Culture March 14, 2018
Cultural Bodies
As I grew into my early teenage years, having lived with my parents in Japan and the United States, on and off military bases in both countries, I began to wonder about my feelings about being Japanese, being American, being Black, and being Mixed, and being “Black-Japanese.” Although unlike many of my friends who questioned what being an ainoko or konkestsuji (love child, mixed-blood) was, or what being Black-Japanese was, in my childhood, I did not question who I was—I only questioned why people treated me in certain ways without me doing or saying anything. But in my teen years, my main questions concerned what I saw were national, cultural, and racial heritages and identities and what they meant. This included how I saw myself and others, including how I thought of my parents. Of course, these thoughts are highly particular to my own life experiences in space, place, and difference. I feel I may have some thoughts that are useful for others in this regard. What, exactly, is culture? I would ask.
Growing up primarily with my mother, since my father was being shipped to many locations around the world by the United States military, my questions began to turn from “why” I had to suffer the prejudices of mainstream Japanese people because of my looks, to questions about my parents as well. For instance, my mother refused being “pigeon-holed” into being so Japanese as to wear a kimono on Japanese holidays. Although we were Japanese in every sense of the word, she resisted that as her father or her friends insisted that she wear a kimono on those special days when many Japanese women would wear kimono. My mother always vehemently refused. I noticed that my mother’s closest friends were loud and very expressive in their gestures, while other women were less expressive and would complain of my mother’s “not acting appropriately.” In my teen years when I asked about this one day, my mother simply replied that she was “too Chinese.” I knew that my mother’s mother was mixed-Chinese, Austrian (primarily), and that my mother spent her first two or three years of her life in China. And later, my mother would complain that Japanese women were often too normalizing and picky, compared to her friends. Later, I learned that many of her closest friends were of the lower classes, unlike my mother who was from the mid-upper classes of Japan; and in addition, my mother’s closest friends were often Zainichi Korean, or Buraku caste, or were Japanese women who had travelled outside of Japan.

Although my father would always admonish me and inspire me to be proud of my samurai warrior heritage and my African Kings heritage, it was contradictory to the behaviors he deemed “uncivilized” within the home—which were always Japanese cultural behaviors.
The earliest memories I have of my father—an African-American military man, were filled with his enjoyment of wearing yukata and eating Japanese food. He spoke the most basic Japanese words but did not bother to learn any more than the average G.I. would in the Occupation days. Although my father would always admonish me and inspire me to be proud of my samurai warrior heritage and my African Kings heritage, it was contradictory to the behaviors he deemed “uncivilized” within the home—which were always Japanese cultural behaviors. For instance, out of only two or three instances of physical violence from my father that I experienced, was one where I had brought a bowl of soup to my mouth to drink it—Japanese style. He mildly slapped my hand and yelled “Don’t you eat like a savage! Who taught you that? Your mother?” The bowl and soup splattered on the table. My mother quickly went to the kitchen to grab a rag to wipe up the mess created. I looked at my mother, and she gave me the expression of “keep it to yourself, obey your father, stay quiet” kind of look that is understood often, between my mother and I—her only child. I knew immediately that this was a cultural difference, even as I was seven or eight years old. Whenever my father would not be around, I “drank” the soup in Japanese style, not eating it with a spoon “American” style. I knew the difference. When I was an adult, I commented to my mother about that moment in our lives, and that I felt that he was displaying a universal American cultural domination, as well as male privilege in the family. She said “Shō ga nai yo ne. Sekai was kō dakara,” basically resigning to the fact of male and cultural privilege in the ordering of globalization, gender, and home.

In the case of an African-American male— a soldier in Occupied-Japan, the intensity of a new “freedom” and of being privileged in a nation that respected him as an American, was markedly different from his experiences in the United States, where he was emasculated and attacked by dominant white society, separate and unequal in Jim Crow America.
What is interesting, and often painful to bear, of course, are the contradictions that then play out in maintaining a certain order: colonizing and hetero-male. In the case of an African-American male— a soldier in Occupied-Japan, the intensity of a new “freedom” and of being privileged in a nation that respected him as an American, was markedly different from his experiences in the United States, where he was emasculated and attacked by dominant white society, separate and unequal in Jim Crow America. To be placed in this role, as a teenager in Japan, was an intense creation of moments, when he could empower himself to learn of himself as American: Conqueror, victor, the supreme male, whereas in his country of birth, he could not consider himself any of these empowering things. Although he never said these things, and in most ways he was a good listener and open-minded, the position of cultural dominance played out domestically. Our bodies were inscribed with these hierarchies of history.

...my mother was teaching from very early in my life, to become contextual and that difference was okay.
My mother played the dutiful wife to my father, but when he wasn’t there, she told me that we should do or not do certain things in my father’s presence. In this sense, my mother was teaching from very early in my life, to become contextual and that difference was okay. Our bodies, our selves, our lives, are full of differences that must be expressed, but are often repressed by the presence of our parents’ and our culture(s)’ rules and positions. These expressions and repressions bring many questions to be responded to.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh

Image of Fredrick Cloyd's Father courtesy of Fredrick Cloyd

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