A Self-Portrait

“Where would you say you’re from,” Adam asked.


“Okay, where’s your hometown?”

“…Tokyo,” I said, to a face that clearly told me that I was giving the wrong answers.

“But, would you describe yourself as Japanese?” He tried again.

“Um, yes and no?”

As much as I hate to admit it, I was being honest. I knew what Adam was trying to get me to articulate – that I wasn’t really “Japanese,” – but the truth is that I still belong to that category. I have Japanese parents and a Japanese name and a Japanese face. Even with a gray-purple undercut, I can still easily blend in with just about any crowd here in Tokyo. In short, I’m very Japanese.

Except, of course, I’m not. I think in English, make mistakes when I speak or write Japanese, and have no idea who is famous and who’s not. I don’t watch the right TV shows, understand the cultural references, or act like a 33-year old Japanese woman should. I have values and priorities that seem vastly different from the majority of Japanese people my age. I don’t think Lost in Translation’s depiction of the culture here is inaccurate.

For a year or so after I was bullied here, I avoided Japanese food as part of my campaign to not be Japanese. I thought about trying to rip my face off, or at least mutilating it enough that I wouldn’t look Japanese anymore. I tried to erase myself but couldn’t do anything about how I looked. I hated my face, my eyes, my hair, and my skin. I hated appearing like I was as culturally Japanese as everyone else.

It's a weird thing to hate how you look. I wouldn't recommend it. 

When asked if I’d be interested in doing a self-portrait recently, the big question became “what do I draw myself in?” And the answers weren’t American things like burgers or tacos. I love those things too, but what came to mind first were Japanese things: mochi, daifuku, dango, anything involving sweet bean paste.

Maybe it’s my stubborn reaction to being bullied here, maybe it’s a product of my upbringing where we’d always have tea and a Japanese snack at 3pm on weekends. Maybe it’s my lactose intolerance. Or maybe I’m just being honest. I can’t change being from Tokyo, or being Japanese. And while people might find fault in how I fail to be Japanese enough, I no longer feel shame in who I am.

“Yes and no?” Adam had said.

“Well, like ethnically Japanese, but culturally American.” I explained.

“Okay.” He seemed satisfied with that answer.

And there we sat, an Australian who lives in the Czech Republic and a by-all-accounts American living in Japan, united by a love of bikes, in a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Subject: myself!

Materials used: Hiyoko crumbs

[Hiyoko means “baby chick” and is a chick-shaped Japanese snack, popularly bought and given as a gift from Tokyo. It has a soft, wheat-based shell and is filled with sweet white bean paste.]