Keep Your Friendly, Thanks

This is a post which received BOATLOADS of flack. I was utterly picked-apart and called many things like ignorant and enraged. I wrote it from a place of puzzlement over a word. The word has serious and sad connotations. But I learned so much. The word I don’t like, still, seems to have ZERO negative connotations for many other people of the world. Perhaps people lack the sensitivity I would love to see, but I did, too. 

I could have researched before writing. I could have asked the woman to explain (& yes, I did write that already). I did not have to use certain words, perhaps. But the thing is, also…

I am figuring out the world through writing. It is process to me. 

The wonderful and scary and sobering thing is when I invite the public to read and respond. 

I learned a lot. 

I also learned that my voice is heard so I’d best write truth that will be heard well. 

Thank you all. 

I came home tonight, almost excited to tell my sister the newest and most horrific bit from any train conversation I’ve had, to date. I realized that I was embarrassed, though. Figuring out what to Tweet is not handling it.

What thoughts swirl around in a friendly person’s face, their smiles playing at friendliness, meaning well, but covering what may be rude. It can be puzzling.


It was like this:

I step on a train in Japan, with my daughter, and we are suddenly on a talk show, asked to reveal who the Papa is,

Is he Nihon-jin, what about her eyes? Oh, of course she must be from away. She is after all, mine.

This is our fourth train of the day, en route from the dentist I spend much of the day trekking to. He speaks with us in English and Japanese. He gets us.

By this time, I realise that the stares and questions are beginning to ware on both of us, though we are generally happy to make conversation, to smile and explain. The train rides have stacked up today. And this comes when she is just getting over terminal shyness, when her curiosity and her sense of responsibility, kindness, and empathy all emerge. She wants me to ask the name of the woman sitting next to me (she is perpendicular, sitting aware in the stroller), even though this woman, maybe my age, is talking to her like she is a baby. Like she is not fully a person yet. Asala, that is her name, is five months away from Nepal, studying with her brother. Kariin prompts me to tell her my name now; this is how polite conversation goes. This is what I’ve modeled. Asala is a wealth of dark hair, rhinestones on denim jacket, black eyeliner, mulberry lips smiling wide. “Oh, she is so different from Japanese children”. Oh, she is. My girl is fully Japanese and fully American. And yet, I want to say, “She is Japanese. Point blank. She is not different”, because I cannot quite trust this woman’s intention.

“Yeah”, she asserts, cheerfully. “She has an Aryan face.” How bold. How brazenly stupid.

I am stunned. Smiling is gone. I get off three stops later, but in between, I am baffled. She is not white. She was not grown on the arms of KKK cancer. I forgot to ask her what she means. Surely she must have meant it as a compliment? She is from Nepal, beautifully brown and gold and still smiling, content at our conversation. Her sister is having a baby. She is so glad she met us and isn’t learning Japanese hard? Mutsukashi, she offers. My eyes flicker between stops, between my daughter’s navy kicks and the hanging ads. They all smile, the whisky women, the one photoshopped to look like a strawberry, or is she a carrot.

My daughter has an Aryan face to her. How does she think using this word is okay? I should have asked. I should have told her, at least as curtesy, that one should not use that word. Ever. Unless you are the progeny of Hitler. Unless you are auditioning for the mean Fräulein or Rolf in The Sound of Music. (This is before I looked up the word for a much firmer understanding of where it really comes from). 

Polite can defy where I stop. Surely I could have handled that with grace and charm, or just a very mean look? I could have educated. As long as she doesn’t think I took it as a compliment. As long as she doesn’t think I need her looking white as a calla lily, white and not Asian.

Maybe she didn’t understand, my four year old, that is. Maybe she saw me turn cold. Maybe she felt something off and wondered what.

And we did speak, the two of us, at the top of our hill, before the dip towards the bakery, the endless bikes parked along the train track bridge. This is the street just small, working down next to the most populated train line. I ask her how she felt today, with so many people asking where I am from and thus, her, too.

“I didn’t like it”. Yes, I agree, it felt a bit strange today. I wondered with her, why that was. I didn’t like the feeling, either. It was because they thought she was American. She went on, sitting patiently, sitting supported by our not fancy Maclaren stroller, she isn’t American.

“I only visit America; I don’t live there. I live here, in Japan. I’m not American.”

Gosh. I understand. The word, American, doesn’t fully address her. “Japanese” certainly isn’t all, either. We are complex beings. Maybe Asala is, too. But maybe not really. Not yet. Not sophisticated in English, anyway, or the feelings that word can carry.

We passed young ladies, pleated and vested, on their way home from school. We passed the soba shop, warm with lights and steamy tempura. “You can chose to live in America, one day. You have that right. You will be able to stay as long as you like. You won’t need special permission. You will be able to vote on the President. You will be able to help decide who will lead the country. And you’ll be able to do that, here, in Japan, too! I know you don’t live there; but you are fully, officially American, too.” I see this is not enough. I will need the help of Independence Day, more fireworks, rolling out red, white, and blue. I will teach her the songs, will show her more. It is already inside her wanting to grow. Willie Nelson is waiting to teach her about purple sky-majesties. I will lead her in the Pledge of Allegiance. I will get us plump on apple pies. I don’t say any of this out-loud; I will think up a batch of America she can grasp, the part that resounds in her heart as we clear the runway and she is the first to spot our flag. “We are really in America, now”. But for now, I am touting her bothness, the rich, raw, pure Japanese of her. The similitude of being American, Jewish, a smart, savvy 4-year-old with a heart, truly of gold.

This is some of what we discussed as the packed-in pebbles supported us, as those five-inch wheels and my feet brought us to her little brother at school. My girl is so beautifully complex. This talk took us through pockets of alleys, past workers thanking us for being careful, their eyes bright with recognition. We live here and we are fully us.

We are the nuts who will carry the mantle of, “Everywhere we go-oh people wanna know-oh, who we are, so we tell them.

We are Uchiyamas, mighty mighty Uchiyamas.” And all the other verses I think up. “We are overcomers, mighty overcomers.” Maybe I need more verses for our lips and lungs– we are Americans; we are Nihonjin/Japanese? I know, too much.

“See”, I tell her, “You are not just KT Uchiyama; you are Rifkin and Dickerman and Kato. You are all who have come before, all those that made it so you could be here. You are not just American and Japanese and Jewish, but also filled with G-d’s Spirit. You are a daughter of a Holy Creator. You are something brand new that the world has never seen.”

People try to see her. They want to see her. This is a good thing, I think, even though I just wanted us to ride invisibly, without stares. But without stares is sometimes without smiles, too. And this is a hotbed for being comfortable with who she is. And anyway, this is my work to carry. She just gets to be a kid. I get to lug these thoughts around.

It is deep in the night. I am reflecting, typing the day out when there is a pip-squeak from the top of the stairs. After a quick night time cough syrup and a sticker to help her airways open-up, I love that extra moment with her body to hug. Her soft hair and sweet questions. She is again cozy, enveloped in plush lavender. I tucked it under her shoulders, knowing how she loves to swim out. People who are tucked in well, are loved. All the identity stuff can just hang out somewhere. This girl is the embodiment of all I love, a smile even at our tired 4 am.