Being American

Contributed by special guest author, Anne Hawkins

Anne's grandparents: Takeo & Haruko Fuji

Anne’s grandparents: Takeo & Haruko Fuji

Growing up, I spent my summers with my grandparents. Most afternoons, after lunch, my grandfather took a break from his gardening to watch the Atlanta Braves play baseball on television. He would get up from the couch when the National Anthem played, and he watched the game with a can of Pepsi in hand. From Hawaii, my grandfather didn’t have a local team to cheer for, and it only made sense to him that he should root for the players who had been nicknamed, “America’s Team.” It made sense to me too. After all, everything about my grandfather was just so “American.” He drove a Buick. He watched John Wayne movies. He even claimed his favorite dessert was apple pie. And yet, I know that if my grandfather, the son of Japanese immigrants, walked down the street in almost any city in the United States, people would wonder where he was from. And if he’d said, “America,” they would have responded, “No, but where are you really from?”

I grew up feeling angry, both at this knowledge and because my grandfather himself seemed to harbor no animosity about the situation. After everything that had happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, I felt like his behavior made him an apologist for our government. But, whenever I told him that eating apple pie wasn’t going to save him, he simply reminded me that he ate apple pie because he loved it.

When I was in high school, Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in figure skating. I had no interest in figure skating, but seeing her photograph on magazine covers mattered. After all, there was nothing more American than winning an Olympic gold medal. Then one day while at a friend’s house, I spied one of those magazines on a coffee table. Another classmate looked over and wondered aloud, “Why would they put her on the cover?” I exclaimed, “Because she won the gold medal!” My classmate responded, “But why do they care if someone who isn’t from the US team wins a gold medal?” I realized that it never occurred to her that someone who looked like Kristi Yamaguchi could actually be an American. Recent comments about Asian-American athletes during the Sochi Winter Games revealed the same prejudice — over two decades later. These incidents served to reinforce the point I’d been trying to make to my grandfather; it doesn’t matter how truly American you are, if you look a certain way, you’ll never belong.

9780545690980_mresThis past week, I read the book Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss to my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughters, all of whom have recently become very interested in America’s Pastime. Barbed Wire Baseball tells the story of Kenichi “Zeni” Zenmura, a Japanese-American baseball player. Zeni played baseball in the Fresno Nisei League and the Fresno Twilight League. He played exhibition games alongside Babe Ruth. But none of this saved him from being interned at Gila River in Arizona during the war. The desolate conditions of the prison camp made Zeni feel, “as if he were shrinking into a tiny hard ball.” In an effort to make the camp feel more like home, Zeni took on the arduous task of building a baseball field. He organized daily games, bringing happiness and hope to people whose lives had otherwise been turned upside down.

This book sparked great conversations between me and my children about the camps —  why people were sent to them, what people lost by going to them, and why in the face of issues as serious as racism it might be important to hold onto the love of a game. We talked about how angry people in the camps must have felt about the injustices perpetrated upon them and how it would have been very easy to allow that anger to fester. I wondered if Zeni ever hated baseball or felt like it had betrayed him. We marveled at the incredible resilience ordinary people exhibit under extraordinary circumstances.

Like seeing Kristi Yamaguchi’s face on the cover of Time Magazine, Zeni’s story ignited a sense of pride in me. Sports are a metaphor for the human spirit. They’re about triumph over adversity and attaining success based entirely on hard-work and merit. On the field it doesn’t matter what we look like; all that matters is how we play the game. Zeni was only five feet tall, but he built a baseball field in the desert, and he brought hope to thousands of people. At the end of the book, he’s playing in a game at the camp, and the author writes, “He felt ten feet tall, playing the game he loved so much. Nothing would ever make him feel small again.”

Zeni worked hard to build his field, but in the end he played the game because he loved it. As the author wrote, “When Zeni had a ball or bat in his hand he felt like a giant.” When he hit a homerun, “he felt completely free, as airy and light as the ball he had sent flying.” While who we are necessarily includes how others have viewed and treated us, ultimately it is how we view and treat ourselves that matters the most. You have to do what you love in order to save your own spirit. And while there are days that I allow my anger to fester —  when I do think that fighting and speaking out are the answer — I know that to survive I also have to do what my grandfather told me to do so many years ago: simply enjoy that piece of apple pie.

Anne HawkinsBio:  Anne Hawkins is a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco, California. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. Her happiest childhood memories are of time spent with her grandparents, and her favorite moments now are watching her own children build the same kinds of memories with their grandparents. She is always on the look-out for children’s books featuring Asian-American characters. Recommendations welcome:

Bring Your Whole Self to this World

Contributed by special guest writer, Robin Ye

My grandfather was a poor rural farmer during the height of Maoist Communist China – he died not too far from where he raised his four children. His youngest son, my dad, left for college in Beijing at age 16, after testing amongst the best in his Province. The first of his family to leave town and attend college, he became a physicist and fighter jet engineer, working in a country in which I, as a second child, could never have been born.

The American chapter of my family began a quarter century ago. My father moved to Huntsville, Alabama in the early 1990’s to pursue a master’s degree in the United States. My parents credit the massacres at Tiananmen Square as the moment they decided to leave. They had watched as all seven of my father’s college roommates had emigrated across the Pacific. My dad was the last one to join them. My mom was more skeptical about leaving China and her family; it was my father’s dream and not hers. But I think she knew that promise awaited in the States, so she followed him with my then 4-year-old sister one year later. My mom was a pioneer in her own right. The daughter of a community physician and an engineer, my army brat mother would raise two kids and complete an additional engineering degree at South Puget Sound Community College to prove her U.S. credentials’ acumen, finishing at the top of her class. She went on to work a successful career as an immigrant, English-as-a-second-language, woman-of-color software engineer. She spent over eleven years of that career at Intel.

Although I appreciated my parents’ boldness in coming to the U.S., I didn’t always want this skin I was born into. Being told that your home smells funny, that your eyes are too small and slanty, that your English is pretty good for a chink, that your family should “go back to where they came from,” that there’s no way you know anything about American sports because you’re Asian, that you’re too different to be equal – those things hurt. You internalize so many of those words, the shame of growing up different in Portland – you learn to operate as a second-class citizen. You accept that who you are and where you come from is a flaw, not a feature, not something you should widely broadcast or ever fully embrace. My experiences growing up taught me that being Chinese was less than desirable. I don’t think I fully owned this Chinese part of myself until I left home for school in Chicago. I realized I didn’t want to leave behind the legacy my parents gave me, the Chinese upbringing that they gifted me. I cry with anger when I think about all the times I wanted to reject the culture that my parents reluctantly left behind, the customs that they held onto to remind themselves of who they are and where they came from.

