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Commentary: Washington High School students on being "American"

Students at Washington High School in San Francisco’s outer Richmond neighborhood were recently asked to respond to the question: what was a time your identity mattered? KALW producers went out to Washington to hear their answers.

JOEY YASIHURO: There was a specific incident that occurred in Modern World class two years ago when the class discussed Pearl Harbor and the beginnings of World War II. When our teacher brought up the underlying reasons behind the attack, a few of my classmates jokingly blurted out, “Why’d you do it, Joey?” The class had a good laugh at this. But right then and there, I got very, very upset.

I replied, “And what does all of that have to do with me, huh?!”

Our teacher told everyone to be quiet so we could move on. But I was still infuriated, and also saddened by moments such as this. In the past, I have had stereotypes thrown at me left and right: “What, don’t all Japanese people do that?” Jokes related to sushi, samurais, ninjas, anime, you name it. I thought that, with age, we teenagers would eventually respect these sensitive and controversial issues that often pop up in school.

But on that day, I realized that it could recur in harsher ways infrequently. It was a big slap in the face. It was a sinking feeling, where I could not escape the seemingly endless cycle of discrimination. I am constantly labeled for what my people have done throughout history, and not for simply being American. In fact, when my uncle studied in North Carolina, he once had a stranger go up to him and say, “Why did you bomb Pearl Harbor?!” What is almost funny, but also ironic, is how the general public leaves out how the war ended. Hell, I could ask the same question about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and expect either a half-witted explanation, or a complicated one that leaves them pondering.

If this type of incident were to happen again, I am confident that I will handle it with class. It is futile to resist the onslaught of stereotypes and racial jokes, so it is best for me to accept these comments, but also myself.

For a long period of time during my childhood, I felt ostracized. I had an identity crisis between being full-Japanese and being American. But in recent years, I have been able to adapt to my surroundings and form my own unique identity. I also found that defending against others’ scorn of me meant to defend my heritage. It became an awareness of my culture that would eventually become a fascination. Now, I can freely express my culture to others at school without fearing any kind of insult. Like the victims living in Fukushima that are known to deal with radiation issues, there are many misconceptions the world has. When an idea is exaggerated, it can cause damage to the reputation of specific groups of people. This is why I am urged to represent my people, and clear up misunderstandings people may have of me and my heritage. As I have said many times before, I am an American who is “so Japanese.”

WINNIE ZHAO: From grades kindergarten through fourth grade, I attended a private school where most of the people, that being staff and students, were white. I noticed that most of my classmates parents were often involved with school activities and their child's schoolwork. I wanted my parents to do the same, but they couldn’t, because their English was very limited. I always tried to get them involved, like chaperoning for a field trip. Which they did a couple of times, but when they did, I was embarrassed, because they couldn’t keep up with what was going on. As horrible as it is to say.

It wasn’t just when they were at school that I felt uncomfortable, but even when it was just them and me. There were simple things like reading or filling out forms that got sent home that made me feel like i didn’t ft in with the others, because my parents didn’t know what those forms were saying.

Also, because I spoke only Chinese at home, I saw the world through the Chinese language. There would be many times when the kids at my school would mention a certain something, and I would have no idea what they were talking about. I may have actually known what that something was, just not what it was called in English. These things made me feel insecure, and for a while I was embarrassed to be Chinese. I wouldn’t speak the language in front of people I knew outside of the family.

Even long after this time, there are some moments when I still feel that way. My parents immigrated from China, became US citizens, and I was born in the US. But actually, I should just say that I am an American.