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Yosonoko: A stranger’s child

How do you navigate between your Japanese and Australian identities when you are both?

"Yosonoko" written in Japanese script overlaying an arrangement of Japanese sushi Artwork by Grace Fu.

I could never imagine identifying myself as ‘Australian’ without mentioning that I’m ‘half Japanese’, because to me, that’s what being a halfie is. To be of two.

A question of identity seems to be on the lips of everyone I meet. “Are you Latino?”, “Are you French?”, “Are you mixed?” But then my name gives it away. I wait for the collective “ahhh” moment people seem to experience when I explain that my name is Japanese, a nod to my mum’s heritage. Then comes the next question, like clockwork, “Are you half or full Japanese?” I’ve never understood this question. Would a fraction, a whole number or a decimal truly change their perception of me? Or perhaps I’m vain to think they’re so invested in me when really, they’re just asking me out of curiosity. This experience isn’t unique to me, in fact it’s a shared experience I have with many of my other halfie friends. Australia has never had as many bicultural, bilingual and biracial peoples as it does now — so why is there a need to force an identity onto them?

Despite having an Australian father, I don’t have much memory of ever speaking English at home. After he passed away when I was nine years old, our bilingual household quickly became monolingual. My mum raised my brother and I as Japanese children. Being a Japanese teacher herself, she taught us to read, write and speak Japanese before we ever learnt to read the alphabet. My first love has always been for my Japanese heritage. I think it’s an integral part of my identity. I could never imagine identifying myself as ‘Australian’ without mentioning that I’m ‘half Japanese’, because to me, that’s what being a halfie is. To be of two.

I’ve spent much time in Japan since I was born. My first trip to Japan was when I was just six months old, now I annually visit. When I was seven, my mum enrolled me at the local elementary school in Toyonaka, Osaka, over their winter term. It was the school that she went to as  a child and fondly remembered. It was now rundown and a bluish-grey in the dimming winter light, with frost that snapped at your heels between your socks and slippers as you walked down the hall. Before enrolling me, she took my hand and walked me around the school, familiar yet unfamiliar to her. We stopped outside on the dirt oval, under a tall metal structure pasted with paper. It was browned and rusted, but you could tell it was once colourful. My mum seemed surprised, wistful almost. She revealed that it was her class’ artwork, group 5B from 1977, that they had made to decorate the school, still standing 29 years later. Years later,  I asked her why she decided to enrol me. “I wanted you to have that memory and experience of being a Japanese child,” she said. But she was wrong.

Each memory whispered you’ll never be a Japanese child to me. I was only half, and I couldn’t pretend I was full.

I made friends quickly, as they saw me as an anomaly in a mundane city like Toyonaka. I spent my recess break on the rusted jungle gym, surrounded by curious peers. They asked questions from what Australia was like, to whether my grandma would be picking me up in the afternoon. On one particular day, I sat a second grade kanji test with the rest of my classmates. Although I had gone to Saturday school in Ultimo, I could barely answer three of the ten questions. My teacher was kind to me. This was unusual in a Japanese school setting, known for its academic rigour and disciplinary practices. She corrected my attempts, but didn’t give me a grade — something I saw as a merciful act. Maybe she thought she was protecting me, or perhaps protecting me from my peers? Either way, I was thankful. The other day, I found a photo that my mum took of our class. I was unusually tall, unusually white and unusually western-looking compared to my classmates. I stood out, easily.

Despite my experiences, there’s been a long history of discrimination against halfies in Japan. For a country that still remains largely homogeneous, a person of mixed race was perceived as a threat to the pure breed of Japanese people. They quickly became part of a lower social class, and derogatory terms, such as ainoco and kinketsuji were used to describe them as only being ‘half blooded.’

In the past few decades, there has been a shift in attitude towards halfies, as they have become idolised in popular culture for their hybrid western and eastern looks. Halfies are highly visible in Japanese media, often featured on variety shows, with successful careers in acting and modelling. Personally, I wonder whether this is a result of a more accepting society, or something closer to fetishisation. Mixed race people in Japan are often perceived as ‘exotic’ and ‘sexually appealing.’ I had experienced this on the train in busy city centres around Osaka. Whispers on trains, shared glances and if people were forward enough, requests to have their photo taken with me. Although, I was surprised to have once experienced this down at the local laundromat with my obaachan. I was waiting on a small bench with her, watching our sheets rotate to the low hum of the machine. Suddenly, a stranger came up to me. “Are you famous?” she asked. Startled, I let out a nervous laugh and replied “No.” “Oh but you could be,” she insisted, “Such a pretty halfie.” My obaachan beamed with pride, pulling me closer to her whilst detailing my biracial life to the shopkeeper.

Curious, I decided to ask my mum whether she deliberately raised me in Australia — somewhere I could blend in a little more easily. She paused, “To be honest, no. I just knew I wanted to move to a foreign country and marry a gaijin.”

Gaijin. I had a complicated relationship with that word.

In Japanese, it means ‘foreigner’, although to me it meant ‘but’. “You speak Japanese well but you have a gaijin face” or, “You have a Japanese name but you look like a gaijin.” It was a way of telling me that I was almost Japanese, but I wasn’t quite there. Gaijins were the ones who didn’t take off their shoes when they entered a Japanese home, the ones who talked loudly on the train in a quiet carriage or the ones who struggled with their chopsticks when eating udon. That wasn’t me. And I hated being grouped into it.

