When I was 5, I remember asking, "Mommy, what am I?" The Thompsons down the street were Catholic, the Adlers were Jewish, and everyone else on our block in the San Fernando Valley was White and Protestant. So, I wanted to know what we were because like the Adlers and the Thompsons, I knew we were different. Mom said, "You are Japanese American." Well what exactly did that mean? Were we Japanese? American? Which?
Later, when we moved out to Ventura County in the mid-70s, we were one of two J.A. families in our tract-housing neighborhood, a far cry from people who grew up in Asian neighborhoods like Gardena, Torrance and Monterey Park. One of my best friends, Cynthia was African American. Did we realize that we were the only children of color in our sixth grade class? People used to call me a "brain" because I was quiet, shy and Asian. But I remember when Roots was on TV, a boy in our class boasted that his great grandfather was the slave master for Cynthias great grandmother. Did I realize the racism?
In high school, dad would joke that my sister and I needed to learn to cook rice for our future Japanese husbands. I remember thinking that was pretty funny. Because for one, I wasnt planning to ever get married, and if I did, my husband would be cooking his own rice. And I didnt know if my "husband" would want rice, because aside from my brother and male cousins, how many J.A. guys did I know?
Fast forward to a few years ago, my doctor wrote in a medical report that I was a "female of part Oriental extraction." What did that mean? If I was part "Oriental," what did he think the other part of me was? White? American? Hapa? Was he confused about my ethnicity because of my ability to speak English without an accent?
Over the last few months, Ive been reading the varied perspectives of JAs in preparation for the "Ties that Bind" Conference this April. People have been writing about what it means for them to be J.A. It has become really clear to me, that although we all have different backgrounds, there are commonalities that cant be ignored, and that everyone has a story to tell.
Two years ago, my partner, Tony Osumi and I sat down and wrote out a list of "101 Ways to Tell if Youre J.A." (not to be confused with the Top 100 Ways to Know Youre JA). Although we came from different backgrounds, we were surprised to find how many things we had in common, how many ties that bind us, as a couple, and as members of the community. Some of them we debated, but we were surprised to find how much our combined experiences struck a chord within the JA community.
While I didnt play in the JA basketball leagues or have bushes shaped into balls in my front yard, I did shop at Fedco and practice our cultural trait of enryo. Tony doesnt belong to a Japanese Credit Union, but he swears that Best Foods Mayonnaise is better, and his dad still wears his Members Only jacket.
I think its more than simply determining what it means to be JA. But the more important question is how do I become a better JA? Is it by making lots of money, wearing designer clothes, eating at the "in" restaurants, or having expensive toys? Id like to think that its more about standing up for whats right.
So, how can we become better JAs? Ask yourself what you can do to help the Japanese Latin Americans and railroad workers win redress, because they only have six months before the doors of the ORA (Office of Redress Administration) are closed.
Or, ask yourself if you can use your experiences as a JA to reach out to others, not just in your own community, but to people in other communities as well. Because more than just knowing what it means for us to be JA, its important how we use it.
Jenni Emiko Kuida lives in and writes from the Venice/Culver area of Los Angeles, and is co-author, along with Tony Osumi, of the original "101 Ways to Tell if You're Japanese American."