Robin, his mother, sister Cissey, and father at Cissey's doctorate graduation

Robin, his mother, sister Cissey, and his father at Cissey’s doctorate graduation

My parents now tell me how proud they are of me for following my true passions for politics and social justice, even when they themselves had initially opposed and disagreed with my choice. But the truth is, I haven’t always overcome the naysayers or been comfortable with who I am. But my parents have shown me throughout my life what it means to hold true to who you are – that there need not be a trade-off between being American and being Chinese, of being who you are and who you want to be. My parents are the most progressive people I know — packing up their life mid-career to move to a faraway place with a completely different culture, embracing the unknown and people the likes of which they had never seen before. I want to tell them every day how much I love them and respect them for all they have done in their incredible lives.

I wish, when I was growing up, I had known someone who had once felt some of my insecurities who could have mentored and guided me. Someone who had figured out how to exist in this third world, caught between the two worlds of not being “American” enough to feel comfortable and not being Chinese enough to feel authentic. I wish I had had someone in my life who understood the devastating racism and xenophobia that exists in our world and how to not let it wreck you – to be proud of what makes you different, to bring your whole self to this world. I wish someone had looked into my small, black, slanted eyes and told me that everyone is a little different and the world wouldn’t be as beautiful without all of us in it. My biggest regret is not exploring the Chinese part of me more fully. I cringe at the thought I might have signaled to my loving parents that I was anything less than proud of the Chinese heritage they bestowed upon me. I regret ever desiring to be white, to be anything other than who I am. After the last election, my fear was heightened that Chinese children would grow up in America thinking they were unimportant, unworthy, lesser – that they didn’t belong. That they believed they had to surrender something about themselves for acceptance from others that they could never truly gain. I want to do everything I can to tell them that that is not the case. That they are special. That the only persons they ever need to convince are themselves.

Robin YeBio: Robin Ye currently works a Field Organizer at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), helping to build political power for Asians and Pacific Islanders through policy advocacy and community organizing. He is Chinese-American and the only member of his entire family born in the United States. Robin grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, graduated from the International School of Beaverton before moving to Chicago to study Public Policy and Human Rights at the University of Chicago. He is also a proud member of the APAICS family (Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies).

In his free time, Robin enjoys hiking, cats, podcasts, BBQ, comedy, and is an avid Portland Thorns, Timbers, and Trail Blazers basketball fan.

Living in the World Authentically

Contributed by special guest writer, Weston Koyama  小山ヱストン

rainy-portlandHow does one live in the world authentically? I tell people I’m an Oregonian, but in truth I was born in California. But I don’t remember any of that because we moved when I was a toddler to Ohio. At age 7, my family moved again to Connecticut and again at age 9 back to California and once more again to Oregon at age 12 in 2003. I’ve lived in Oregon since that time and because my ancestors are from Oregon having immigrated here from Japan in 1915, I usually say that I am from Oregon. But there were still times when I felt inauthentic. At Portland State University, I developed the habit of carrying an umbrella with me. My friends would tease, “Only Californians carry umbrellas.” So then, what does it mean to live authentically as an Oregonian? Or as a Japanese American? Or as an American? I’ve since come to take pride in my uniqueness as an umbrella-wielding youngster in Portland and with that pride I’ve discovered something else about identity. Living in the world authentically is not about foregoing umbrellas or passing litmus tests; living in the world authentically is about owning your identity by taking pride in exactly who you are.

I struggled to take pride in my ethnicity as a Japanese American as a young boy. Growing up in mostly white communities, my peers often asked me, “Why is your English so good?” and “Can you say something in Chinese?” I was much too young to come up with witty comebacks to their ignorant remarks and often felt unable to say anything at all. On the one hand, I wanted to fit in and be seen as an authentic American, just like everyone else. On the other hand, I wanted to please my interlocutor but never felt Chinese enough to say something cogent about China or even Asia for that matter. Of course, I’m not Chinese, but to a fellow seven-year-old I’m just a foreigner despite being a fourth generation American whose ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1915. Unable to blend in as an “authentic” American or as an “authentic” Asian person, I felt utterly detached from my peers because I didn’t possess the confidence or the vocabulary to defend my identity.

How does one start to own their identity? I think owning one’s identity starts with understanding the vocabulary needed to articulate and defend one’s self from prejudices and stereotypes projected on to us by others. Even as a young college student my vocabulary was limited to protestations about my Americanness. “No,” I would state firmly, “I do not know Japanese any more than a fourth generation German American knows German.” But these protestations felt exhausting and unsatisfying. They felt exhausting because of how often I would have to repeat them. They felt unsatisfying because as much as I wanted to be seen as a pure American, I knew deep down that my Asian face would always mark me as a foreigner. European Americans abandon their heritage language in exchange for being seen as normal Americans. My parents and I had abandoned the Japanese language and culture in exchange for nothing at all. I didn’t have the vocabulary to state plainly, “I don’t know Japanese, but that is because of decades of oppressive forces that stripped my family of its culture.” I didn’t have the pride to say, “Nonetheless, I am proud to be Japanese American.”

Cultivating a vocabulary necessary to take pride in one’s identity is at times difficult. At first it can feel like you’re a faker. But just like us umbrella-wielding Oregonians prove that there is no one right way to be an Oregonian, there is likewise no one right way to be American or Japanese American. I can tell you that the single most effective way to develop one’s vocabulary around Japanese American identity is through studying one’s cultural heritage. This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of studying the Japanese language, but for me it did. Along my language learning journey, I’ve discovered many different ways of doing being Japanese American. I studied my family’s incarceration experience at Minidoka and pieced together my great-grandfather’s story as one of the first Japanese American dentists in Portland. The sacrifices of my ancestors serve as a powerful source of affirmation and hence of vocabulary for articulating my identity.

Regardless of whether your family immigrated to the United States recently or a century ago like mine, studying one’s heritage and history cultivates a vocabulary. With this vocabulary, one might state confidently, “My family was forced to speak only English and not Japanese because to speak Japanese would make you the target of hatred,” or “No one in my family speaks Japanese anymore, but I’m learning my heritage language to connect with a piece of my culture that has been lost due to oppression.” With vocabulary comes pride. The ability to state confidently, “I am a fourth generation Japanese American,” fundamentally changed the way I walk in this world. I no longer feel detached from my peers. I feel grounded by roots that stretch back to Japan and speak to enormous courage and sacrifice to get me to where I am today. And with my vocabulary I feel empowered to educate my peers so that they might make fewer assumptions about people like me in the future.

