Am I ASIAN Enough? Am I AMERICAN Enough? (Hint: Yes! & Yes!)

One month ago, I posted the 3 gold slides that are throughout this post on my Instagram & Twitter account after the Atlanta shooting/murder of 8 people, 6 being Asian women, leaving one survivor in critical condition. Since that post, an Asian woman in NYC was attacked while bystanders didn’t intervene, an Asian market was vandalized here in Charlotte NC*-both events occurring within the same week(March 29 & 30th), shooting in Indianapolis, and 2 tea shops in Charlotte were vandalized (last week). So, I thought I would repost my words here.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that as much as I speak about how much my mother’s story/voice mattered back then (directly after atomic bombing) and matters now; it’s not as easy for me to feel that my story also matters. Although, I have opened up about my health issues with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), I have a harder time discussing my Asian American experience. Perhaps because I’m a mixed Asian. As you all know, my mom was from Hiroshima Japan, and my dad was a Caucasian American.  However, in light of recent events stated above (and of the numerous ones last year) I’m determined to use my voice even when it feels scary to be so vulnerable.  

I have mentioned before that my mother said she ‘Americanized’ our home. So no, we didn’t have many Japanese decorations. I couldn’t speak Japanese (unless you count a few phrases and the numbers 1-20) 😊 but I had a few records (45 rpm no less- if born after 1996-you may need to look that up-I’m really dating myself here) of Japanese children’s songs that I loved to sing with my best friend, Maureen, even though we had no idea what we were singing about. 😊  

My Japanese Children’s Song records

I loved the packages the woman I knew as my Grandmother, Miyako, sent us filled with senbei (rice crackers), green tea, pretty magazines (that I couldn’t read but my mom cherished),ramen noodles, Hello Kitty Sanrio items, dresses for me, and beautiful Licca-chan dolls.

Sara with my Licca-chan village

I looked forward to hearing my mom speak Japanese once a month when she called my grandmother and her close friend in Japan. I loved the sound of how she spoke and laughed with them. I remember hearing my name mentioned and wondering what my mother was saying about me. My mom didn’t make Japanese food very often (except for rice), but when she did make some Japanese dishes it was delicious. I remember how she would put a bowl of rice and cold water daily in front of her favorite picture of her Papa. I remember feeling special because my mom was from Japan and so happy to also be Japanese.

Me with some Sanrio gifts & outfit from my grandmother

Of course, it wasn’t until I went to school that I quickly realized that being Japanese may not be something to brag about after kids started using racial slurs when referring to my mom or myself.  I quickly realized that blending in or the wish to blend in might be better for me. Something shifted by middle school and I didn’t focus on my Japanese side very much.

When I was a teenager, high schools and colleges didn’t have Japanese language courses (as my daughter took in college). And there were no Asian clubs or Asian American magazines, Facebook groups, or podcasts(so many wonderful ones exist now and that I’ve been guest in/on) 🙂 **. If there had been, I don’t really know if I would have sought them out or if that would have encouraged me to embrace my Japanese side sooner. I’m leaning towards the latter.

I do know that I didn’t check off Asian on my college application or FAFSA because my mother vehemently forbade it after what happened to Vincent Chin a few years earlier. So, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t fully embrace my Japanese heritage until after I had my daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I was always proud to be Japanese, but just didn’t know at the time that I could embrace it without looking like I wasn’t proud of being an American.  So, during this past tumultuous year, the thought of maybe I don’t have a reason or a right to speak about the recent Anti-Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) racism had crossed my mind. Although, I would have been Japanese enough for the internment camps in the US during WWII-a pretty darn good reason to be considered Asian enough now.

I know that when I wrote The Last Cherry Blossom (TLCB), I struggled with what lens I would use to tell the story because people (including my Dad) kept asking ‘Whose side of the story are you telling?’ My father worried that there might still be prejudice against the Japanese and didn’t want me to get hurt. More than once he had told me, ‘Perhaps it would be better not to write the book.’. But I thought of the strength my mom had to not only persevere after the most horrific day of her life, but to also share those memories with me. The one and only clear answer came through-to proudly push forward and tell the story through the lens of a 12-year- old girl-the only lens that mattered.

Interestingly, as I began to query possible agents and editors, they didn’t realize I had a connection to the story because my name wasn’t Japanese (even though in the intro paragraph I wrote that it was based on my mother’s family in Hiroshima and all she lost in the atomic bombing.) Although, I do realize my name couldn’t be any less Japanese-but it was a barrier I hadn’t thought about. It again made me question if I was Japanese enough to tell the story.

Like mother, like daughter…

As a mother and a MG/YA author, I can’t help but think of the children that are too young to understand why or to know the long history of anti – AAPI racism (probably because it wasn’t taught in school), yet they are old enough to sense the fear, sadness, or anger of their parents or other loved ones.  And tragically, some are dealing with the loss of their loved ones to senseless violence solely for the fact that they were born Asian.

