that chop sticks have achieved:

  1. Getting the burnt bread pieces that have gotten stuck in my toaster.
  2. Stirring my coffee every single morning.
  3. Corn on the cob (chopsticks are excellent as the “cob”).
  4. Cleaning the bottoms of narrow-bottomed cups or vases (I swear to you that I put a little piece of sponge or cloth on the end of a chopstick by securing it with a rubber band and then proceed to cleaning the bottom of said cup or vase).
  5. Chopsticks are something that we eat EVERYTHING with. It doesn’t matter what kind of food we’re eating, we will eat all foods with chopsticks (pasta, chicken, pizza…).
  6. Oh, an almond slipped under the fridge? Use a chopstick. Hockey-stick that little nut right out from under it.
  7. Apparently capturing mice. I swear to god that I was in my aunts car once and saw a mouse (a live one) on the widow sill, and my Aunt Yoshiko yelled “someone get me a damn chopstick, I’ll get it!”. So, there’s that.

Needless to say, chopsticks are a pretty big deal.

Next, onto the plural/singular part of this post. My sweet, sweet mother has raised me to be continuously confused between singular and plural. Whenever my mom makes noodles, she asks if I want “a noodle”. Not noodles. Like, just one noodle. Unfortunately, I have also adopted this term and get constant shit for it at work when I’m having “a noodle”. The confusion continues when she leaves to go to the store and proceeds to call it Safeways. Before you get upset with me for making fun of my mom and her use of language, I should also tell you she is also a Japanese American. She was born in the US and doesn’t speak an ounce of Japanese, but has somehow picked up on the plural/singular mixup, just as I have from her.

So, I don’t speak Japanese at all. The vast majority of my Japanese family speaks English most of the time, but one thing that sticks with us is that we have been raised to say soy sauce (which is pretty much like our version of Ketchup) by it’s Japanese name “shoyu”. I spent most of my life ignoring the fact that the there was even an English word for soy sauce at all. I have often forgotten that I was with non-Hapa people and said “hey, pass the shoyu” only to be met with a quizzical look.  Now, since you know this now, you can look at the actual ramen packages we know everyone (Asian and alike) buy and see which ones will have more sodium in them based on the word “shoyu” being on the front (haha, kidding, but not really.).

Since we’re talking about food, growing up Japanese American meant that I had a healthy combination of both American and Japanese foods in my diet. I, to this day, eat noodles (or a noodle) for breakfast, then a good old piece of pizza or sandwich for lunch, followed up by a vegetable chow mein stir fry for dinner. And for dessert? Ice cream or a mochi with red beans in the center (green tea flavor is my jam). That’s the thing about being a mixed race: I have a thorough mixture of cultural foods to choose from. Whether it be pickled ginger (my favorite over rice), or a hearty cheesesteak sandwich, I’m lucky that my tastebuds have known such variety in ways that others don’t get the pleasure of experiencing.

Finally, growing up a Japanese American, specifically a mixed race American, people tend to talk about my looks a lot. When I was a kid, I got made fun of for being Asian. I hate to say this in such a crude way, but kids are dicks sometimes. I got a lot of remarks (and racial slurs) about being Asian and people loved to ask the age-old question: “are you Chinese or Japanese?”, not realizing that Asia consists of actually 48 different kinds of Asians according to their country of origin. Also, not to mention the constant question (which is not a harmful question at all) “what are you?”. Being half and half, I look kind of…different. I don’t have all of the Japanese features of my mother’s, and I don’t carry all of the caucasian features of my father. Some people swear they would have never guessed that I was even Asian at all, while others say that they knew I was Asian right off the bat. So, that always left me feeling sort of strange about the way I looked. It’s hard to grow up in a society where people tend to try and blend in to look like everyone else. Especially when you simply don’t look like everyone else. I have since learned to completely embrace the way I look because it’s actually kind of amazing not looking like every one else, but I do still struggle with finding a foundation that matches my face since my skin tone is directly in the middle of having warm tones and cool tones.

Growing up a Japanese American has taught me so many things: chopsticks are the best tool for all things, singular and plural can get a little confusing, shoyu will always be the only name for soy sauce, the food is good whether it’s American or Japanese, and being half and half makes for a really different looking human being. All laughs aside, I really am so lucky to have grown up in a mixed race household. My multi-cultural household taught me that being different and versed in more than one culture makes you interesting, not weird, or something to be feared.


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