Finding My Ikigai & Universal Identity

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Hi Readers! You might have noticed that we’ve published this article a few hours earlier than usual. Well, this is Tunteeya’s debut article with us, and it’s also her birthday. Happy birthday, Tunteeya! Thank you for trusting us with your beautiful story and we hope you’ve had the most wonderful day.

My mother is Japanese, and my father was from Ghana—a country on the west coast of Africa bordered by The Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo, and the Atlantic Ocean. Tamale, the small town he grew up in, was about a 12-hour drive from Accra, the capital of Ghana. My parents met in Japan while my father was working as a diplomat. My mother and father were two separate individuals from completely opposite parts of the world, tied together by pure love and open-mindedness. My mother truly believed that love had no borders, she fell in love with my father for who he was. She did not see skin colour, despite the Japanese culture being quite conservative at the time. My father fell for my mother’s beauty, charm and intelligence. Together they were the definition of elegance.

I was born in Japan, and because of my father’s job we stayed in many countries around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa and the UK. When we went to visit Ghana we would stay up to six months at a time, back and forth from Japan and Africa. One night in Japan, a terrifying movement shook us all. A terrible earthquake destroyed our neighbourhood and all the contents of our family home. We huddled together fearful for our life, as our 12-story apartment shook with all its might. It was a miracle that we survived and that our apartment didn’t crumble to the ground. There was broken glass everywhere and all the contents in our home turned to dust. When we stepped out of our apartment, it looked like the world had ended. We had no water and no food for days. The 1995 Hanshindashinsai Earthquake on Rokko Island, Kobe, Japan was one of the worst earthquakes of the 20th Century. We were lucky to not be one of the 6,434 people who lost their lives that day.

We could no longer live in our apartment after the earthquake, so we were forced out of our Rokko Island home and we went to stay with our family friends in Osaka. We travelled by boat as the bridge and the mono-rail connecting Rokko Island to Kobe City on the mainland was completely destroyed. I was only 6 years old, and I have some vague memories of our trips on the boat, including playing cards and eating onigiri. No matter where we were, my mother always made us feel safe. She  did not show any signs of worry.

My father was a firm believer in serving the community and did everything he could to support the victims of the earthquake. He volunteered everyday at the school until he travelled back to Africa for work. While he was in Ghana, my sisters, mother, and I travelled to Taiwan where we stayed a few weeks until we could visit him in Ghana. We were excited to see our father again. We hadn’t seen him for several weeks since he’d had to return to Africa. While my mother was sitting down meditating in Taiwan, she received a sudden phone call telling her that my father had been in a car accident. She froze. The person on the phone told her to stay calm, but not to make any drastic plans for travel as it could jeopardise our safety.

Later that evening, the shocking news broke that my father had passed away. With all the political upheavals in Africa and the important position my father held, it was possible that his death was not just an “accident.” So it was deemed unsafe for us to return to Ghana for his funeral. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 13 that I was able to visit Africa with my father’s brother, and my mother and sisters did not return until I turned twenty.

I was seven when my father passed away. My sisters were five and one. I can still remember when my mother sat me down and told me that my  father died. I felt devastated, confused and angry. I didn’t want to believe that my papa was gone. Although he was always travelling, I still have wonderful memories of his smile and laughter.  My favourite memory was when he was invited to tell African stories at my preschool. He sang an African song called “Sacrache” about catching grass-hoppers. I sang along with him and all the kids while my father picked us up and threw us in the air. All I have is memories of him laughing, singing. There is only one memory I have of him fighting with my mum, where they both had tears in their eyes. I brought both their hands together and told them not to fight.

I don’t know how my mother was able to cope after his death and losing our family home. She never expressed her grief or sadness to us. She always stayed strong for us. She looked after us and did her best to raise us well. I am thankful for all that she has done for us. She sacrificed so much of herself for us, the gratitude I have is beyond words.

It was barely a year after the earthquake that my father died, and just a year after that my mother decided to move all of us to Australia. She decided that what she wanted for herself and her children was a new beginning. She packed all four of us up and moved to Australia—where several years later she remarried and my little brother was born.

My mother chose Australia because of the nature, environment and the beautiful primary school in the forest that incorporated Yoga and Meditation as a part of its school curriculum. I enjoyed my primary school years, where I was free to climb trees, play in the river and be surrounded by nature. Although I enjoyed primary school, assimilating into high school was not as easy for me, as the school my mother transferred me to was a strict private school. From being in a primary school where we barely numbered 100 students grades one to seven, I went to a private high school that had over 700 students. I lasted a year before I decided that I wanted to go to the local high school that was smaller and more familiar.