I feel for the middle and high school age kids not understanding why the same people who called the pandemic “kung flu” under the guise of being a joke, were surprised when AAPI’s said attacks against them had risen, and then refusing to see any correlation between the two (I know as an adult I don’t understand it).  They see the current endless social media feed on the hate incidents against Asian Americans, as well as the difficulty in labeling or prosecuting them as hate crimes. My heart breaks for them. I want them to have a safe space to discuss their emotions that are cycling through them. I want them to know that their emotions, their voices, their (our) stories matter.

I hope to tell my readers/students that even if we think others are not listening or haven’t listened to us in the past-we still have the right to tell our story, and for others to understand our hurt is valid. Fear and ignorance can be deafening, so we have to work even harder to have our stories, our messages heard. I’m holding on to my hope that through prayer and in solidarity we can cut through that noise(of racism) to find a song of peace.

Whichever way we choose to express our story(spoken or written word, art..) or stand against hate crimes, it doesn’t have to go viral, doesn’t have to change the world in a day for you to be considered as making a difference-it ALL matters. I’ve listed some resources at the end of my post.

I’m grateful to be a member of Asian Authors Alliance . They had set up an amazing network of AAPI authors and bookstagrammers to bring awareness, to have fundraising events through their Kidlit Against Anti-Asian Racism(back in March) and #StandUpforAAPI(late March on Instagram). They are also setting up author panels for AAPI month in May and I will be participating in one with some amazing authors on May 28th.

I’m incredibly grateful for all of my families’ and friends’ love and support from my childhood to the present. I’m grateful for my husband, (who gave me the second half of my non-Asian name😊), for always being here for me. I’m grateful for my daughter who fully embraces her Japanese heritage and encouraged my journey of writing TLCB because she felt the students would have empathy for the victims once they understood that they were people (like us) under those mushroom clouds (she was right).

Sara &host family at summer festival

It is my hope that by telling our stories of our AAPI heritage and teaching the history of Asian Americans, people will no longer see a ‘foreigner’, but the eyes of a mother, a child, or a grandmother, or father; they will see the common bond that we all have as human beings living in America.

Me with my Mom at 1 yr old & Mom,Sara, &I

*Many people came to the aid of the Korean family that owns the store after this latest incident (sadly not the first time this has happened to them). Seeing this outpouring of compassion and generosity makes me feel very hopeful.

I’d like to send out my deepest condolences to the families of the Atlanta shooting victims: Soon C. Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiajoe Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels. My prayers to the family of Elcias Hernandes-Ortiz who is currently in the ICU as result of his injuries from this shooting. As well as to ALL the recent victims of senseless violence this past month.

Resources:

A few weeks ago, I attended an Asian American Federation virtual event “ A Year of Asian Hate: Where do We Go from Here?” which is also on their Facebook Page. This poignant program featured an Asian American that was attacked in NYC, as well as highlight various groups/people that are (and have been) working together in NYC.

Ways to support Asian American Pacific Islander Community: These are just a few, this article on NBC.com by Kate Ĺy Johnston has more.

**Asian American Magazines/Newspapers (Not a full list)

HAPA Magazine(soon to be Mixed Asian Media)

Mochi Magazine

Asian in the Arts

The Cre8sian Project

Plan A Magazine

Rafu Shimpo

Pacific Citizen

AsAm News

Borderless Journal

**Podcasts (Happy to say that there are many in the US, so I can’t list them all. Some I’ve been on and others I’d like to be 🙂 So please check out Potluck Podcast Collective or Asian American Podcasters for a more complete list)

Flashbacks

The other day an app on my phone sent me a “5 years ago” grouping of pictures-usually it just reminds me that I take way too many random pictures of food, or my dog in such a short time span. But this time, these pictures sparked memories of when my husband, daughter and I visited Hiroshima for the very first time. It was July 15, 2015-6 months (to the day) after my mom passed away. As you may know, we honored her at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims.

We stayed at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn with traditional meals serving local and seasonal items) on Miyajima Island (10-minute ferry ride from port of Hiroshima). Interesting fact-the actual name is Itsukushima Island after the famous Itsukushima Shinto shrine (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) built over water there-but has been called Miyajima-Japanese for shrine island, for quite some time

We spent July 16th, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. We stood in front of the iconic A-dome building in shock and awe, we bowed our heads in prayer at the cenotaph (built in 1952-the year that all Allied Occupation Forces left Japan) that protected the cement vault holding 108 leather bound books inscribed (by hand) with names of over 297,000 people(2015 numbers) who had since died but were in Hiroshima on August 6th . My mother‘s name was added in time for President Barack Obama’s historical visit in May 2016.

We stopped at the school children monument to pay our respects to my mother’s classmates that died that day. At the Hiroshima Memorial Hall, I lovingly and proudly added her story to the database and her picture  on the Memorial Wall, near her Papa.

Inside the Peace Museum we listened to a survivor story, but instead of being told by an actual survivor or family member it was by a trained volunteer. Since the survivors are dwindling, and some family members may move away, the museum recognizes the importance of keeping these stories alive. TLCB wouldn’t come out until a year later, but after listening to that compassionate volunteer’s respectful manner telling that survivor’s emotional story-even though had no relation to them at all -sparked the decision that I would do my best at making sure these stories-of my mom’s , my families’ suffering and loss that day were also never forgotten. I think I cried from the moment we arrived until after we left. I’m tearing up as I write this now….