When I was young, strangers often thought I was adopted: I looked like neither of my parents. My round face and flat nose a hint of my Japanese heritage, my pale face and thin brows a nod to my British roots. When combined, I looked foreign. Often when we’d queue at the supermarket checkout, the cashier would mistake my mother and I to be separate customers. “She’s with me,” my mum would quickly say. When we’d walk out she’d make the same comment each time, “Wow, they didn’t think we were related.” I think she subconsciously considered believed in it herself.

The last days of December were  spent cooking and preparing our osechi for hours in my obaachan’s cramped kitchen. It could look like chaos preparing for oshougatsu. There is so much anticipation and preparation leading up to the day. It captured the nuances of Japanese people and culture I could never explicitly explain simply by telling someone what the experience is like. But nothing could take away from the specialty of creating osechi during oshougatsu: it was ultimately an art. It takes precision and an eye for detail to create beautiful arrangements in an osechi box.

All the names read like a poem — datemaki for auspicious days, konbu for joy and kamaboko, reminiscent of Japan’s rising sun.

I loved being my obaachan’s taste tester. “Try these kuromame and let me know if they’re sweet enough,” she’d say. They were always too sweet, but I loved them that way. On the morning of oshougatsu, my ojiichan would wake up before sunrise to enjoy mochitsuki, rice cake making, with others from our neighbourhood. It’s an intensive process, particularly for an 83 year old like my ojiichan, as it requires you to pummel rice and boiling water with a wooden mallet. Too slow and it hardens, too fast and you could lose a hand, but my ojiichan does it anyway — for good luck. By 11 o’clock my extended family would be cramped into the meek and unassuming apartment, now clustered with more people than trinkets. It was a challenge that I enjoyed, setting the table for twelve people when a maximum of five people could fit in the living room. We’d unhinge the paper doors that separated the dining room and bedroom to turn it into a larger room. There, my cousins, great cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, would all sit, gathered and eating, elbow to elbow. Here, it didn’t matter if you were half, you were Japanese.

This moment was always special to me, so I was particularly excited when my boyfriend, Nick, was able to join us this year. I knew that inviting him meant he would see a completely different side to me, one where I was immersed in being a Japanese person — I wasn’t sure how he would react. He reflected on this moment, saying, “I think the feeling of seeing you land [in Japan] was not necessarily one of surprise as much as it was curiosity and interest. There was a connection, to see this part of your life that I may not have considered as being integral to your living experience when I first met you.” His words summed up perfectly how I felt — being Japanese was a part of my identity. Being a Malay-Chinese and Australian halfie himself, he told me that he was surprised at how ‘in touch’ I was with my Japanese side. He said,

“I always thought that there was some kind of a trade off.”

Nick was raised as an Australian, heavily assimilated into Australian culture.  Nick’s experience was completely separate from mine, to the point where we could never understand the other’s experience. And I’ve come to learn now that that’s okay. He didn’t speak, read or write Hokkien and he had never visited his family in his mother country. Nick’s experience was also common for my other halfie friends, as many could not speak or write in their language.

In the past, we had a few arguments about how most halfies were turning into ‘bananas’, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I remember challenging him on numerous occasions, saying that he was ‘out of touch’ with his Malaysian culture and that he wasn’t a ‘true halfie’ because of this. But what did that even mean?

Thinking back, there is no way to define being a halfie, the term is elastic, as are the meanings derived from it.

I had no right to deny him of being a halfie simply because his experience wasn’t the same as mine. Nick brought up the very valid point that being able to read, write or speak your second language shouldn’t be used as a measurement of how ‘white’ or ‘Asian’ you are. He argued that the halfie experience is “Organic — simply by interacting with my relatives. There are subtle ways of interactions, mainly mannerisms, negotiation styles, hidden biases, that you can only really extract if you’ve spent a prolonged amount of time with people who have grown up in that environment.”

I could see this, having spent time with Nick’s Malaysian grandparents. Prior to spending Chinese New Year with his grandparents and extended family, Nick had warned me of his family’s complicated relationship with Japanese people and culture, since the happenings of World War II. I was wary of meeting them, but Nick’s mother had kindly prepared a New Year’s gift I was to present to them, earning me some brownie points. His grandfather, Kong Kong, was cold and spoke few words, but his grandmother, Mahmah, was more warm, clasping her hands around mine, smiling. We all sat together, eating, with Nick explaining

the significance of each food. He pushed a plate of lo hei, a raw fish salad, towards me. “You need to toss the salad with your chopsticks, for good luck!” I did so, warmed by his inclusion of me in his culture. Later, I was taken by surprise when I was offered a red envelope by Nick’s auntie — I was unsure whether to accept or decline it, considering I had only just met her for the first time. As I was about to decline out of what I thought was courtesy, Nick swooped in, thanking his auntie and prodding me to do the same. “Never decline,” he whispered “It’s rude not to accept.” I smiled. He had helped me navigate his culture, just as I had helped him with mine.

Revisiting my own memories and finding their place in the Eurasian experience has made for an interesting reflection. Perhaps, it was more than reflecting — it was learning. The biracial experience is diverse and unique to each person, whether that be learning to speak, write and read the language or a subconscious learning through immersion in a culture. Either way, cultural heritage is inherent in each being. There is no parting from it. It is what moulds your attitudes, shapes your features and provokes every thought in your mind. Embracing this whilst constructing your own identity is to me, the biracial experience.

* * *

kanji – Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system

obaachan – grandma

oshougatsu – New Year’s Day 

osechi – Japanese New Year’s food

datemaki – sweet egg roll

konbu – a type of seaweed

kamaboko – pink and white fish cake cut in semi-circles 

kuromame – sweet black beans

ojiichan – grandpa