Who are you?

A young boy you know well cautiously walks into a classroom. Arranging his pencils, he glances over at the card positioned on the corner of his desk. He thinks his name looks a bit strange in cursive. Some of the kids look inquisitively at his last name. A few think it’s funny, and a few think it’s really cool. Most don’t seem to care.

At recess, a familiar exchange occurs. He explains that his name is Okinawan, a little unsure of what that means. Over time he starts to call himself Japanese because it’s easier. Rattling off the list of ethnicities and their respective fractions becomes routine to appease the curious.

Though he hasn’t yet learned the term Perpetual Foreigner, it’s been understood from the beginning. With English as the only language at home, parents born in the states, and a lunchbox that looks an awful lot like its surroundings (save for the occasional rice crackers or packet of nori), it’s crystal clear that many expectations are tied directly into appearance.

He wonders why people act surprised or don’t believe him when he says his parents were born here. Why do so many inquire about his roots?

He tries to distance himself from otherness, to minimize his Asianness and Pacific Islanderness, though one might question how close he felt to begin with.

Where are you from?

A teenager you know (though he often gets on your nerves) starts to pick apart the puzzle. Years ago he was told to make a family tree, and it was no easy feat. But did he know the true cost of carrying those branches across the ocean?

Although a little unsteady, the sense of belonging and unbelonging seems to stabilize. He reaches into the past attempting to understand his present. A relentless pursuit of the answer to Who am I?

He begins the search for answers between whitewashed pages, often with little success. As the years go on he hears more stories and patches together an understanding of his heritage: a word that will fill him with a curious mixture of emotions. Defining his identity takes center stage, but he knows he isn’t anywhere near the closing act.

Where are you going?

A man that you’re just starting to get to know speaks with a measured, confident tone, and you can see in his eyes he’s found peace within himself. Filled with a quiet pride, he embodies tapestries of wholeness stitched together seamlessly. Though the tongues of his ancestors remain a mystery, he sees the music within them and longs to know more.

Charting a path forward, eyes on the horizon, the road takes shape beneath his feet. He looks back at the winding trails, some visible, some too obscured by fog or by brush to see. Countless stories have led him to this point, known and unknown, and all that’s left now is to move forward. Everything from here on out is unmarked, but he knows that’s far from a bad thing. With a quick bow, he turns back to the land before him and departs, each step a new creation.

Photo courtesy of the author

  • Jon (he/him/his) is a native Californian of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. He has an affinity for foreign languages, outer space, and groan-inducing wordplay, and is always looking for recommendations to add to his ever-growing reading list.