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)

Always Check your Spam Folder

Way back in November,2019 PC (pre Covid-19)… November 5th to be exact I had the honor of speaking at the United Nations in New York City!!!(I know, crazy, right?!) Now, you may remember that in December 2018 I did my chair happy dance when the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) listed The Last Cherry Blossom (TLCB) as an Education Resource for Teachers and Students!

Well in April 2019, John Ennis, UNODA Chief of Information and Outreach invited me to participate in a New York City teacher education program in conjunction with Hibakusha Stories, an organization in NYC whose mission is to keep the stories of atomic bomb survivors(hibakusha) alive and taught to the younger generations. Not only that, but as a partner with International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Hibakusha Stories share the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize*! This teacher education program will assist teachers in adding nuclear disarmament to their curriculum. As if that were not amazing enough, I also would participate in the UN Bookshop Meet the Author event and discuss my mom’s experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and TLCB. I still feel so giddy just thinking about it 😊

The night before I spent time going over what I would say and taking in the view of Manhattan traffic in the glow of the city lights (my family knows that’s one of my favorite things to do). The view was just so amazing!

NYC lights view

The next morning, I woke up about 3 hours before we had to leave (we had to arrive 8;30). Watching the darkness of early morning burn off from the first ray of sun for the day- a perfect setting to pray, review my notes (again), marvel at the view, and repeat. While I was getting ready, my husband had returned with a surprise treat of a chocolate croissant with my much -needed large cup of coffee. He knows me so well 😊

We had a short walk toward the United Nations building. An interesting note about the UN building- did you know that once you enter you are no longer in the United States?! Yup, although its headquarters’ address is in New York City, once you go through security and enter the courtyard you are entering 18 acres of international territory. Yes, 18 acres- definitely a much larger facility than it looks from the outside! I was very grateful for their kindness in making sure that a wheelchair would be waiting for me(thanks to Diane Barnes)-I’d have never been able to walk everywhere we went that day. Before we entered the UN, I met Suzanne Oosterwijk, a lovely person who had been my main contact before our arrival and the person organizing where I needed to be that day.

View of UN from hotel window

Moments before my magical day began

With Susan Oosterwijk

Our first stop-meeting room for the teacher symposium. Next to the table of fresh fruit and bagels from Brooklyn(yes, I know, I am all about the food), we were greeted by Dr. Kathleen Sullivan, Hibakusha Stories Director and Education Consultant to UNODA along with, Robert Croonquist founder and treasurer Youth Arts New York(parent organization of Hibakusha Stories). Dr. Sullivan and Mr. Croonquist also share the Nobel Peace Prize as partners of ICAN. So not only did I have amazing opportunity to meet Nobel Peace Prize winners, I worked alongside them and they let me hold the actual medal!! THAT was so cool.

Matt and I holding Nobel Peace Prize Medal!

With Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Kathleen Sullivan and Robert Croonquist

Before the symposium started, I met, Mitchie Takeuchi. I was thrilled to finally meet a second generation Hibakusha like myself! I felt an immediate connection with her. As I listened to her tell the story of what happened to her mother and grandfather in Hiroshima atomic bombing, my heart ached with empathy. I know that we are both doing what we do to honor our loved ones’ voices, and to give a voice to victims who never had a chance to speak. It humbled me to participate in a session with over 40 compassionate teachers who came, on their own time, to discover ways to add nuclear disarmament to their curriculum.

With Mitchie Takeuchi

With NYC teachers, ICAN, Hibakusha Stories, and myself.

{Before I move on to the UN Bookshop presentation, I just want to say if you have a chance to eat at the UN Cafeteria (once it is safe to do so) the views alone are worth it! But the international selection of food is also delicious. 😊}

I am normally a little nervous before I speak no matter if it is in person or on Skype. But when we exited the elevator and I saw all the people in the bookshop, the various Japanese newspapers/photographers, and NHK World Japan, I’m not gonna lie, I was a potpourri of shocked, humbled, and suddenly extremely nervous. However, once I got to the front, I, reminded myself that this wasn’t about me. I prayed that I would honor the memory of my mom, family and all atomic bomb victims, and that my heart would shine through my words. I looked at my husband for that reassuring smile, and finally, I savored that moment and my once in a lifetime paparazzi experience. Having Dr. Kathleen Sullivan as the moderator was surreal. Did I mention she won the Nobel Peace Prize?! 🙂

Maher Nasser introductions

 
During the question-and-answer section someone commented that TLCB could be the “Anne Frank of Japan”. That totally blew me away. During the book signing I met so many wonderful people and educators. Our new friend Suzanne whisked me off for the United Nations podcast, The Lid Is On, (that aired on my birthday few months ago-a perfect gift)!

With Ana Carmo of UN podcast

Speaking with Fumitaka Sato ,NHK World Japan

The afternoon ended back where we began this joyous day and I had a chance to chat with the UN ODA staff and wonderful members of Hiroshima Stories. I’m so incredibly grateful to John Ennis, Chief of Information Outreach for UN Office of Disarmament Affairs and colleagues Soo Hyun Kim, Diane Barnes, Suzanne Oosterwijk, and Maher Nasser(United Nations Bookshop). As well as to Dr Kathleen Sullivan, Robert Croonquist, Diane, Debra, and Carolina from Hibakusha Stories/Youth Arts New York.

Dr.Sullivan on phone making Matt & my dinner reservations!

John Ennis, UNODA

Matt and I capped off the day with a delicious dinner at Sakagura restaurant. When we returned to the hotel room, I spent the rest of the evening looking out the window at the city lights and traffic below. Before I fell off to sleep, I relived all the amazing moments of the day. If I had to pick one word to describe that day it would have to be magical. The only thing missing was having my Mom there with me to share that day and to know her voice had mattered. But I believe my parents were there in spirit. ❤ The magic of that day shall live in in my heart forever. ❤

Sakagura restaurant,NYC

Matcha tiramasu-as beautiful as it is a delicious dessert


So, now to the reason I named this blog post… One of the interviews I had after the book signing was with NHK World Japan, that filmed part of my presentation at the UN Bookshop. Later they posted about it on NHK World Japan website.

A few days after I returned home, I happened to glance at my Spam folder and found an email from Fumitaka Sato the award winning Senior Correspondent for NHK World Japan that I met at the UN Bookshop! Sato-san wanted to learn more about my mom, how my daughter started my journey to write TLCB, and how it has been used in schools worldwide. And the rest you know from my social media posts about the Japanese and English segments on NHK World Japan TV 🙂 

So, my advice to you all is ALWAYS check your Spam folder. You never know if there is an email waiting to change your life. (Spoiler: if it is from a Prince in a far-off country-that is DEFINITELY NOT the one). 🙂 

* for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that the United Nations adopted on July 7,2017. Although it has not been ratified by all the countries involved, including the ones with the largest number of nuclear weapons (the United States and Russia)- it is a beginning and a sign of hope.