I can still remember how it felt to arrive in the U.S. as a five-year-old boy from Japan: like suddenly being in an entirely different world. Dazed by the trip halfway around the earth, I failed to fully take in my surroundings. Although the airport was filled with the sounds of various languages, English seemed to be the most prevalent. Store signs spelled out words I could not read. The airport’s intercom chattered directions I could not understand. As I followed my parents through the enormous building to find our next flight, I realized that this bizarre country was now my home.
My first experiences in an American classroom were equally disorienting. The racial diversity in my class was staggering and a bit isolating. White kids, Chinese kids, and Hispanic kids, but not another Japanese kid. No one was there to listen to my not-yet-translatable thoughts. When the teacher asked me a question, I didn’t understand enough to answer. Even the help of my classmates could not solve my confusion. The innocent kindergarten classroom felt like a hostile territory.
The only place where I found any solace those first few months in America was the Japanese language school my parents had enrolled me and my siblings in as a way to retain our cultural identity. There I could easily chat with classmates and had no issues understanding the lessons. During that first year, this school felt more like home than the American environment that surrounded me.
Eleven years have passed since I first arrived in the United States, and those early memories feel incredibly distant to me. Now I have no problem understanding my teachers’ questions, I participate in class, and writing in English is second nature. Although I am proud of my ability to assimilate into American society, at the same time it is alarming to my Japanese identity.
The weekly Japanese school I continued to attend became more of a burden as the years passed. My constant exposure to the English language and American culture forced the Japanese part of my life to take a back seat. As a result, my development in speaking and writing Japanese slowed. I found it more and more difficult to communicate with Japanese peers and family, because I spoke English all day. I’d lost the enthusiasm for the Japanese portion of my life.
For a long time, I blew off Japanese school as much as possible. I loathed having to get up early on Saturdays, I rarely paid attention in class, and I constantly expressed my desire to drop out. As a result, I learned little. I continued to attend long after I told everyone in my class that I was going to quit, and I’m still enrolled to this day. I could never pinpoint the exact reason why I stayed; I attributed it to bad timing and the fact that my parents never offered me the chance to quit. However, it has lately become clear why I never stopped showing up to Japanese school: I wanted to stay as Japanese as I could.
When I look around my house, I see a lot of Japanese influence. Dozens of Japanese movies, novels, and comics fill our shelves. My parents go out of their way to purchase products at Asian markets. My father subscribes to two television providers in order to watch Japanese programs. My mother cooks Japanese food every day and even prepares traditional feasts on Japanese holidays. Clearly, my parents were not willing to give up their traditional way of life just because it is harder in another country. Their enthusiasm for staying Japanese influenced me. Although I struggled to speak and write Japanese, trying to learn and improve was at least worth a try.
I wonder what my life would have been like had my parents not moved us to the United States, but I usually fail to come up with any sort of scenario. I feel truly grateful to live in America, and I would not have it any other way. Moving to America allowed me to solidify my Japanese identity and appreciate my culture more than I probably would have had we stayed in Japan. When I think back to the first few months of living in America, I remember my constant sense of confusion, of being lost in translation. I didn’t yet know how the small five-year-old Japanese boy struggling to understand a single English sentence would eventually realize the importance of both of his cultural identities.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.