My Unicorn and I

My looks don't tell my cultural story: A close friend from college once told me about the time she and her mother arrived at their new home in Canada. My friend is 1/4 Indian (as in Bombay/Mumbai and not Cree) and her mother was white from the Dominions. My friend’s father wasn’t to fly in for a couple of weeks, but people were already assuming he would look as Nordic as his child and wife. He was Anglo-Indian - and the darkest complected person in their small town in the Canadian prairies.

I'm from where I'm from: I can't think of my 1/4 Indian friend as being anything but from Canada. She probably doesn’t think of me as anything more than being from Guam either - both places we lived even though we were each born elsewhere and our parents relocated after that. Before I moved to Tokyo I had never met a Canadian - she was my unicorn.

Fake it till you make it: I asked this friend if she was ever accused of trying to "pass” (it is when you pretend to be white). She mentioned she hadn’t, recognizes she has family/relations in India and hides nothing. She doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, either, understanding that the concept of "passing" completely was not looked upon as an achievement but as a type of deception.

I was asked if I had ever tried to “pass” as being Chamorro (people from the Marianna Islands look like Malaysians). Even though Guam is just Malaysia with churches instead of mosques, I would have had better chances of making people believe I was Dame Edna Everage in drag as a man.

These days, the newest version of passing are the instances where people of caucasian origin are trying to pass for black with cultural misappropriation debates hailing all over the web in hot pursuit.

I can choose how Japanese I am: Sometimes I catch myself being more Japanese than being American. I bow into a phone or point to my nose instead of pointing to myself at my chest the way Westerners do. I never leave my chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice because that is a funeral practice here and I avoid the number 4 like the plague in food service. I either plate 3 or 5 items and when asked I say it’s a rule of thumb in Japan. To an American 4 is 4. To hardcore Japanophiles, 4 is tempting fate. The word 4 can also mean “death.”

I also have a ninja black belt in most areas of Japanese etiquette that younger Japanese don’t know or haven’t bothered to learn. But I don’t kid myself - I never want to be taken as being Japanese. I am proud of my heritage and ancestry.

Even after living more than 25 years in Tokyo, my friend from Canada and I don’t think of ourselves as Tokyoites though we have spent more than half our lives here and know all sorts of fun stuff. We would never be mistaken for anything than Gaijin (foreigners). But we are gaijin who eschew the number 4 like someone with high blood pressure passes on the salted pretzels. We have taken in the things we like and we have kept the customs and practices that hold relevance to us from our own culture.

Cultural diversity is part of being in a global village: Air travel and the internet have made the exchange of ideas so frequent it is hard to “stay apart.” We no longer live in an age where we lived our life in a farming community and stayed in our hamlet and valley for all eternity. We travel, we meet people from other countries and our big world now is awash with ideas. I like differences - I would hate to eat macaroni and cheese for every meal and I would loathe having to only listen to one type of music for the rest of my life. Ideas and expression need different perspectives to be appreciated. I am grateful for what I learned through my Canadian friend's rituals, beliefs, ideas and values.

I enjoy being a composite of diverse cultures as much as she does. I embrace my Germanic background. Even Hebrew’s dialect of Yiddish has its influences from German - much like Japanese latched on to English for newer words.

One culture does not define me: No one in my family has one cultural identity. We're more a mishmash of standard Americana and overtones of Central European food ethic.

I think again of my Canadian friend. She is not a culture, but her own entity in the making. The sum of the whole makes her: she isn’t Indian and she isn’t Anglo either. She is a person with a varied past and an interesting life. I enjoy the fact that we are so different but in many ways the same. She doesn’t follow the exact same cultural practices I do which often surprises some of our European friends which in turn often surprises me (I have never understood why America and Canada as nations of immigrants should be expected to be a monolithic cultural entity when Europe has so many enclaves of diversity).

I know she has changed over the years, we all do, but I still think of my friend as my Canadian Unicorn.