At the University of Maryland, we value a diverse community. How have your life experiences and background shaped you into an individual who will enrich the University of Maryland community?
“Holy s**t – you’re dad’s white?!” I guess that was the first thing my friend could think of to say after I introduced him to my father. His bulging eyes of shock and goofy grin barely surprised me. It’s the same reaction everyone has. Yes, he is white; yes, he is my biological father. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve told people that I’m biracial, or the fact that my last name isn’t Japanese. People are always incredulous when they see that my dad doesn’t have my brown eyes or my stick-straight, nearly-black hair. And no matter how many times it’s happened over the eighteen years of my life, I’m still always equally shocked at people’s ignorance. It’s 2007. We have cars with built-in machines that talk and tell you exactly where you are and can navigate exactly where you need to go, down to every turn and dip in the road. We have instant communication with not only this country, but every country in the entire world. We have robots that move, talk, even think. We have the ability to clone all different kinds of animals and organisms, and we can store a ton of information in devices smaller than the palm of a child’s hand. The knowledge that all this exists doesn’t surprise people a bit – but the fact that my mom is Asian and my dad is white? Now that’s just plain weird. It’s not that I’ve been wronged, or that I’m underprivileged. I really do believe that I’ve had the same opportunities as anybody else, and I am grateful for the life I live and the rights I enjoy. I just wish people wouldn’t be so surprised at the sight of a biracial couple. It’s so strange to me that people can claim to be open-minded, but then gape at couples who are of different races. “It’s not that I’m racist; I’d just never date a Black guy – or an Asian dude, no offense Meewa.” My friend Shelby is always saying something like that. Of course, why would that offend me at all? When I was younger, I used to be embarrassed about my mixed heritage. People would ask me what I “was” so I would just say, “Japanese”. “No, but there’s something else, I can tell – you’ve got that exotic look,” they’d always persist. Sometimes I’d lie and just nod that I really am just Japanese. Other times I’d really quickly say, “Yea, my dad’s American” and then change the subject. One time in fifth grade, I remember begging my parents not to go to my chorus concert, because I couldn’t bear to have all my classmates and friends see them together, sitting side by side. I am ashamed to say that I was ashamed of them. It wasn’t until five years later, when I first traveled outside the United States, that I learned to embrace and be proud of my diverse culture. It was the summer before my sophomore year of high school, and like many other fifteen year old girls in the suburbs, I was spoiled and self absorbed. A friend of mine was planning to travel to South America for a service project to build a school on a small island in Paraguay called Esperansa. Having no other plans for the summer, I decided to go, looking forward to a few weeks away from home and getting a nice tan. When we arrived on the island, we were greeted with the warmest smiles and kindest embraces. Barefooted children came running towards us in all directions to help with our bags and show us our room. The room was the children’s current schoolhouse. It was a small building made out of wood with gaps in the roof and a worn-out curtain drawn in the center; the men would stay on one side, and the females on the other. With a population of about 500, there was no running water or electricity on the island. Communication with the rest of the world depended on a boat that came each week to recruit men for work and sell various tools, fruits, and other goods, along with a few prostitutes. Looking at my surroundings, I pitied these indigenous people who called themselves Chumococos. Silently, I wondered how I was going to survive the next two weeks. However, with each day, I found myself growing more and more respectful of the Chumococo people. Their eagerness to share their culture and learn more about ours displayed a determination and curiosity that I had never before witnessed. There was an old, highly respected woman living on the island, and one day she asked our group to visit her. At ninety-eight years old, she looked so delicate, but her tiny lips widened when she saw us, and she spoke incessantly in a cheerful, raspy voice. Before we left, each of us stopped to give her a hug. I bent down slowly so as to be careful with her fragile limbs, but to my surprise, she suddenly grasped my hand, gripping it tightly. She said some words in the Chumococos’ native tongue that I couldn’t understand, but her sincerity needed no translation as several tears rolled down the creases of her aged wrinkles. Later that day, I asked someone what the woman had said to me, and he replied, “She wasn’t talking to you. She was praying to God to thank him for the wonderful life she has lived and to bless the young Americans for coming to Esperansa.” I was shocked. I had spent my time on the island feeling nothing but sympathy for the Chumococos, with their lack of resources and poverty. Yet here was this woman who had lived nearly one-hundred years on the island, thanking God for her good fortune. I thought about this for the rest of my stay, trying to find the perfect way to tell the Chumococos how glad I was to have met them and been exposed to their good nature, generosity, and kindness. But in the end, there really was no way to put into words my experience there. My eyes had been opened to something incredible; to this day, I struggle to describe exactly how Esperansa changed me. For the first time in my life, I knew with absolute certainty how good I have it in East Brunswick, New Jersey, in my four bedroom house with all the luxuries I enjoy every minute of each day. I felt like I could never again complain about such trivial things as what my mom had cooked for dinner or what my teacher was making me do for homework. The people in Esperansa were struggling just to survive – and none of their misfortunes ever seemed to bother any of them. They lived each day with smiles on their faces and prayers of gratitude in their hearts, and that touched me in a way that I will never forget. Now, when people ask me what I am or where I’m from, I don’t hesitate to tell them that I’m an American. I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and raised in New Jersey. I look the way I do because my mother is Japanese and my father is white. He’s a tenth generation American, so unfortunately he doesn’t actually know the origins of his ancestry. More importantly, I am someone who has learned to always be thankful and to embrace each person’s culture and uniqueness. So, next time you see people of two different races holding hands, don’t gawk. Don’t think to yourself that they make a “weird” couple. Find the beauty that they’ve found, the beauty that my parents found twenty-six years ago – the beauty of uniting differences.