by Naomi Walcott
May 14, 2020
I am the child of a Japanese mother and an Anglo-American father. Like many first-generation immigrants who wanted their children to be “100% American” and speak perfect English, my mother insisted on an English-only home. However, she ensured that my brother and I remained connected to our Japanese roots. On Saturdays she drove us more than an hour each way to attend all-day Japanese language school, and I studied Japanese classical dance for 10 years. My father took a sabbatical from his teaching job so that our family could live in Japan for one year, and my brother and I spent every other summer attending school in my mother’s hometown in Japan.
In Japanese, biracial children are commonly referred as “hafu” (half). However, I always thought of myself as “double,” blessed with two rich cultural backgrounds. I never identified as Asian American until my late 20s, when a friend in graduate school invited me to join the Asian American students’ association. I was surprised, touched, and so pleased to be included. My Japanese heritage has continued to play a significant role in my adult life: my BA and MA are in East Asian Studies, and my bicultural and bilingual upbringing led me to a career in diplomacy. I joined the State Department as a “critical needs” Japanese speaker and served in Japan for five years as a Foreign Service Officer, among other overseas postings.
Nevertheless, I don’t consistently refer to myself as “Asian American.” The term doesn’t quite fit given that I look white and have an Anglo-American name. Knowing the discrimination my mother has faced as an Asian immigrant, I am mindful of how much I benefit from white privilege and from being a native speaker of English. Being an “undercover” Asian American has made me more sensitive to how fluid identity is, as I know from experience that we can’t assume that what we see on the outside represents how a person views herself. “Hafu,” “double,” “bicultural,” “Asian American,” “undercover Asian”…whatever the term, all I know is that my life has been immeasurably enriched by my Asian heritage.
Asian Pacific Heritage Month Resources
Download a list of online resources and publications for those who are interested in learning more about Asian-Pacific history in the U.S., including the issues of racial bias, equality, social, and economic justice that still affect individuals and communities today.