Don’t Tell Me How to Connect to My Roots

The Question

My mom and I were in Little Tokyo.

“Excuse me! Miss!”

We were in the market, shopping for an upcoming family dinner. Mom carried a basket full of mochi, pickles, and tempura batter, her eyes skimming the aisles for wonton skins.

I turned towards the voice. A middle aged man in a wheelchair rolled up to me and asked at speakerphone volume, “Are you mixed? Is this your mom? Your grandma?”

“My mom,” I answered. Grandma? A nervous laugh rumbled at the back of Mom’s throat.

“You’re very pretty,” the man said. He nodded towards a store clerk, a young man, who was restocking some shelves nearby. “He thinks so too.” The clerk, clearly embarrassed, rushed to the backroom.

“Thank you,” I mumbled. With a hand on my mother’s back, we shuffled away, to the checkout line. This wasn’t unusual by any means; people like to read my racial ambiguity as an invitation to inquire about my heritage. However, people are usually more shy about asking. A meek, apologetic smile, a shrug–May I ask…what are you?  Or, they’re less direct: I think mixed people are so beautiful.

About thirty minutes later, sitting outside of a Starbucks sipping coffee, my mom asked me, “Do you feel more Asian when you’re here?” In Little Tokyo, she meant.

I gave her a confused smile, cocked my head to the side. “I don’t know,” I said. What I meant was,  I don’t know if I ever feel Asian.

Mom and I rarely talk about our “roots.” The last time we spoke about it was when I interviewed her for an Asian American history class during my first quarter at UCLA. And that was the first time we’d ever talked about it.

“I feel less Asian here,” she said.

Someone who didn’t know her may have thought this odd; after all, she has no other ethnicities swimming around in her genealogical pool. But her Japanese roots curved to the form of America generations ago.

I laughed. Yet I also felt a tinge of sadness, because I saw my reflection in her eyes.


I don’t care if you ask me “what are you?” “Are you mixed?” “What’s your ethnicity?” I understand; it’s a natural curiosity. But I do care if you tell me what I am. I do care if you tell me what or who I am supposed to be.

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

By telling me how I must connect to my roots, you’re telling me that I do not know who I really am. You’re implying that if I would just learn more about Japan–the language, the customs, the food–then I would finally discover my TRUE SELF, as if the self that I have developed on my own is false, a placeholder.

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

Who told you that my identity was yours to claim, to control, to conduct?

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

Don’t lament my inability to speak Japanese. Don’t give me that disappointed, slightly accusatory “oh, that’s a shame”–as if I’ve failed the Asian litmus test; as if I’m betraying my ancestry; as if I’m inadequate; as if I don’t have a voice without the second language. I have a language, and I have a voice, and I am proud of it.

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

Don’t tell me that you’re more Japanese than I am because you can spout out some phrases that you learned from an anime; because you have some green tea mochi in your fridge; because you’ve had the privilege of taking a vacation to Tokyo that I can’t afford.

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

The way your eyes, your voice, your face drops when you can’t find enough Asianness in me makes me feel like I am not “interesting” enough without it. Why are you more interested in my ethnicity than me?

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

There isn’t a gaping hole in the cultural wing of my life. My ethnic makeup does not compose every curve and corner of my culture. My family has its own traditions and values, shared passions. But I know that Japan is there–here, in my life. In my childhood, it manifests in memories of Obon festivals and days at Tomadachi-kai at the community center in the Valley. Carp kites billowing in the front yard. Traditional doll sets on the piano. I taste it in our food. I sense it in the way my mom hesitates to show me Western affection. I say it, spell it, feel it in my middle name. Mi-yo-ko. Miyoko. Beautiful child. But please.

Don’t tell me how to connect to my roots.

It is not your place. It is not your decision. It is not your identity.

I do not wish to  reject my heritage, nor do I wish to erase  it. I love it, cherish it with what I am given–on my own terms.

These roots are mine, and I decide how they grow.


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