Okay, got my tissues-we can move on…

We not only took in the splendor of my mother’s hometown with the Seto Inland Sea, Mount Isen, and palm trees. But, as we walked the sandy path to the Itsukushima Shrine(famous also for the giant red Torii gate that seems to float in high tide) where my mother went for various festivals, we saw Hiroshima through her eyes. I finally understood why she always said she grew up in the most beautiful of places. Fun fact – Nara may be known in Japan for having over 1,000 sacred deer, but Miyajima Island also is home to many photo friendly deer. You might even see deer eating “street food” or wearing a pine cone on its back! 🙂 

Of course, as with any trip we had some drama-just a little typhoon headed for Hiroshima. We caught the last ferry back to Miyajima Island where a lovely ryokan employee waited for us at the ferry station, knowing we were due back that afternoon.  They didn’t know when, but wanted to be sure someone was there when we did return-so they waited all day-so very kind and thoughtful (heck, we can’t even get everyone to wear masks,here). I’d also like to mention that while in Hiroshima Peace Park and back on Miyajima Island,everyone was so calm about the typhoon-even as the wind picked up. It would be like having a summer thunderstorm here in NC-expected and usually no big deal(except to Scarlet, our kitchen ninja dog, whose only nemesis is booming thunder). I fully empathized with her and lost my feeling of calm, knowing the typhoon was headed our way. And oh yeah, we were staying on an island-you know- by definition- surrounded by water.

It was unnerving to hear the wind and the rain that night. I don’t think any of us got much sleep. However, the next morning we woke up to gorgeous weather. The worst of the typhoon veered around us-coincidence, I say not…. Especially if you knew my mom! She would never let something happen to us after we honored her and her Papa.

This trip down memory lane leads me to the fact that this year is the 75th Anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (8/6) and Nagasaki(8/9). I am beyond grateful for the upcoming opportunities to honor my mom, family, and other atomic bomb victims. I hope that I’m instrumental in giving a voice to what they endured. And that the type of horrific deadly destruction that lived in their hearts, dreams, and memories for their entire lives never happens to families ever again.

I truly wish that my body holds out so I may use the skills, and compassion the Lord gave me to continue sharing the message that we must remember our connection to one another as human beings. Hopefully my words can open readers,(future voters’) hearts as well as their minds to what happened at 8:15am that August day 75 years ago. Deadly mistakes that we are at risk of repeating if we don’t connect with the fact that the people under those now famous mushroom clouds were someone’s child-like my Mom or someone’s parent-like her Papa-my Great Grandfather.

My mom & family in their back yard

Below is the list of events along with description of the sponsoring groups. Please check out these sites and catch their commemoration if you can, not just to see me (which I would love to ‘see’ you), 🙂 but to hear other survivors stories, and from coalitions, that are working toward peace and elimination of nuclear weapons:

August 1 Ribbon2020 10am EDT   

(Sara and I will be holding the banner ribbon that Sara made.)

I met June Tano by email and a few months later we met in person at the UN Bookshop signing and she gave me two beautiful ribbon banners. The Ribbon was founded by Justine Merritt who had visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1982. She was greatly affected by the tragedy caused by the Atomic Bomb. After arriving home, it came to her to create a Ribbon, and decided to have a Ribbon event on the 40th memorial anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

August 4th Interview on Asian America Podcast with Ken Fong

ASIAN AMERICA: THE KEN FONG PODCAST is a weekly show that explores the cultural, artistic, historical, and spiritual aspects of the Asian American community. Each podcast, host Ken Fong shares stories and thoughts from his own life, and then interviews guests across all sectors of society who are transforming what it means to be Asian American.

August 5th May Peace Prevail on Earth 6-8pm EDT 

(I will be one of the people saying a few words.)

I was introduced to Fumi Stuart, Executive Director, USA World Headquarters, whom I instantly felt a feeling of friendship. The Organization’s first seeds were planted in Ishikawa, Japan where a small gathering of peace workers joined Masahisa Goi to listen to his philosophy and visions for a better world. Masahisa Goi came to be respected as a great master in his field throughout Japan and his ideals for peace on earth gained much support.

August 6 HiroshimaNagasak75 #StillHere

(Sara and I will be speaking live at 7:30-7:55pm EDT)

I had an interview on the podcast, Nukes of Hazzard(Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Washington, DC) last year on 8/6.  They are one of the 150 coalitions that are organizing this National Virtual Event. and who invited me to submit a proposal for this event.

August 7 Greensboro NPR THE STATE OF THINGS 12-12:30 pm EDT

August 15 The Japanese American National Museum Virtual Event: Daughters of Hibakusha Tell Hiroshima Stories

“Two award-winning Japanese American authors Kathleen Burkinshaw and Naomi Hirahara,(Hiroshima Boy) join together for the first time to discuss how they felt compelled to tell the stories of their Hiroshima hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) parents through novels.”

Mom, I love you and you will always be the bravest person I will ever know ❤

Will also be sharing on Welcome Heart