Japane wish American Reflections
If there is such a thing, I am your typical Japanewish
My Mom is Japanese American, my Dad is ethnically Jewish
and, in a wonderful embrace, I came to be. Growing up in a town in which racial
and religious combinations were not the norm, my two heritages naturally
blended into one. Kamaboko (fish cake) and matzah ball soup were just as normal
to me as they were odd to everyone else. On several occasions, my brother and I
would joke about being double-teamed by our parents, whose academic standards
were sky-high. Mom and Dad seemed to be the only ones on the block who
strategically transformed games of report cards and SAT scores into two-on-one
situations. But no matter how much I still accuse them of being ruthless, they
didn’t team up to be mean — they just wanted us to be the best we could be.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mom and Dad when they
decided to marry — particularly Dad. Sure, he was committing himself to Mom.
But what he was really committing himself to was a lifetime of fish heads and
pickled weeds (as he calls Japanese food), chopsticks and a New Year’s
superstition — if you don’t arrive for breakfast by 8 a.m. sharp, you’ll have
an unlucky year. He was entering a world in which strong opinions weren’t
always vocally expressed, and oishikunai (unappetizing) dinners ruined entire
evenings. Life was all about the family — and all about the family meal.
Dad likes to tell me that he and Mom were like night and
day, that their looks, foods and personalities didn’t match up. But what
mattered most did match. Beneath the superficialities, they discovered
deep-rooted similarities like the centrality of family, the value of education,
a curiosity about the world around them and a strong belief in doing the right
thing. No matter how odd a couple they might have seemed to others during their
high school and college days, they in fact belonged together.
Like Dad, Mom also encountered another culture. Visiting
Dad’s family meant stepping out of her house, into his, where food was half as
important and conversation was twice as loud. Mom tiptoed between bursts of
song and unrestrained vocalized opinions at the dinner table. But no matter how
much her culture initially clashed with Dad’s, it was nothing that time
In fact, in time, the two cultures cross-sectioned so much
that they eventually flipped sides. In a cabinet beside my parents’ bedroom, an
otafuku (a charm symbolizing motherhood) sits next to a Sandy Koufax mug. The
great marriage of Japanese woman to Jewish man displayed in our own bookcase!
And yet the irony of this odd juxtaposition is that Sandy Koufax was Mom’s
childhood idol and otafuku was omiyage (a souvenir) Dad brought back from a
trip to Japan. If cultural harmony can exist inside a cabinet, it sure as heck
can exist in the world — can’t it?
Mom and Dad didn’t raise my brother and me in the Jewish
religious tradition. To make up for it, Dad likes to remind us that we are in
fact Jewish — even if just by culture. He loves to point out Jewish-sounding
names like “Schulman” and “Leibowitz,” tell me I get my “good looks and poysonality”
from hi, and comments after whistling “Nice Work If You Can Get It” that the
Gershwins — two Jewish guys from New York — “could sure write ’em!” He also
never misses the opportunity to nudge me and say, “How about finding a nice
Jewish boy?” I think most of the time he’s just kidding — but I’m not always
Since there aren’t very many Asian Jews, I often wonder if
my unusual ethnic combination is simply weird. After all, it’s not every day
that I run into an edamame-eating Woody Allen movie-lover like myself.
Â In the hope to discover I’m not alone, I’ve recently
scrounged for Asian/Jewish history. I discovered that three groups of Jews from
Spain, Portugal, Iraq and India lived in the Indian cities of Kerala and Bombay
during the 19th century, and Persian Jews lived in Kaifeng, China, as far back
as the 15th century.Â
In both India and China, cultural mixing took place — the
Jews of Cochin developed a version of the Indian caste system, and the Persian
Jews intermarried so much that they became physically indistinguishable from
the Chinese. Not to mention the Jews who fled from concentration camps to China
during World War II. These Asian Jews, and particularly the offspring of
intercultural marriage, must have felt what I feel now — both joy and distress
for being different.
My problem lies therein. I hate standing out in a crowd,
proving my American nationality, and justifying my nonreligious Jewishness. I
hate the discrimination, the classification, the ambiguity. But I love being
different. I love telling folks I am both Japanese and Jewish, that my nose may
be small and cute, but my hair is wild and frizzy.
After ranting to a friend about the absence of Japanewish
history, he in turn replied, “But that’s what makes you so interesting.”
I’m almost convinced I don’t really need a history, that I’m
strong enough without one. Put it that way, and I realize I’ve been running in
circles for the missing puzzle piece, not realizing that the puzzle was already
complete. But maybe the exercise has been good. Maybe I’ve just been running
through the cycle of self-discovery like everybody else.
Sure, I hope to find my place somehow, sometime. And if it’s
in a Japanewish American homeland, even better. But, until I find it, I’ll just
keep wandering. It’s too hard to know everything. And anyway, isn’t life more
exciting when you don’t? Â
Ellen Fuji is an L.A. native, a freelance writer and an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.