Autobiography at 20

A year ago, I read an autobiographical poem titled “Autobiography at 43” by Asian American Studies scholar Wei Ming Dariotis about her mixed identity. Inspired by her, I decided to write my own autobiographical poem describing experiences and thoughts I’ve had about my mixed identity throughout these first twenty years of my life.

– Erika Konishi Carlson PO ’15

Autobiography at 20:
Experiences of a mixed Japanese/Japanese American girl

Age 20: “Which Japanese class are you in?”
“How long have you studied Japanese?”
are questions often asked at the Japanese language lunch table.
I ask them often too—my job is to engage beginning students in conversation
and let them practice speaking.
But when these questions are asked of me
I answer that I’m not in any Japanese classes
or I’ve never studied Japanese as a foreign language
but add “my mom is Japanese so I grew up speaking it with her”
immediately, preemptively,
to avoid hearing the question
of how it is that I speak Japanese.

Age 17: I’m sitting at the dinner table
trying to think of funny stories to tell
after my mom has finished updating us with all her news for the day
and my brother has answered the “how was school” question—“good”
and my dad, tired from his commute home,
quietly eats his pickled herring with miso soup and rice.

So I tell my family about my “biracial plight”:
at my predominantly White high school, I am considered more Asian
(and my hair color is sometimes referred to as black);
at my Japanese Saturday school, my Whiteness is much more prominent
(and my hair is “chapatsu” – literally “brown hair”, even more literally “tea-hair”).

I’m successful – my family laughs
and my dad adds, with a quiet chuckle,
“oh no! no one wants you”.

Age 10: “Someday, a bridge for the world”
is what we were told
is what we sang for special occasions
in our school anthem at Japanese school.
What does that mean?
a bridge to cross the Pacific
like those of us who immigrated here from Japan
as young kids
who will, presumably, feel a connection
who will, presumably, foster a connection
between two countries: the old home and the new?

A friend turns to me, smiles, and says
“you’re already a bridge!”

Age 5: I come home from kindergarten one day
after I’d finally gotten used to
American school
not being in Japan anymore
and finally gotten over
my paralyzing shyness
that wouldn’t let me speak
and I tell my mom
“I want yellow hair like _____!”
a blond-haired and blue-eyed friend
who looks like the angels you see on “new baby” cards.

Age 3: I was an excitable and garrulous
pre-school kid in our old neighborhood in Japan.

One day it’s my dad waiting at my stop
to pick me up from the school bus
and I run to him, telling my friends
“look, it’s a foreigner!”
as if I didn’t look like one too.

One day I come home and tell my mom
“I want black hair!
My hair color is poop color.”
My mom, shocked, goes to talk to my teacher
thinking someone must have made that comment to me
and my teacher is also shocked
“but everyone knows that Erika-chan is very cute!”

I don’t know or remember
what spurred that comment from me
whether it was someone else’s observation
or mine.

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