Identity

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (650 words)

I asked my friend Ruixi to translate a question from English to Chinese for me. “Excuse me, how old is this tree?”

We were wandering around the village of Yunnan, China when we came across an old lady resting at the trunk of a giant, towering tree. The corners of her mouth lifted into a soft smile as she looked up at us. She started to answer in Chinese, a language I do not know. Ruixi responded by introducing us. She gestured to me as she explained that we were American students traveling overseas to work on a service project that provides children in low-income villages a well-rounded education.

When Ruixi breathed the word “America”, the lady’s eyes glistened. She began to talk about her experience providing temporary housing for American soldiers during the Sino-Japanese war.

I listened intently, hoping to hear something I could understand, but unfortunately, I could not pick up a single word. Although Ruixi and the lady went deeper into their conversation, the lady seemed to pause to motion for Ruixi to translate for me, but Ruixi was too caught up in the story and paid no attention to me. Her eyes were widened with terror, and I waited patiently.

At the end of the story, tears were streaming down Ruixi’s cheeks. The lady gave Marianne one final earnest look – her eyes were glowing with the hope of being understood and listened to. After taking a moment to collect herself, Ruixi began to translate for me.

The tree was already there when the lady birthed her first boy in 1942, the same year that the Japanese bombed her village.

“I was pregnant with my baby boy and every night, I was awakened by the same nightmare. I dreamed that the Japs broke down our doors with guns… Boom! Boom! The shots sounded like fireworks, and I would try to run away… I can never forgive the Japs.”

My posture stiffened. I looked down to notice that I was twiddling my thumbs. My legs shook uncontrollably. Seeing my discomfort, the lady embraced me in a hug and thanked me for listening and understanding her story. All of a sudden, my body went limp and I couldn’t hug her back. Why didn’t I? She thanked me for being American, just like the soldiers who had rescued her.

If only she knew, I was Japanese-American.

For years, I have struggled with my identity. It was difficult to find a balance between the two when I grew up in a suburban, homogenous community. Instead, I tried to suppress my Asian aspects, causing my friends to call me a ‘banana’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

“Sometimes, I forget that you’re Asian,” they’d say. Quite frankly, I had forgotten as well.

It was only after I heard those six words from the old Chinese lady that I woke up from my trance. “I can never forgive the Japs.” These six words haunted me like no other. It was a slap to the face, a wake-up call that caused me to look within myself and I was surprised with what I found: an overwhelming pride for the country where my parents were born. I wanted to teach the old lady the wonders of Japan’s culture, the things I had chosen to forget.

I am still recovering from my reality check, the cultural shock. Relearning such a prominent part of my identity has filled the void I had created over the years. Now, I not only understand myself better, but I am comfortable in my own skin.

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