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Call Me Okaasan

by The Next Family July 31, 2010

By Suzanne Kamata

“I’m America-sick,” my nine-year-old son said one July afternoon as I was driving him and his twin sister home from school.

Huh? I was unsure of how to respond. Did he mean that he was sick of American culture, which was pervasive even in rural Japan? Perhaps he’d been watching too much “Hannah Montana” on cable TV. Or maybe he meant that he had a fever for all things from the United States. He actually liked Hannah Montana, or at least he’d told me several times that he did. But then he said, “I’m really looking forward to going to America next month.” Oh. I get it. He means “America-sick” as opposed to “homesick.”

A few years ago, I enrolled him in a nearby private school boasting a curriculum in international English. Some of the students had lived abroad, and a few had at least one foreign parent. He made friends with a boy in his class who was the son of an Australian mother and a Japanese father. This friend would be spending summer vacation attending school in Australia. As a result of their conversations, my son had started thinking more about his visits to the United States. It seemed natural that he would be looking forward to our upcoming vacation, but I worried. Could it be that he wants to escape? Perhaps he doesn’t feel that he fits in at school. Perhaps he doesn’t fit into Japan.

My son was born in Japan. He has an American passport and has been to the United States five times to visit relatives, but he’s never actually lived in the country. On other occasions, he has emphatically declared himself Japanese.

I get it, of course. It’s hard to stand out in a country that prizes conformity. So I understand why, in the last days of kindergarten, he hated to speak English with me in front of his Japanese friends, why he suddenly embraced the Japanese superheroes of the past 20 years, why he eschewed the easy English readers planted strategically around the house and went for Japanese manga. I’d imagined a perfectly bilingual, bicultural boy, crossing borders with the greatest of ease, but he’d gone native on me.

As his American mother, I’d felt personally rejected by this, but I figured it was better for him to have a strong Japanese identity than no identity at all. I’d read a great deal about the kind of confusion experienced by “third culture kids” and “global nomads.” However, I also worried that he would be bullied by his peers in the conservative farming community where we live – a place where even folks from the next town over are seen as vaguely foreign.

At his new school, where half of the instructors are from Canada, Australia, and the U.S., it’s cool to speak English. My son started to embrace his American side again. But then, one day, he came home upset because a second grader had teasingly called him “Foreign Boy.” At bedtime, we had a talk about ignorance and identity and how lucky he was to be of two cultures, although it may not always seem that way.

Our family is not of entirely one culture or another. You might say that we have a “third culture family”. Our holiday celebrations are a mix of American and Japanese traditions that we manage to make our own. On Christmas Eve, for instance, we often follow the Japanese custom of dining on fried chicken and Christmas cake, while opening the presents found under the Christmas tree and emptying stockings on Christmas morning. (In Japan, children wake to find a gift by their pillows.) On New Year’s Eve, instead of partying with champagne, we’re more apt to eat a bowl of toshi koshi soba (long buckwheat noodles in broth meant to signify long life and luck) and waking early to see the first sunrise of the New Year.

Here in Japan, kids – and adults – sometimes react to my son’s Western features, but he has made Japanese friends at school, in an extracurricular soccer club and at swimming lessons. He and his sister have also encountered children from other countries such as Korea, Australia, Taiwan and Austria. When I see the ease with which he interacts with other third culture children, I understand that there is a place where he belongs. Thanks to an increase in marriages across cultures, international adoption, and peripatetic lifestyles, families like ours may soon be the norm.

While mothering in a foreign country our lives are frequently enriched, our visions expanded. We experience new styles of celebrations and ceremonies, taste never before eaten foods, and learn new ways of thinking. We also form multicultural memories unique to our families that will serve as a bond in years to come.

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Suzanne Kamata is the author of a novel, Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008) and editor of three anthologies including Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press, May 2008) and Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2009). For more information, please visit her website at http://www.suzannekamata.com.

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