Phrases that I feel best suit me are ‘whitewashed’, ‘fake Japanese’, and ‘a disappointment to my heritage’. I’ve spent most of my memorable life not feeling like I deserved to call myself Japanese or Asian. Throughout primary school, the other Japanese children – including fellow hafus – made it a habit to tell me that I’m “not really Japanese”. They told me I wasn’t allowed to eat Japanese foods, namely the onigiri loving made by my Irish mother who tried to give me some connection to my lost other heritage. Most notably, I remember being in my primary school library with my class. As I put back my books another student came up to me and asked if I could translate a sentence written in Japanese. I couldn’t. Or at least not fully. The girl said, “Ashley said you wouldn’t be able to”. It may come as a surprise that other hafu children were part of the bullying. Even though they were mixed-race, they had their Japanese parent present in their lives – or they had a non-Japanese parent who had enough disposable income to send them to private Japanese weekend school (though even if my mum had been able to afford this, I’m certain I would have made every possible effort to avoid giving up my weekend). Their household culture and better grasp of the language allowed them to be Japanese. I was not. Though my mum tried her best as a single parent to give me tethers to Japan – mostly through food and some Japanese language tuition from our neighbour – I was not brought up in a Japanese house. I wasn’t raised to say, ‘itadakimasu’. I was raised to say, ‘never forgive and never forget what Oliver Cromwell did to the Irish’. After primary school my relationship with Japan and Japanese identity continued to be rocky. I carried on learning Japanese throughout school, though struggled to feel comfortable and confident in a classroom of mostly white faces who seemed so much more in love with the culture that I thought I should inherently already be a part of. My indifference towards manga and anime only made me feel less deserving of calling myself ‘Japanese’ when I sat next to white classmates who spent their weekends watching and drawing it. Their attachment to that particular aspect of Japanese culture – the ‘kawaii’ that I’ve never felt comfortable in – somehow made my connection to the culture and my own heritage feel inadequate. I realised some years ago that I was berating myself for not measuring up to a cultural stereotype. And to one that I was not even raised in. I had to start forgiving myself for not being born in Japan, and for not having had autonomy over my country of residence as a toddler! That’s why films such as Big Hero 6 and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before hit me emotionally. To see a character like Gogo, a woman of East Asian descent be a strong, intelligent badass – and not one wielding a katana or nunchucks – had me in tears. Similarly, Lara Jean is a mixed-race East Asian woman, raised mostly by her white father who tries his best to keep some of her Korean heritage alive in their house; like my mother, with food. I had to wonder if Lara feels the same disconnect to her heritage as I feel to mine. If she too feels like she has had to measure up to some idea of Asianess which she has no control over. Does she feel ‘Asian enough’? The real tear jerker for me was that her crush liked her back – and not once was there a hint of fetishization! ASIAN WOMEN CAN BE DESIRED WITHOUT IT BEING FESTISHISED?! This really felt like a rarity to witness in pop-culture. What both Gogo and Lara have in common is that their Asianess is not at the centre of who they are, or of how their stories unfold. Sometimes, I think, it’s good to be reminded that your relationship with your non-white heritage doesn’t determine who you are. Only you can do that. Having a more diverse representation of Asian and mixed-race Asians would be beneficial by showing our diversity. I can’t help but think that the times I’ve been misidentified as fully white, or as a different type of mixed-race POC is down to people’s inability to recognise East Asian features that extend beyond dark eyes and ‘slanty’ eyes. When these features are mixed with that of another race or ethnicity, they can get lost to an untrained eye which can only identify us by our hair and eyes. Even Asians have mistaken my identity and called me ‘white girl’ – though perhaps that’s more to do with gatekeeping the Asian identity. I also forgave my mother for not being Japanese, as a white Irish woman. It was never her responsibility to teach me how to be Japanese, or to show me how to navigate the world as a mixed-race woman. That was what my dad should have done, and in the absence of him she did the best she could with the resources she had available to her. In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, she interviewed a mixed-race Black woman, Jessica. Talking about her experience as a mixed- race woman, she said “I used to worry about not being black enough, but I’m starting to feel that I’m part of the diversity of blackness. There’s more than one way of being black.” Just like being mixed-race is being part of the diversity of Asianess. There’s more than one way of being Asian. Despite the above paragraph, to this day I struggle deeply with my identity. Between the cooking of Japanese foods and my long-standing Duolingo streak, I can just about muster up the courage to admit I have some connection to Japan, without fearing immediate backlash from some unseen Asian gatekeeper (though that still does happen). I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some like-minded mixed-race Asians who reassure me that an on-going identity crisis is normal, and that you can still claim your mixed-race heritage whilst understanding that it is not your primary culture. Eventually I hope that I’ll be comfortable in my ‘hafu’ identity, but first and foremost I’m a Londoner. That’s where I’m comfortable.
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.
You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!
We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.