In the pinnacle scene of the recent blockbuster rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, a Mandarin rendition of Coldplay’s “Yellow” builds momentum in the background. It’s a bit of a surprise for a film lauded for championing Asian representation, as the word “yellow” is a racial slur for people of Asian descent. In his letter to Chris Martin and the co-writers of the hit song, the Chinese-American director, Jon Chu, explained the song’s significance, “From being called the word in a derogatory way throughout grade school, to watching movies where they called the cowardly people yellow, it’s always been a negative connotation in my life. That is, until I heard your song. For the first time in my life, it described the color in the most beautiful, magical ways I had ever heard: the color of the stars, her skin, the love.”
My childhood experience was quite different than Chu’s. In the nineties, Hawaii was a melting pot of different Asian ethnic groups–Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Korean–and Whites and Native Hawaiians. I didn’t know what it was like to be a minority, much less a minority without power. In 1988, the year I was born, 75% of my congressional representation were Japanese Americans.
Even though my family has been in Hawaii since the late 1800s, my parents, particularly my mother, raised my brothers and me to be proud of our Japanese American heritage and identity. My younger brother and I went to nihongo gakkou (Japanese language school) every day after elementary school. My brothers and I wore kimonos and yukatas, traditional Japanese clothing, for special occasions as children. My mother gave a presentation to my third grade class on Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day) and distributed to all of my classmates homemade tri-colored chi chi dango and rainbow puffed rice in an ornate origami boxes. On Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day), my father drove to the gully behind the pineapple fields, chopped down a bamboo pole, and hung bright, multi-colored koi fish in front of our house, each koi representing a member of my family. A couple of days before Oshougatsu (New Year’s Day), we covered our dining table with a plastic tablecloth and hand-folded mochi, rice cakes with a red bean paste inside, although we did circumvent old traditions and pounded the rice with a special machine. Whenever we traveled, my parents bought omiyage (souvenirs), usually regional specialties, to bring back to share with colleagues and family friends. My parents ingrained in us the importance of honor and filial piety, evidenced by the way they cared for my grandparents in their dying years.
All of these traditions were not afterthoughts; they were intentional decisions by my parents to affirm our American national identity and Japanese ethnic identity. And I was proud of both.
My paradigm shifted when I moved to Southern California to study at a small liberal arts college. I first experienced what it was like to be a minority in a predominately white culture, and I feared being stereotyped along with the wealthy, well-connected international Asians and second-generation Asian Americans who grew up in ethnic enclaves in Northern and Southern California and spoke their mother tongue. While I identified strongly with my Japanese American heritage, I was a local kid—my family was deeply rooted in Hawaii. In the mainland, I was a foreigner.
Once, white townies driving by pulled the corners of their eyes and shouted at me and my Asian friends. Strange men randomly shouted “Konnichiwa,” “Ni Hao Ma,” or “Anyong Haseyo” to me.
When I moved to Washington DC seven years ago, these micro-aggressions intensified. Uber and taxi drivers frequently asked me where I was really from (Hawaii didn’t suffice). White acquaintances asked me if I knew their Japanese friend, even though I never visited my mother country until I was 26 years old. It even happened at church—a fellow parishioner confused me with a Chinese-American photographer friend, when he asked if he could book me for a photo shoot.
Over time, out of fear of being un-American, I subconsciously disassociated from my Japanese American heritage.
Over time, out of fear of being un-American, I subconsciously disassociated from my Japanese American heritage. When people asked me where I was really from, I replied, “America.” At parties, I didn’t socialize with other Asian women, in fear of being stereotyped. My local Hawaii accent changed to that of an East Coast mainlander. I refused to make Japanese food for my roommates, in fear that they would reject “foreign” food. Soon, everything that surrounded me was white—my friends, my work, and my church.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was my waking point, and my growing awareness of our country and church’s sinful racial past revealed this—I was too comfortable in whiteness. In a society dominated by the majority white culture at church and at my work, I had opted for the easier path of assimilation in order to “thrive.” To succeed at my corporate workplace, I opted out of the collective mindset of traditional Asian culture and opted into the rewards of American individualism and self-promotion. To find a home at church, I opted out of voicing my discomfort at the overwhelming whiteness of our congregation and the unwelcoming aspects of our worship and opted into complicity and silence. To make friends, I opted out of exercising certain family traditions that bestowed hospitality and honor and opted into accepting things the white mainland way. I had slowly given up my God-given ethnic identity in order to benefit from a system of racial advantage that rewards People of Color who assimilate into the dominant culture. I rejected who God had formed me to be.
I’m in the first step of my journey to reclaim my “yellowness.” My group house adopted the Asian tradition of taking off our shoes before entering the house. I submitted a recipe for a local Japanese dessert, butter mochi, for my church’s ten-year anniversary cookbook. I reconnected with a second cousin who moved to the area. I’ve started to speak up at church about hard issues like race. It means examining my values and rituals, the ones I’ve newly adopted and the ones I’ve neglected. Writing this blog post is part of that.
I can’t yet envision how to fully bring my God-given ethnic identity to the Lord’s table in worship, but maybe I’ll start with a reflection on a Coldplay song. It’s reminiscent of Isaiah 43—God’s promises to another group of people far away from their homeland:
Oh yeah, your skin and bones
Turn into something beautiful
You know, you know I love you so
You know I love you so
Karynna is a fourth-generation Japanese American and a true Hawaii “local.” A data analyst by day, she serves on the Parish Council of Church of the Advent, an Anglican church in the District of Columbia, and cares deeply about racial unity and justice in the local church.