I started this essay with a question: How does one live in this world authentically? The answer is surprisingly simple. To live in the world authentically means to take ownership of our identities. Rather than cower to the notion that all Oregonians tough out the rain without an umbrella, I decided that I would take pride in my family’s roots in Oregon notwithstanding my umbrella collection. And likewise, though my knowledge about my ancestry is not perfect or complete, I know enough to understand the struggles they went through. I feel grounded enough to push back against the assumption that Asians are automatically foreigners because of their face. With my voice and vocabulary, I am empowered to speak to exactly who I am. And I will always be proud of who I am.

Weston Koyama

Bio: Weston Koyama, a fourth generation Oregonian and Japanese American, seeks to articulate the nuances of the human experience through the written word. Weston’s writing touches on his experiences living and studying in Oregon as he explores the many different ways of being Asian American in contemporary society. His current project involves articulating how the trauma caused by Japanese American incarceration during World War II continues to affect present generations. Weston hopes to someday publish his work for a larger audience. Currently, Weston studies at the University of Oregon School of Law where he is a J.D. candidate in the class of 2019. Weston is the first Minoru Yasui Fellow at the University of Oregon in addition to serving as a Wayne Morse Fellow. He also currently serves as co-president of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at the University of Oregon. His other interests include disability activism, piano, and computer technology.

Fighting for Identity

simon-tam-at-the-supreme-courtContributed by Anthology author, Simon Tam

It’s Monday morning. June 19, 2017. After working fifteen-hour days everyday for a month straight, I’m bleary with exhaustion. It is one of the few remaining days that the Supreme Court could possibly publish their decision on my case. Fifty-fifty chance it happens this morning.

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s tweet is before my eyes: SCOTUS Rules in Favor of The Slants. I open my email and see my attorney’s one word note with the decision attached. “Congratulations.”

I’m shaking as I open the file, trying to work my way through the dense legal opinion written by Justice Alito. I want to know how the court is divided, what they actually say, how my life’s work is judged by the nation’s highest court. I’m only a few pages in when a ring erupts the silence. It’s a reporter trying to get the scoop. It is only minutes after the high court’s decision. They ask me the obvious question:

“How do you feel?”

I stammer out something that sounds like a canned speech, including being “humbled and thrilled,” though I’m not feeling anything at all. I hang up and text my publicist. Supreme court ruled in our favor. I publish a statement on the Slants’ website and social media. It’s been about thirty minutes since the decision was released and I’m already at about 2,000 messages.

I am setting up interviews every ten minutes for the next ten hours, but most of my calls are interrupted by other reporters who are “breaking” the story. And it does feel broken: I quickly scan the news and see how every major media outlet begins reporting on the issue: “Washington Redskins Win Supreme Court Decision,” “Redskins Score Major Victory in Supreme Court Case,” “Offensive Speech Now OK Says Supreme Court.” I click on the only headline that mentions the band’s name and a photo of the Redskins’ football helmet appears on my screen.

For years, I had dreamed of the moment of vindication. I imagined how it would feel to be a part of the legacy of social justice, even if it was only through an obscure part of law. Just a few months earlier, I had a dream where the Supreme Court ruled in our favor. In that scenario, the curiosity about our David vs. Goliath case led people to look at how the law was being applied: inconsistently, subjectively, and improperly. People weren’t talking about football teams; instead, they were finally paying attention to the narrative of the marginalized. Of course, it was only a dream.

Simon Tam, a member of the band The Slants, speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Simon Tam, a member of the band The Slants, speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court.

The euphoria that I was expecting was instead replaced with dread and disgust. The press had re-framed our struggle and the major concepts about liberty into a narrative around a racist football team. I didn’t feel vindication for our victory; I felt a deep sense of injustice. I felt far more responsibility to provide an answer to the flurry of tweets from a number of Native American activists.

There’s no doubt that these individuals were expressing their dismay at what they perceived as delivering victory on a silver platter to Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. And it was me, Simon Tam, who had delivered the head of John the Baptist to Herod Antipas. In a flurry of tweets, I was accused of being a native-born person of color perpetuating the work of colonizers. They characterized this decision on trademark registration law as the floodgate for hate speech. They intimated that I single-handedly doomed all efforts to remove mascots from pro sports.

I tried to address some of the concerns by offering clarity around our process and how trademark laws work. I tried to express how the law I’d been fighting had allowed the government the ability to deny rights based on people’s race, gender, and sexual orientation. I even explained that I’d met with over 140 social justice groups, including numerous confederated tribal leaders. I sincerely wanted to engage with empathy. But my engagement on Twitter only seemed to create greater fury, more harsh personal accusations of bad will and selfish motivations.

I felt frustration, confusion, and sadness.

Almost eight years of my life – about 2,800 days – had been poured into this battle for self-identity. And now that it is over, I realize that the fight isn’t really over. I have learned the following lessons:

First, there is a difference between an ethical standard and a legal one. While we’d like to think that what is legal is also right, we know that the enforcement of the law allows more room for the privileged, for dominant groups to abuse laws. In this instance, if we were to give the government power to discern the difference between marginalized identities being re-appropriated and those abusing speech, we are extremely naive in thinking that they have the ability or interest in doing so. They’ve repeatedly failed, which is why the law was used primarily against people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Second, we have to seriously question whether or not the battleground for these kinds of issues should be waged at the desks of examining attorneys at the Trademark Office: does a trademark registration (or lack of) actually address racism? I would say not. And if the law is being used against marginalized communities, that type of institutionalized discrimination creates greater harm than trademark registrations. What the media – and most people – don’t understand is that if the campaign to get the Washington football team’s trademark registration was successful, it still wouldn’t force the team name to change. In fact, it wouldn’t even hurt them because they have so much trademark equity (brand usage, resources), they would still have 100% protection over their trademark. Is symbolic victory that doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of getting the team name to change worth the dehumanizing process of suppressing re-appropriation movements of the marginalized? I would argue that it is not.

We have to think about our end goal of justice: what does it look like? Instead of focusing on punishing the wicked, such as the Washington football team, true equity is creating more options in our society for those who have the fewest. Otherwise, we’re so blinded with the former activity that we are willing to accept the collateral damage being experienced by the marginalized. If the government truly cared about fighting against racism through the Trademark Office, why didn’t they begin by cancelling registrations for the KKK, Stormfront, or other known white supremacist groups? Why did they choose to wage this battle against The Slants, Dykes on Bikes (lesbian motorcycle group), HEEB Media (Jewish magazine), and others engaged in anti-discrimination work? As the marginalized, our biggest struggles are not against harmful language – people will always find ways to abuse and twist words – our biggest challenges are against institutionalized and systemic discrimination, such as outdated processes that do not allow our communities to progress.