It wasn’t until high school that I truly began to explore my identity. I realise now that after moving from Japan to Australia I had lost my home, my father and my place in this world. Even though I was carefree in primary school, in high school I began to feel self-conscious as I felt disconnected from myself and society. I found it difficult to adjust to my environment, especially when I looked so different than everyone else around me. I was that strange kid, someone who was always “inbetween groups” in search of “my people.” Every year in high school I was so excited for the Japanese homestay students to arrive in town because it was the one time I felt that I could express my cultural identity.

My skin colour, hair and features are more consistent with my father’s looks than my mother’s, but despite this, I had trouble staying connected to my African identity after my father passed. I tried hard to fit in by straightening my curly hair and wearing tinted moisturisers that lightened my skin. On the other hand, since my mother raised me, my connection to Japan remained strong and I invested a lot of time in learning and understanding Japanese culture. My aunty sent us VCR recordings of Japanese TV shows every month as well as Japanese Manga, I listened to Japanese music and enjoyed Japanese pop-culture. So even though I grew up in Australia, I idolised Japan and I longed to feel accepted and connected to that society. What I looked like and felt like were complete opposites and no one could tell who I was or where I was from.

I did not know how to express my emotions after my father's death and I held onto that grief for many years as it was difficult to have closure when I couldn’t attend his funeral. For many years I thought that he might come back. I didn’t believe that he was gone. I thought he’d return. When I went back to Africa with my uncle at the age of 13 to visit my family in Ghana, I met many aunts, uncles and cousins I had never seen before, and even though they were “family,” I felt disconnected from them. I was seven when I had last seen them, we hadn’t met face to face for many years. In fact, most of the time I was in Africa, even when I was surrounded by people, I felt lonely. I longed for my dad, and I felt angry that my uncle left me with all these people I didn’t know. I just wanted to go home to Japan, to spend time with family I felt more familiar with.

When I returned to Australia,  I read a lot of autobiographies and watched documentaries to try to understand and connect with other people’s experiences in the hopes of processing mine. I don’t think I was consciously aware that a lot of what I went through was grief, identity crisis and social anxiety. In fact, I think there were so many changes that were happening at such a rapid pace, it was difficult for me to integrate the different emotional experiences I was having. No one knew that I felt the physical symptoms of the blood rushing through my veins and a pounding heart when I was put into an “unknown” situation. My friendly smile and open heart would never show what I felt deep inside. Quite often my mind would rush at a million miles per minute over-analysing social situations or completely blacking out and disconnecting.

It wasn’t until I started university and moved to Brisbane where there was more diversity that I started to truly accept myself and my identity. I studied psychology, as I was always curious about human behaviour and what makes us who we are.

While I was studying my degree, I went back to Japan every year and stayed with my aunt over the summer breaks. Being in Japan made me feel at peace with myself, as I was able to be immersed in the language and culture that I always longed for. Even though I still felt more Japanese than African, I made a few Ghanian friends who invited me to their home, made me fufu and welcomed me to cultural events. I felt included in their community. That was a moment I was able to add another big piece to my identity puzzle.

I used to believe that my race was a defining part of my identity. I now believe that it is not just my race, but my name and my unique experiences in life that make me who I am today. My father named me “Tunteeya,” which means “growing roots,” and my last name is “Yamaoka-Dinkubahi.” My Japanese last name Yamaoka means “mountain valley,” and my Ghanian last name from my father Dinkubahi means “universal.” From my beginnings in the concrete jungle of Rokko Island in Kobe, Japan, to moving to Maleny, the valley amongst the Glass House Mountains in Queensland, Australia, I feel I have an identity akin to my name—universal. There are no borders between my Eastern, African and Australian roots. Although I experienced difficulties integrating the different parts of myself while growing up, I am now comfortable with my identity. I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had in my life as it has allowed me to become resilient, adaptable and I feel it has given me a greater understanding of myself and society. Through my own experiences in life, I believe I have found my “ikigai,” a Japanese word meaning “purpose in life.” I hope my story will help others who may feel disconnected to know that with time, patience, curiosity and acceptance, it is possible to embrace your unique individuality and feel at peace with yourself and your identity.

**If you are struggling with your identity and need support, please feel free to contact me via my website: