|Posted on March 22, 2011 at 12:00 PM|
Once when I was competing in a pageant on my journey to the title of Miss Oklahoma, an interview judge asked me what I thought at the time was an odd and inappropriate question: "How do you feel about being half Japanese?" I'm pretty sure I looked at her as though she had just vomited on my $1,500 suit.
"Well, because I have always been half Japanese, I really have nothing else to which I can compare being half Japanese," I said out loud, while silently I said, "How does it feel to be an idiot?" (That was the way I thought back then.)
Through the years since my pageant days, and especially after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that virtually destroyed the birthplaces of my grandparents, I understand the profundity of the judge's question from so many years ago.
My mother is Japanese - born in Sacramento, California to Yoiko of Fukushima, Japan and Fukumatsu of Sendai, Japan. She was the youngest of nine children and the family's great hope for being an Americanized Japanese. She is the only member of her family to speak with no trace of an accent because of all of the voice and diction lessons she took as a child.
Day after day was a dichotomy of training in traditional Japanese ceremonial fare: tea ceremonies; Odori and Hanayagi dancing; Koto (stringed instrument) lessons; while at the same time she took American vocal performance lessons from some of the top voice coaches in California. Her mother, the grandmother I never met, expected young Miyoko to excel in every lesson. "Good enough" was not in the Sasaki family's vocabulary.
What does it mean to be half Japanese? I realize now that it means my siblings and I are expected to strive for excellence; to cling to our Japanese culture while excelling at skills that make us uniquely American.
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the world has seen a Japanese society reeling with grace from what should be considered the worst disaster in that proud nation's history. But it's not. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably just as devastating and the Japanese recovered from those manmade tragedies with the same grace and honor. In those tragedies, they also actively practiced forgiveness.
My mother recently took my sisters and me to Hiroshima. We toured the bombing museum and "ground zero" with eerie, conflicting feelings of pride, awe and shame. At first I was afraid of how a group of Americans would be treated while touring around this hallowed ground, once decimated by U.S. bombers. But we only experienced kindness, sincerity and gracious hospitality from the people of Japan.
My oldest sister recently taught me about the Japanese philosophy of Gaman, or patience, endurance, perseverance. I never even thought about it, but my mother--in her Americanized way--drilled the concept into our psyches throughout our lives. I looked upon terms such as, "fight fire with water," "be kind to people on your way up the ladder because you never know who you will meet on your way back down," "let it roll off your back" as signs of weakness - not strength. But she was trying to teach me gaman - to endure hardships with grace. God bless her, for mixed with my Japanese blood is the blood of American revolutionaries, Irish rebels and Scottish warriors. While I will always peservere, I'm not always one to persevere with grace. Her little Japanese heart must break every time I take on a new battle.
So what does it mean to be half Japanese? I realize now that it means I am privileged to carry the wisdom and goodness of generations of a proud culture that actively practices gaman. I watch with great sadness and pride as the Japanese people -- my people -- gracefully recover from this most horrific of disasters. I've also learned I don't always know everything and I probably owe a certain pageant judge a long overdue apology.