SimonTan250KB Jan2016Bio:  Simon Tam is an author, musician, entrepreneur, and activist. He is best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. His work in the arts has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across 200 countries including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, BBC, NPR, TIME Magazine, and Rolling Stone.

He was named a champion of diverse issues by the White House and worked with President Barack Obama’s campaign to fight bullying. He recently helped expand freedom of speech through winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for a landmark case in constitutional and trademark law (Matal v. Tam).

Simon has been a keynote speaker, performer, and presenter at TEDx, SXSW, Comic-Con, The Department of Defense, Stanford University, and over 1,200 events across North America, Europe, and Asia. He has set a world record by appearing on the TEDx stage 12 times.

He designed one of the first college-accredited social media programs in the United States. Bloomberg Businessweek called him a “Social Media Rockstar.” Forbes says his resume is a “paragon of completeness.”   cover2

Recently, he was recognized as a Freedom Fighter by the Roosevelt Rough Writers, named Citizen of the Year from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Portland Lodge, Portland Rising Star from the Light a Fire Awards, received a Distinguished Alum Award from Marylhurst University, and the Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association.

He serves as board chair for the APANO United Communities Fund and member/advisor for multiple nonprofit organizations dedicated to social justice and the arts.

You can find Simon’s appearances, writing, and current projects at 

“Just Doug”: My Life as an Asian American Actor

Contributed by special guest writer, Doug Kim


At the age of 22, I graduated from a top U.S. university and was about to start a career in the coveted field of management consulting in New York. By all accounts, I was living out the “American dream.” But was it, in fact, my dream?

I grew up in what the media sees as the stereotypical Asian American “model minority” experience: a Korean American family bent on academic success above all else. My parents, children born in the aftermath of the Korean War, were conditioned to value survival and prosperity, moving to America for these ideals. The New York metropolitan area is probably the fiercest academic crucible in the country, especially for Asian Americans, and seemed to be the perfect spot for my parents to raise a family.

As much as America paints itself as the land of opportunity, life has never been easy for any immigrant group. As a kid, I wasn’t an outgoing or sociable person. I was the typical nerd. My parents, uneducated in American social dynamics, found it hard to “help” me socially. They meant well and ingrained in me the idea that it was only important to keep my head down, work hard, get ahead, and then everything would work itself out in my adult life.

My escape was in stories, in any consumable format that I could handle, comic books, novels, TV, movies, video games. I escaped because my adolescent reality wasn’t very appealing, working towards an amorphous goal of “making it” as an adult. While I didn’t abandon those goals and pursued studies (somewhat) diligently, it was here where my love of storytelling began.

As I sought out narratives to populate my imagination, I became acutely aware that the storytelling in America rarely includes Asians as anything more than caricatures or backdrop dressing for the “American” (read: White) hero to prevail. But while I enjoyed Jackie Chan’s movies, I related more with actors like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams because I identified as an American, and I felt their stories on a much more personal level. But I wasn’t an idiot. I knew that I was Asian and that my chances of being a Carrey or Williams were infinitesimal.

20604566_10102026724549564_4304332985278390435_nAs an angst-filled teen, some of my more nascent theatrical attributes started to manifest. I became somewhat of a class clown and gained popularity, but I also loved performing music. I found creative outlets for myself in performance art despite my continued focus on academic success. Ultimately however, I felt discouraged because as much as a career in entertainment seemed like a pipe dream, it seemed like a pipe-dreamers pipe dream for an Asian American.

In college, I found another outlet for my talents and training — poker. I started playing as a freshman, addicted to its allure and its foundational ties to mathematics and logical analysis. It wasn’t just the fun and the money that I enjoyed. In some ways, poker is as pure a meritocracy as one will encounter in life. Success is directly proportional to the talent and work put into the game. Of course, although there’s a lot of luck involved, it also ironically validates values instilled in me by my parents, confirming that hard work gets you to the top.

However, it wasn’t my poker winnings that convinced me to take the leap of faith to become an actor but rather the financial crisis of 2008 when I was laid off from my job as a consultant. I decided to take a step back and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. One of the movies that inspired me was Harold and Kumar, one of the first movies I had seen with characters I could relate to (I drove to the movie in my silver Toyota Camry with my Indian best friend who was in med school at the time, while I was doing a finance internship; it was very surreal).  It was the first time I saw that maybe, JUST MAYBE, it was possible to pursue a career in entertainment as an Asian American. Hard work had gotten me everything up to that point so why would it be any different in the entertainment field?

For the uninitiated, the entertainment industry is very capricious and opaque, which makes it a very relationship-based industry. Success is almost always predicated on who you know and how influential they might be. For ANYONE, not just Asian Americans, it’s a battle, a competition to show why your story matters over the thousands of other hopefuls with their own stories. As a result, it’s not always about who’s the most talented but instead who’s the best at promoting themselves.

Coming from a background where I thought effort was directly proportional to success, this was a lesson that took me much too long to figure out. I had done training at a conservatory and come to L.A. fully expecting to start working relatively quickly. It didn’t pan out as I had planned. Part of my problem was not knowing exactly how to focus my efforts and to build a platform for myself, but this is a fundamental disadvantage that Asian Americans have in this industry. They have few people to turn to for support and guidance.

I won’t say that I’m the best actor in the world and was just down on my luck, because that wouldn’t be true. Looking back, I could have definitely done some things differently, but a few years ago, transitioning into my 30s, my “Asian” career-oriented side started gnawing at me. Did I make a terrible mistake in pursuing this career? Were my parents right to question my life decisions? I even started questioning my own romantic life, thinking that if I had just towed the line and been a “good little Asian,” I might have started a family by now. Who the hell wants to date a 30+ year-old unknown actor?

It was out of this desperation that I drew inspiration. After watching shows like Girls and Togetherness, I realized that we have the power to be content creators of our own personal stories. The blueprint for Asian American content creation was laid-out by content creators like Wong Fu Productions, JK Films, and Fung Bros. on platforms such as YouTube. They proved that there’s a demand for storytelling where people feel like they’re being represented.

I started working on a web series for myself, writing stories about Asian American life that wasn’t being told in Hollywood. This web series morphed into a short film, which then morphed into a pilot TV show. As my ambitions grew, so did my project’s scale. Over the course of a few years, I spent all my energy, time and personal finances building what I believe is the genesis of genuine Asian American storytelling.

My show, Just Doug, is a semi-autobiographical show on Facebook Watch. It’s about my life as an Asian American actor in Los Angeles. At its heart is a story about what life looks like for an Asian American trying to insert himself into the conversation of American culture. It’s about the compromises marginalized people might have to make for greater acceptance into society. It’s almost like X-Men, except instead of mutants, we’re Asian, and instead of Professor X … you have me. I want people to realize that Asian Americans are people, humans, and … Americans who just happen to be another ethnicity.

