When I was young I had little or no interest in Japanese (or Japanese Canadian) history or culture. I knew my mum was Japanese, or at least her parents were – they spoke very little English. But my mother spoke accentless English, which made her Japanese -ness rather abstract to me. My father made everyone in the family a set of hashi out of ebony. They were gorgeous, hand-polished to a dull shine. And he wasn’t Japanese in the slightest. Very confusing! But I knew enough to know that they weren’t “chopsticks” – that was what white people called them. So maybe I was Japanese after all.
My father’s closest friend was Roy Kiyooka, a fellow artist. He was Japanese. Yet he behaved nothing like what I understood Japanese to behave like. He certainly didn’t act like my grandfather. He had a big, loud laugh. He cackled ferociously. He expounded on things I couldn’t understand with this languid drawl that seemed completely at odds with what Japanese people were supposed to sound like. He smoked pot.
When we moved from Toronto to Vancouver and started getting to know other Japanese Canadians, they treated us as one of the gang – further making my own identity less abstract and more concrete. I didn’t look Japanese – and I shared a last name with a famous British children’s author – yet I felt strangely at home in this new community.
It was still confusing, but in a good way. I came to realize I had a lot to learn. I mostly learned by osmosis, picking up not much of the language, but some of the undercurrants – the not-easy-to-articulate nuances that create culture. I came to realize that my definitions of what constituted Japanese-ness were incredibly narrow and constraining. Some people fit the sterotypes, many did not. Some embodied multiple contradictions. It was crazy. It was wonderful.
I was always the youngest, so little was expected of me. I could just soak it all in. I’m still soaking it all in. Still learning. As editor of The Bulletin I learn a little more, issue by issue. This month I learned about Ann Gomer Sunahara author of The Politics of Racism. You can read about her on page 2. What a remarkable woman. What a remarkable community.