Discovering My Cultural Identity as a Filipino-Japanese-American

Read this reflective narrative about discovering my culture identity.
(Art credit: @niabydesign)

Michael grew up in a family that is both Filipino and Japanese — in addition to the challenge of finding his way as Asian American, he struggled to fit in with either side of his family as a mixed-Asian person. This is the story of how he embraced his dual identity with the help of loved ones and two Asian saints.

A friend recently asked me, “Michael, how do you navigate your identity as a mixed-Asian, Asian American?”

No one has bothered to ever ask me this before, and I was thankful to have the space to talk about my experience. My friend is mixed-Asian herself, so she might have been thinking about the interaction of these identities already.

When I say I am mixed-Asian, I mean I am both ethnically Filipino and Japanese. My mom’s side is Filipino and introduced me to the wonders of TFC (The Filipino Channel), good Filipino food, being family-oriented, and Catholicism. My dad’s side is Japanese, and they taught me the importance of a strong work ethic, the concept of individual and familial honor, and self-discipline (even if I still struggle with that!).

Growing up as an Asian American in general meant there was a lack of meaningful representation in the mainstream media. Seeing Asians on TV or in movies was rare; if we were present at all, Asians were often reserved for minor roles or stereotypical characterizations. I wanted to embrace my Asian heritage, but I did not know how — I didn’t have models to see how to be both proudly American and Asian.

While I have mentioned what I gratefully inherited from both sides of my family, there was a lot that was lost through assimilating into American culture. I speak neither language, I am unfamiliar with the history of my homelands, and I know little to nothing about cultural wear. And while these things do not, in themselves, constitute what it means to be part of an ethnic group, this loss was a stumbling block for me in navigating my identity.

Asian Americans, until relatively recently, were often an invisible minority kept out of the media and from discussions in American culture. Being mixed-Asian for me meant feeling there was an additional shroud of invisibility on top of that. I was out of place: “too-Asian” to be, in many cases, an American — and because of my mixed heritage, I often felt out of place even within my own Asian American community. I was hidden and lacked language and examples to identify and express this feeling.

To complicate matters, I do not appear Filipino to most people, even though I was raised with more Filipino cultural norms. It’s not that I was ever bullied or excluded, but I often did not understand or feel like I could belong to groups that were predominantly composed of fully Filipino people. I desperately wanted to fit in, but felt my physical features and mixed background got in the way. Despite me and many of my friends and family being Filipino, I dreaded the way we were profiled and treated differently on account of our different skin complexions.  

There’s difficulty, even now, trying to put into words the feelings I have about my own heritage, to demonstrate the ups and downs that come with embracing it. I often feel I am frantically trying to scramble for all that I can grasp with the hope that I’ll be able to pass on something more tangible to the next generation of my family.

Still, there have been many positives from this journey, and I imagine many more to come. In middle school, I began to explore what it meant to be Asian: I remember first learning about Japanese internment in the United States and discovering that my own ancestors were among those interned. I was motivated to preserve our culture and learn more about my heritage in honor of them.

I found out my family history on my Japanese side is complicated. My great-great-grandparents were immigrants from Japan, and my great-grandma was born here in the United States. Following internment, my family went back to Japan, where my grandma was born, only to later return to the United States, where my dad was born. My Japanese heritage is marked by this transnational tradition and lost more through Americanization than with my Filipino side.

While I inherited the values instilled by my Japanese side, I often struggle to find ways to express my joy in being a Japanese person. When I would try to learn more about Japanese culture, often it felt as if I was wearing a costume — I felt like I was learning about a culture that was not truly mine.

For a long time, I thought that rejecting Catholicism was necessary to reclaim a truly Filipino heritage. I wanted to sift through the hundred years of colonialism and occupation of the Philippines to reclaim who I thought I ought to be as a Filipino person. Only later did I realize that my identity as a Filipino was shaped by these events. To try and revert to some “pure” pre-colonial Filipino identity was not only an impossible task, but in some ways would mean completely disregarding what was handed on to me in exchange for something that was not.

Growing into this identity meant a constant back and forth of learning and unlearning, and I came to befriend two holy men from our tradition who helped me find my way: Blessed Justo Takayama Ukon and St. Lorenzo Ruiz. Both of these men have incredible stories, but what resonated most deeply was a new concept they embodied: cultural fusion.

Blessed Justo Takayama Ukon was a Japanese samurai who fled persecution by Japanese authorities and died as a martyr in Manila. St. Lorezno Ruiz was a married lay Catholic man who had to flee the Philippines after being wrongly accused of murder. He died a martyr in Okinawa, Japan. Their stories to me revealed how I am not simply Filipino and Japanese — I am Filipino-Japanese. I am not both separately, but both together in one.

For years, I spent so much time aiming for cultural preservation that I rejected the possibility of cultural fusion, a blending of the best of both of my heritages in something entirely new. #BeingAsian is not simple, and it’s a process I am still navigating. But if I have learned anything, it is that we can only uncover our deepest identity by learning from the lives of others and finding support from our community, family, and friends. I have learned more in this last year from my family than I ever did researching online and attempting this process on my own.

Reclaiming and embracing our identities starts with inheriting all that is being handed on from those who have gone before us.

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