I made the show to accurately portray the Asian American experience and what it looks like to us, the 2nd generation that knows what it’s like to come from an immigrant family but also identifies with many American ideals and desires. To that end, I assembled a mostly Asian American cast, with a writer, director, DP, music director and many other crew members to be Asian American, to prove that we have what it takes to tell a good story without Matt Damon coming in to save the day.

0235-Edit-Final(WEBonly)Bio:  Doug Kim studied economics at Duke University and was a former management consultant. He was also a professional poker player who, in 2006, managed to make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas.  Shortly after the financial crisis, he decided to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. He is now an executive producer, actor, and writer for a semi-autobiographical comedy series called Just Doug, available for viewing on Facebook Watch. He is passionate about bringing to life stories from the Asian American viewpoint and helping people begin to see Asian Americans as simply Americans.
twitter: sweetjustice
instagram: vindicatingjustice / justdougseries

First to Go: The Story of the Kataoka Family (Part 2)

First to Go Vimeo with LaurelsThoughts from Award-Winning Filmmaker, Myles Matsuno

Those who know me will tell you that family is everything to me.

Growing up, it felt like my dad always had a Hi-8 mini DV camcorder ready to roll on my sister and me. The footage was your typical family montage. Us playing sports, opening Christmas presents, school activities, vacation trips, singing 90’s hit songs — the list goes on.

In the 90’s, it took intention and effort to capture these moments. There were no cell phones to point and shoot high quality video. You had to carry around a bulky camcorder in a bag, hoping you had charged the battery, and capture it all on a 60-90 minute tape. And God forbid if you accidentally re-recorded over your little sister’s birthday from the year before …

Back then, that camcorder was just a cool toy to make home movies. Today, the memories captured by that same camcorder are more than just a “no big deal”. They’re everything to me.

It’s part of the reason I’m making films today. It’s the main reason behind what I look for when making a movie: capturing moments. And it plays a big role in why I made my documentary First to Go: Story of the Kataoka Family.

Manzanar Internment Camp 2015The Japanese Incarceration is something that’s glossed over in American history. It was brushed over in my high school and college educations. For some, it wasn’t taught at all. And I get it … it’s embarrassing. America didn’t save the day on this one. In fact, they dropped the ball. But you know what? So did I.

For someone who cherishes family and stories as much as me, you would’ve thought I’d have taken the time to learn about the subject a little more. I guess that’s what they call being young and naive. But I’ll call it for what it was … being a selfish teenager.

sf examinerI never took the time to really dig into what my grandparents and roughly 120,000 other Japanese Americans and immigrants went through in this country. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I actually took the time to read the front page of the San Francisco Examiner that my father has framed and hanging on his wall. It’s the same enlarged one-sheet he’s had hanging on his wall for decades. The paper was published on December 8th 1941, and the title reads, “First S.F. Japanese Prisoner.” It has the picture of a Japanese man being handcuffed and escorted out of a hotel by the FBI. That prisoner was my great-grandfather, Ichiro Kataoka, and that hotel was his hotel. I learned that my family legacy is one that is touching, inspiring, and hopeful.

Ichiro KataokaFor years, this story resonated within me. I wanted to know everything about it. I would talk to my grandmother about what she went through. I would go to museum exhibits on the subject, read books, and Google whatever I could find online. I even filed for all the documents that were collected on Ichiro Kataoka during that time. And just like my father did with my sister and me, I wanted to document everything. I wanted something tangible. Something I could show my family for generations to come. So, without a real plan, I set out to do just that. Make a film based on my family’s experience of the Japanese Incarceration. And this process has forever changed my life.

I get asked quite often how and why I made this film. Questions like… is it for a political agenda? Where did I gather all the footage? What was my intention behind the film? Did it leave me in a vulnerable state putting my family out there for people to see? What’s next now that it’s done?

Mary Matsuno and James Matsuno_2First and foremost, I made this film for my family. I wanted to preserve our family’s history for current and future generations, so both my family and others will never forget what happened to real people in a time of war. Almost all of the footage in the film is personal. I digitized and captured four different generations dating all the way back to my great-grandfather. Releasing our family’s film to the public as a documentary does make us vulnerable, especially in an industry where critics can be harsh and rejection is common. Sometimes, I didn’t want to let the public see what happened to our family because this would open us up to the judgment of complete strangers. Would I do justice to my family’s story? Make my family proud?

In the end it was all worth it. The countless hours of footage watched and digitized, all the family documents gathered from the government, the countless photo albums looked through, the sleepless nights and multiple edit revisions, and the self-doubt that looms over every artist taking creative risks.

In the end, I’m glad I did send the film to festivals and show it in classes. It’s been well-received and we racked up some awards along the way. The most recent win was the audience award at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL. The audience award means the most to me because it’s the people’s award.

Toshi HandaMy hope for this film is that it not only educates the viewer but also brings them a sense of hope. A hope that good can come from even the darkest of situations. I don’t downplay Executive Order 9066 issued by President Roosevelt. It was a horrible time in our country. It was a time when racism led to fear and fear led to racism. But like my Aunt Toshi says in the film, “Well as bad as camp was, one thing, I met your dad here. … We were in block 11 they were in block 9 … If it wasn’t for camp you kids wouldn’t be here. … that’s the only good thing… .” That’s the message of hope I’m talking about and it’s overwhelming to see people recognize this hope after watching the film.

This film is part of the history of why I’m here today. After making this film I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing where you come from. When our camcorders can fit into our pockets, there shouldn’t be any excuse not to make those memories and capture those moments of yourself, family, and friends. Document and pass them down to the generations that follow so they will know those who came before them.

Mary MatsunoAs my grandma says in the legacy letter I found when making the film, “Just like my mother, I, too, have lived a life of shiawase.” Shi-a-wase in Japanese means fortunate or happiness.

After everything she’s been through, she still believes she has “lived a life of happiness.” I hope I can say the same in 60 years.


Myles Matsuno-2Bio: Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, Myles Matsuno focuses on developing meaningful stories that convey strong messages through visual aesthetics. For him, everything he creates comes down to two final factors: the Audience and Moments. Having led efforts for ABC LA in the technical direction of shows such as The Academy Awards, Dancing with the Stars, NBA Finals, and more, Matsuno has also gained international recognition for his films because of their honest and inspiring messages. His films have been shown in many festivals and won awards throughout the country. His latest works are the feature, Christmas in July, and the documentary, First to Go: Story of the Kataoka Family. His documentary is expected to be released in December 2017. Please check his websites: and He may also be contacted through Instagram: @myles_matsuno and Twitter: @MylesMatsuno.


First to Go: The Story of the Kataoka Family

sf examinerThe Inspiration Behind the Award-Winning Documentary

Contributed by special guest writer, Mark Matsuno

One of life’s simple pleasures when I was a kid was leafing through old family photo albums. The weather was often grey and gloomy in San Francisco’s Richmond District, being close to the bay as the fog rolled in, so I would often grab a few albums and find a cozy spot on the living room carpet next to the fake log fire and transport myself to another time. I always loved seeing those old deckle-edged black and white photographs of my mom and dad, my relatives and especially my sister and brother caught in a candid moment or just clowning around. By then, there were color photos, but the years had given them an antiquated patina, adding a nostalgic effect, which your iPhone’s camera filters can only attempt to duplicate. In this digital age, I find it sad that kids these days won’t know the simple pleasure of gathering around old albums.

Photos that predate the ‘50s are particularly interesting to me. I often had no idea who these Japanese immigrants were, but they always looked so dignified in their stoic poses and they always seemed to be dressed in black three-piece suits like they were going somewhere important. They would often pose in front of a big black car, which I’m told was seldom their own. The suits could very well have been navy blue or Prince purple, but in black and white photos, your mind has to make the choice. I chose blacks and greys. I would ask my mom about them. “Who are these people?” Most of the time, she wouldn’t even know.

I must have been around fourteen when I came across an article neatly cut out of the San Francisco Examiner’s front page. I remember my mom telling me something about her father being “the first to be taken away,” but here was a yellowing piece of actual proof. In the masthead, it read, “Monday, December 8, 1941.” The headline read, “First S.F. Japanese Prisoner,” and there was a picture of my grandfather, Ichiro Kataoka, being escorted in handcuffs down the front steps of his hotel on Post Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Nihonmachi.

TUNNEL VISION 36” X 18” ACRYLIC ON CANVASAmong all the melancholic, endearing, funny photos was this dark piece of family history that would nag at me through the years. I had to know if my grandpa, who I barely remember since he passed away when I was three years old, was a criminal. You always want to believe that your country is fair and just and that the FBI would only go after the bad guys. My mom was a young girl of fourteen when the Japanese Imperial Air Force sent planes to destroy the US Naval Base in Honolulu at Pearl Harbor, so she had very little understanding of what was happening to her father, and eventually to her mother, herself and her five siblings. What she had to offer as an explanation was this: my grandfather was a businessman who was able to buy a hotel in the Japanese section of the city. In cornering that market, he would often drive out to the docks and greet incoming ships carrying passengers from Japan before the days of air travel. He would introduce himself as the owner of Aki Hotel and make them feel less like strangers in a strange land. It was partly an act of kindness, but it was mostly just smart. As a result of his frequent trips to the ships, bowing to greet new Japanese immigrants, along with his growing prominence in the Japanese community, he was secretly under surveillance.

METRO 20” X 20” ACRYLIC ON CANVASWhat I do remember about my grandpa was that he was a small, quiet man. He couldn’t speak English well, so we had little actual conversation. It’s a typical Sansei dilemma. When the FBI cuffed him, he went peacefully to meet whatever fate his new country would impose on him. I’m sure he was scared and had no idea of the magnitude of what would follow for his family and 150,000 other people of Japanese ancestry trying to make America their new home. He was taken first as an example of what would happen to the entire Japanese community in San Francisco.

SF VIEW 36” X 18” ACRYLIC ON CANVASFlash forward to the early ‘70s. I had moved to Los Angeles to start a career in advertising. My grandfather had been long gone and the days of flipping through photo albums were far behind me. I kept in touch with my family as much as I could and would take frequent trips to San Francisco. On one of those trips, I heard that my cousin, Marjorie, had gotten a job at The Examiner. I didn’t connect the dots until a couple of years later that she might be able to access the microfilm of that newspaper article. I thought it would be great to send it to a color lab, make large framed posters and give them to my relatives on my mother’s side. Marjorie came through for me and in turn, I surprised my family with theatrical poster-sized sepia-toned framed copies. For me, the importance of that piece of family history was mostly personal, a piece of the Kataoka legacy.

Little did I know that my son, Myles, would grow up to become an accomplished filmmaker and use his great-grandfather’s story to create a beautiful, heartfelt and poignant documentary using my mother, one of two surviving children, as the onscreen narrator. Myles had a vision surpassing my own and the ambition and talent to make it happen.

On a personal note, I am thrilled that my grandfather’s story is now immortalized, as well as my mother’s persona. On a more far-reaching note, Myles’ award-winning documentary, “First To Go: The Story of the Kataoka Family,” has been shown in many film festivals across the country this past year, opening the eyes of many Americans who had no idea this injustice had ever happened. Without getting into the ramifications of racial profiling and current immigration tensions, it’s my hope that, in some small way, my son’s film can bolster awareness and ultimately make a difference.

mark matsuno photoBio:  Mark Matsuno was born and raised in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles at the age of twenty to pursue a career in advertising. After a three-year stint at Young & Rubicam West, he started his own graphic design boutique specializing in movie advertising. Currently, he has his own design firm in Glendale, CA. Much of his time is spent on high-profile films such as Jurassic World, Minions and many others. He is the proud father of son, Myles, and daughter, Alyssa.

Mark is also a dedicated fine artist creating paintings of urban landscapes among other subject matter. You can view his art throughout this posting and at













A Cosmic Dating Experience

Contributed by special guest writer, Dan Chinn

imageWhen a guy has had bad luck with women for awhile, he begins to think that he is jinxed. It seemed that every woman I met that I was attracted to was either involved with someone or didn’t like my style. My style back then was Hippie. Never a fashionable high point in the history of style, but I was making a statement about materialism and being a Hippie was part of the idealism that ran through the collegiate universe at that time. It was 1971 and I was living just off campus in a house that I shared with three other loosely associated friends who were like-minded. We all wore our hair long and liked flannel shirts and blue jeans. That year, I wore the same flannel shirt and jeans every day and a lot of my friends would wear the same “outfit” most of the time. I could recognize my friends from a great distance just from their clothing. The comfort of cotton was more important than being fashionable. The more you washed flannel the softer it became. I really loved my blue, white and red plaid shirt. I would wash it once a week and I was good. After a year of wearing it and washing it, the fabric had lost some of its bulk and the colors had slowly washed out so it was getting thin. So thin was it that one of my roommates had put his finger into a small hole and ripped it in half. I went down to JC Penney’s and bought two new flannel shirts the same day.

My persona restored to its former un-capitalistic glory, I was back on the hunt for my Hippie Chick and some of that “free love” that Hippies were supposed to be getting. I was 22 years old at the time and still taking classes at Portland State University. It was summer and the campus was sparsely populated. PSU is a city college with most students living off campus, some at home with their families and some living in student housing. Summer term was lonely for unpaired singles.

