My first semester abroad has come to a bittersweet end. Starting with a course that navigated the beginnings of Asia, and then taking courses in Japanese Kansai Culture and Chinese Architecture, we ended with our course titled “The Politics of National Identity in Greater China.” While I am not Chinese, this course, and this trip have allowed me to really confront and delve into my own identity and the question of “who am I?”
Identity is complex, multifaceted, and just plain hard. We learned about the different identities in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and how many people in these countries and nations have struggled with what identity means to them. In that struggle, they are confronted with questions–where do they feel they belong? How have the histories behind their ethnicities, nationality, and origins shaped them? Histories that are political, confusing, and heartbreaking. Those who live in Taiwan struggle with identifying as Chinese, Taiwanese, both, or maybe even neither. While those in Hong Kong similarly question if they are Hong Kongers or Chinese. And beyond these identities, they must consider the social and political implications that come from claiming these identities. It’s hard and while China and Japan have truly had many problems and continue to have tension, I relate to these questions of identity that people are experiencing here in greater China more than I relate to many things in America and Japan.
I think of the homes I have had across America: Utah, Florida, California, and Washington. I think of the laughter I had with my friendships through each of these states and the food I have eaten, and the long drives with music blasting. I think of rooftops I can climb on and views of the Bay Area that make me feel small and special. But then I remember the inequality that various friends and I have had to experience: the doors slamming loudly on opportunities and access. I am not always welcome in America, the place many people call their safe haven, the country they love. I am not welcome and others are so much less welcome than I. The day Trump was elected was the day that changed my relationship with America. America, to me, is like an old friend who I am growing distant from. For some, traveling makes them realize how much they love America. People on my trip have voiced this, and people at embassies have said this. I cringe at these words as they taste bitter. I do not feel this way. I cannot claim America as part of my identity right now. I cannot say she is being good to me or so many others. I cannot keep suppressing the truth I feel or keep feeding my denial just to make the relationship work.
Japan. Japan is me, I am half-Japanese. I identified as half-Japanese and never as Japanese-American or even Asian-American. Growing up, I always thought this, I always claimed this. The older I get, the more I am able to comprehend these ideas and honestly, it has become shattering. Japan doesn’t want me; If you are not full Japanese, then you are not Japanese at all- no matter how much time you have lived there or studied Japanese culture, language, history, etc. I don’t look like them, I don’t talk like them, I don’t understand anything Japanese… is what I’ve been told. Half-Japanese kids are often bullied, as I was when I spent time there, and half-Japanese citizens are not considered equal. On this trip, we spent a month in Japan. I was so excited and I was waiting for this leg of the trip for so long. But when I got there, I felt like I was hit in the face with too many questions and I didn’t have enough answers. I had conversations with Japanese people who made me feel like such an outsider. It was a finalization that I am not Japanese enough and I never could be. They don’t want me and I have to let that go.
Throughout our course, we learned about the idea of “Somewheres, Anywheres, and Nowheres” based on an article David Goodhart wrote for the Economist. A Somewhere is somebody whose identity is based on a particular place and where tradition and family is very important. For example, a Han Chinese person might identify as a Somewhere if they feel connected to China, a place, and a home. An Anywhere is someone who can identify with many places and perhaps move or travel around a lot. Growing up, I would have identified as an Anywhere, feeling as though I had a connection with both America and Japan. I could move to either place and feel like it was me. But then, as a class, we came up with the idea of a Nowhere who is someone that doesn’t feel like they identify with any place or anyone or nationality and ethnicity might not be as important to who they are as a person. The older I get, the more I am a Nowhere, realizing that I can’t find home or acceptance in either America or Japan. I am not proud of Trump’s America, or the realities of America that have spilled out. And I am hurt by the way it felt like Japan was screaming at me, reminding me I will never be Japanese. Even though I originally felt a connection with Japan, their deep-rooted culture and the need to experience this culture was evident and I did not meet the criteria.
This course was informative and I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the citizens who have to gruel and recoil at the idea of identity. I talked to a few people living in Taiwan where I could feel their body cringe as I brought up the subject of our class or the million dollar identity question. One said if he was forced to choose, he would identify as Taiwanese because he likes the people and culture better; another said, of course, she is Taiwanese because her parents are Taiwanese; another said that he identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese but refused to visit China unless their government changed and said he loved Japan more. I wouldn’t have to delve into the same sort of identity questions that they are navigating and I definitely do not understand what they are actually feeling. But, I too feel a little lost. Who am I? I am not American. I cannot be Japanese.
This trip was already forcing me to explore these questions, but this course made me jump into the cold water. I see that so many other people are lost in how to identify, and while its hard, I feel a sort of community with these Nowheres. Nothing wrong with being a nowhere. I am Paisley and I love to travel (and be an anywhere), and I love film, antique markets, and food. And, I still love sushi.
I see an America that will be better in the future (and that I can love in the future), but for now, I have the privilege to take the space I need traveling and learning through Asia. I want to help and I am so passionate about changing the way things are in America. I am not giving up and I never want to. And, I love Japan, despite its history. Maybe one day I will find myself feeling strongly as a Japanese-American, something I have never felt before. But perhaps it’ll have to wait until the future.
For now, I am a Nowhere, and for me, like I said before: Nothing wrong with being a Nowhere.