When I was a kid, I devoured The Baby-Sitters Club books and Claudia Kishi was my favorite character, hands down.
The way she dressed was SO COOL and I’m guessing it’s the inspiration behind old pics of me wearing the giantest of scrunchies, 5 plastic watches at once, and two different color knockoff Chucks.
She loved snacks and they are, to this day, my favorite food group.
And there was the matter of her super smart, stuck-up older sibling. To be fair, my genius older brother was always kind, completely unaware of his own intelligence even when he was taking all three foreign languages (Spanish, French, Latin) offered by our high school at once.
I rarely felt inferior to him, the way Claudia seemed to of her older sister, but I was sometimes jealous, especially when the school set up a program, just for him, to distance-study Japanese.
It wasn’t that he was getting special treatment that bothered me, it was about him learning Japanese, our grandmother’s first language.
In BSC books, Claudia lived with Mimi, her wise, soft-spoken Japanese grandmother who taught her about traditional tea ceremonies, but in my life, my grandmother lived hours away and rarely talked about her life before coming to the U.S. My only knowledge of Japan came from these books which, in hindsight, was likely a stereotypical depiction.
So I grew up feeling vaguely different, but not, if that makes sense. My family didn’t do any of the things I thought Japanese people did, like bowing or eating with chopsticks. We ate hot dogs and boxed mac n’ cheese and watched Sesame Street and Family Ties. It was all very American.
But there were those other moments, like the time the principal of my elementary school, where my mom worked, was excited he could mark down he had an Asian-American employee, which meant the school was diverse.
Or the 5th grade field trip to a museum in DC where I saw, for the first time, newspaper headlines from WWII, screaming: GO HOME JAPS!
In high school, someone used an ethnic slur against me – I won’t repeat the word – which was jarring because I always thought I looked “white.” The same with my mom. But just a few months ago, someone saw my parents together and asked my dad if his wife was Mexican. I have also been asked if I was Mexican…or Russian or Ukrainian or Slavic or…(you get the point). And surely my brother looked white since he has my dad’s blue eyes. Yet a couple years ago my husband worked with a guy who went to school with my brother and remembered him as being “Korean or something.”
Most of the time, people are just curious and I don’t take offense*, but it’s always a reminder that, somehow, I’m different. Only, I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t know any of my relatives in Japan. I’ve never been anywhere near the country. And I’m Jennifer Lynn, which is pretty much the most American name in existence.
Which brings me to my current WIP. I call it a new/shiny old idea because the main character was always part-Japanese and there were a few places in the manuscript where she had encounters similar to ones I’ve had, but I never really dug deeper.
The reason I didn’t was because I didn’t feel like I had the right to. I thought it would be insulting to “real” Japanese-Americans who had more genuine experiences than I did. Then I realized how problematic my thought process was, because what exactly is a “genuine” experience?
Like I mentioned above, Mimi from The Baby-Sitters Club is wise and soft-spoken and drinks tea. My grandmother is intelligent, but she’s also blunt, drinks coffee, and, as I recently learned, grew up in Japan eating sandwiches.
Claudia’s older sibling is good at math. This is often touted as an Asian stereotype, but my grandmother is a retired math teacher and my older brother has a degree in the subject.
Revisiting this manuscript and knowing I need to infuse it with more of my own experiences and insecurities is terrifying. I’m afraid I’ll do something “wrong,” even though it’s essentially my story.
And there’s the fear of haters. A couple months ago, I was tagged in the comments section of a funny Facebook video featuring a cat. It should have been 30 fun seconds of my life, watching adorableness. Instead, the focus of the comments turned to the people in the video. It was set in Japan, I could tell by the overlaid text, so when someone made a remark about China, I said, nicely because there was a winky emoji, that it was actually Japan.
This turned into a shit-storm of angry white dudes saying all Asians eat cats, so why did it matter what country they called it. I tried to explain that their assumptions were offensive and one guy said something like I shouldn’t be upset because it wasn’t like the comments were aimed at the part of me that was Japanese. And oh, by the way, remember that Americans dropped nuclear bombs on Japan?
I left the conversation at that point because I felt sick and unsettled. On the surface, I’d pointed out a geography mistake, but what I’d really done was force several people to face their own bigotry and narrow-mindedness and they were having none of it, hence the passive-aggressive threat.
It’s an ugly, ugly world and allowing myself to be vulnerable in it, through this book, is terrifying. Even the small act of posting these words is scary.
**I don’t personally take offense, but I think it’s part of a larger societal issue where some people only feel secure if they can categorize others by race, gender, religion, etc. And once they’ve stuck everyone into these boxes, they decide which is bad or good, based on what makes them the most comfortable.