I had not outgrown my love for comic books and found that the new generation of “Head Comic books ” was a great source of amusement. Zap Comics, The Furry Freak Brothers and Dr. Atomic comics were a laugh a minute and the exaggerated artwork was accompanied by witty situations and Hippie philosophy. Some of which became quoted by the general college pot-smoking “Heads.” Sayings like “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” And common terms and sayings would get mutated by comedians and friends. Second and third generation slang like “Right on” became “Rat on” to be funny. And phrases became contracted like instead of “I got to go home” became ” I gotta.” This counter-cultural shift in English was mirrored in the new comics and a lot of my friends would follow the misadventures of the Furry Freak Brothers as each monthly issue showed up at the local bookstores.

Back to my story. I was looking at the rack for Head Comics at Looking Glass Bookstore when a saw this beautiful woman looking at a copy of R. Crumb’s “Big Ass Comics.” Our eyes met and we smiled at each other briefly. I said “Hi” and she said “Hi” back. Both of us went back to our comics. I would look up occasionally and look at her and she was doing the same. I found a purchase and went to pay for it. I had lost sight of her until I saw her unlocking her bike on the street just outside the side door.

I don’t usually try to meet someone in such a setting but I thought of the old saw “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and asked her if she’d like to get a snack and she said yes, so we had a bite to eat and got acquainted. She was a Native American from the Warm Springs Tribe. We hit it off like a dream and she told me to come visit her at the Warm Springs Reservation. She had four roommates, but they had a spare bedroom I could stay in. She was so beautiful and I thought to myself that she could pass for an Asian and that would make my family happier (heretofore, I’d been pretty much pairing up with fair-haired women). I wasn’t into astrology but I knew my sign and it was something we could talk about as we were making polite conversation. Then came the stunning discovery that she and I had the same birthday. I had never met anyone that shared the same birthday before, let alone the same birth year. And forty years later I can still say the same thing. The same birthday and year. Her name was Patti. I thought this was a sign – or at least, wanted it to be a sign.

Patti gave me her phone number and address and I told her I would come visit. I had a part-time job and scheduled a week of vacation two weeks out.

I did not have a car back then, so I took a Greyhound bus to Warm Springs and was planning on walking the few miles to Kahneeta, the resort famous for its natural hot springs and campgrounds. This was before all of the casinos at Indian Reservations. As I was walking down the road to the resort, I found that the local people that worked at the resort or lived on the reservation would slow down and ask me if I wanted a ride and even offered to feed me, too. I politely refused them all for the first couple of miles because I hadn’t hitchhiked before and I was uncertain about being picked up by strangers.

Then, a pickup truck with the resort logo on the side stopped and offered, and I accepted the ride. It was August and the heat of the day was getting to me. I mentioned Patti’s name to the driver, and he said he knew her and the “dorm” she shared with four other women. She was the dorm mom it turns out even though she was just a year or two older than her roommates.

Now comes the beginning of the best part of my visit. If this was a movie, this is where the romantically-themed music motif playing in the background suddenly swells and the camera does a close-up shot of two lovers that embrace and kiss for the first time. In reality it was even better than in the movies. As I approached the front door of the house that was called the dorm – I had just walked maybe ten of the forty-foot walkway – the screen door swings open and out shoots Patti running barefoot. And like a woman greeting her soldier-boyfriend who has returned from war, she leaps into my arms and gives me a big kiss right on the mouth. I held on tightly and she held on tightly as I carried her the twenty feet back through the door. I was taken with her beautiful face and slim athletic body. She was very beautiful. A beauty queen.

Our meeting was but an hour total back in Portland, and my memory of her was just a couple of flashbacks in the bookstore and riding away on her bike and looping around me once and saying goodbye. We had talked twice for a bit on the phone just before I got on the bus. I had kept the conversation short cause long distance rates were high for a student. I just wanted to make sure she was still interested in having me visit. The greeting told me that she did. Wow! Even though she had come through the door running, it all seemed like slow motion.

For the next four days we were inseparable. Eating, sleeping, exploring the reservation and visiting her friends. We went everywhere holding hands. All of her friends noted our closeness, and we were happily received by everyone. It was a dream visit with nonstop affection and fellowship with this Native American beauty. I could see a future with her. I was young enough to be adaptable to the idea of living at the “Res” after I finished my last five semesters of college. I had to leave but promised to come back as soon as I could.

When I got back to Portland, I was able to schedule a four-day visit two weeks later. I could hardly wait to see her again. I took the early bus to Madras and got off at the Warm Springs Junction and got a ride right away from an old “Caddy” convertible with two women in the front bench seat. It was just after noon when I arrived at the dorm. I knocked and one of the girls answered the door and said that Patti had left a couple of hours ago, but they were expecting her back soon. I was hungry. Hadn’t had breakfast so I went down to the cafeteria for a snack while I waited. Just as I got to the parking lot, I saw her walking out of the cafeteria with this other guy. A scruffy unshaven fellow wearing a leather range-rider type jacket. She was close by his side as they walked over to a Porsche 911 sports car. As he got behind the wheel, Patti came over to greet me by giving me a hug and said, “This is not a good time.” Then, gets into the passenger seat of the Porsche and off they go.  Damn … the curse had struck again. After I ate a cheeseburger basket in the cafeteria, I went back to Portland the same day.

Back in Portland, Patti and I talked briefly on the phone. By the hushed tone of her voice, I guessed her boyfriend was in the next room. He was her ex-lover and he wanted another chance, and she was going to give him one more. I thought to myself, Porsche 911 vs Strawberry Racing Cycle Professional racing bicycle. I didn’t need my three terms of Calculus to do the math … .

DanChinn blog photo

Bio: Dan Chinn was born to Suey Q. and Faye K. Chinn, Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Benson Polytechnic High School (Pre-Engineering, Electronics) and attended PCC and PSU (Electronic Engineering, Poetry, Film Making, and Marketing). He worked at Bell Telephone, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Portland Branch, Tektronix Inc., and Intel Corporation before retiring in 1998. Dan is now a writer, poet, photographer, artist, and musician.


The Girl Who Folds Paper

blue-origami-paper-crane-stock-photo-picture-and-royalty-free-paper-crane-origami-instructions-pdf-paper-crane-origami-instructionsContributed by special guest writer, Lindsey Shibata


During the middle of 5th grade, my family picked up everything and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. It’s a place I’ll always remember because it was the first time I ever felt ashamed of being Japanese American.

Within the first week of my new school I was sitting in front of an overly excited ESL teacher who constantly shook with excitement whenever I did something correct. She handed me Kindergarten level storybooks and screeched after I read simple sentences. I was awarded condescending claps and candy; the candy didn’t taste as sweet after being praised for knowing something that I’d known since grade school. I began to believe that there was something wrong with the way I spoke. My self-confidence hit rock bottom, and I managed total silence for the entire week.

I was in constant conflict with myself; I started to blame my culture and ethnicity for my feelings. I started to throw away the “Japanese” part of myself by making sure people only knew the “American” part of me by telling kids I was from California. I believed that because of my Asian roots, people assumed I couldn’t speak proper English.

12977201354_4b2b57f505_bI despised the way I was choosing to live; I hated being known as “the girl who couldn’t talk.” I loathed saying that I was born in California and tossing aside my Japanese culture. I knew I needed to change. Speaking out loud wasn’t an option yet, so I started to think of ways that I could express myself without using words: Japanese Origami. I brought in some origami one day and began to construct different things. As I started to build cranes and irises, people were lighting up with interest. I was spreading this Japanese art form throughout my class, and by the end, they were starting to make things too; I was able to leave them with a little part of my culture in the form of a small iris.

I am a Japanese American, and right now, I embrace this identity. I love being different from everyone else; I enjoy telling people that I was born in Japan. I don’t let this fear and feeling of degradation get in the way of being proud of who I am. Through this experience, I’ve gained self-pride in my identity and continue to cherish my Japanese culture by expressing it without shame. Today, I don’t let anything make me feel ashamed of what it means to be a Japanese American girl.

Lindsey ShibataBio: Lindsey Hikari Shibata is college student who was born in Okinawa, Japan. Her father is a third-generation Japanese American. Her mother is a native Okinawan. Lindsey moved to the US when she was 2-years-old and has lived in California, in Missouri, and currently resides in Portland, Oregon. She visits Okinawa every other year to maintain ties with her family and relatives, and she has traveled extensively in Japan to continue to learn and experience her native culture.

Speaking Japanese as an Act of Resistance

Weston Koyama

Contributed by special guest writer, Weston Koyama


I am going to make an argument that you may not agree with. My family certainly doesn’t agree with me. But I feel I must make this argument nonetheless. The argument goes something like this: To speak your heritage language is an act of resistance. Moreover, the topic of the conversation matters little. I can speak in Japanese about the weather in Portland and yet by speaking in Japanese I am resisting decades of forced assimilation that stripped my family of its culture and, by extension, its language. Speaking one’s heritage language is thusly an act of radical self-determination to define one’s identity outside of the confines of the hegemonic English-speaking culture present in America and in the developed world-at-large. In order to arrive at this argument, we must step back and examine certain truths about the Japanese American experience and about the power of language to transform one’s psyche.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear from people in my own family who resist learning the Japanese language is that third generation German Americans are not expected to learn German. This is true, but this is also tragic. When German Americans dissolve their culture in the Great American Melting Pot, they lose a significant part of their cultural identity—namely their language and all that the language embodies. The solubility of white European Americans in this melting pot confers the benefit of not experiencing oppression at the intersection of ethnicity, but this solubility means that most German Americans lose their culture. We should not envy German Americans for their solubility in a melting pot that dissolves their roots in a murky stew. The path forward lies in taking pride in our unique culture, not in becoming white.

The next objection I often hear from my family about why their heritage language is unimportant is that culture can be learned without learning the language. This is only true to an extent. While one can preserve cultural traditions in the absence of the language that gave birth to these traditions, to embody the culture requires at least a basic understanding of the language. This is true because languages profoundly affect how we experience the world. One might understand from a textbook that English is a low context language where specificity, precision, and certainty are privileged in the diction, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. By contrast Japanese is a high context language where loose associations, implication, and softness are privileged in the diction, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. But to know these things from a textbook and to embody them by speaking the language are two different things. The embodiment of these cultural differences allows the speaker to learn nuance in culture that is inevitably lost in translation. This nuance is important. This nuance is a part of what was taken from us over the past century due to assimilation.

I can imagine at this point that there are people in my family reading this who are getting annoyed. Maybe if you are a third or fourth of fifth generation Japanese American who has sworn off the idea of learning Japanese, you are getting annoyed too. Who am I to tell you what was taken from you? I imagine some people might think, “But it’s my choice to decide whether I want to know my culture in that way or not.” To which I say, that’s true. I agree. But let’s be real here. Our choices are influenced by society. English became hegemonic in this society because of oppression. To speak any language other than English in the U.S. is to say, “I know I am supposed to speak English here, but I choose to express my agency and to experience the world in a way precluded by the English language.” That is a choice that you do not have to make. But to make that choice is an act of empowerment in the context of English’s hegemony.

Whether or not you decide to take back agency over your cultural identity is a complicated choice. There are people in my family who read about the oppressive elements of Japanese society such as the continued discrimination against Koreans and Chinese or the relative disempowerment of women compared to western countries. They read these things and they say, “well that is not my culture.” It isn’t my culture either. I am Japanese American not Japanese. But in being Japanese American, I’ve found that learning the Japanese language helped me to decide for myself which aspects of Japanese culture I keep and which aspects I jettison. I made these decisions for myself; I did not arrive there by default as the consequence of simply accepting the status quo. To make these decisions about what parts of your heritage culture to own and what parts to jettison is complicated, but also empowering. And while for some, the language might be one of those parts to jettison, I would hope that the decision was truly a decision born of free agency, not one made by the American assimilation regime.

To be clear, I do not mean to say that every Japanese American ought to learn the Japanese language fluently. But for those that do choose the arduous journey of learning the Japanese language proficiently or fluently, they should know that their decision is an act of resistance against English hegemony and the oppressive forces of assimilation. Not everyone in my family agrees with me and you can feel free to disagree, too. But for me, my heritage language is not just another language. My heritage language is an embodiment of culture. My heritage language serves as a psychic link to the minds of my ancestors. My heritage language has become an integral part of my identity. Perhaps it can become a part of your identity too.


Weston Koyama

Bio: Weston Koyama, a fourth generation Oregonian and Japanese American, seeks to articulate the nuances of the human experience through the written word. Weston’s writing touches on his experiences living and studying in Oregon as he explores the many different ways of being Asian American in contemporary society. His current project involves articulating how the trauma caused by Japanese American incarceration during World War II continues to affect present generations. Weston hopes to someday publish his work for a larger audience. Currently, Weston studies at the University of Oregon School of Law where he is a J.D. candidate in the class of 2019. Weston is the first Minoru Yasui Fellow at the University of Oregon in addition to serving as a Wayne Morse Fellow. He also currently serves as co-president of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at the University of Oregon. His other interests include disability activism, piano, and computer technology.