May 30, 2009

What is a "Half"?

“She is so adorable. Half kids are always so cute.”
When we start a conversation with strangers, they frequently compliment Naomi and I on how cute Elena is and then refer to her in some way as a "half" child. Always intended as a positive comment, it is simply a banal way to begin a chat. People all over the world use trite words or phrases to greet other people they don’t know very well to break the ice. Still, this word "half" does echo Japan’s national psyche regarding its biracial children. A Japanese word – spelled and pronounced halfu in the English alphabet – has quickly gained currency. This is in large part due to the statistically small, but highly visible (sic) increase in the number of kids of mixed race in Japan. That said, Lady E. is a typical half kid. Does this label imply she is Eurasian, mixed, Canadian-Japanese, or Japanese-Canadian? Or does half mean only half-of-something, viz. not Japanese enough? It can be confusing trying to fathom the cultural intent.
For those people who are overly concerned with semantics, because I work in the auto industry, I suggest we refer to these multiracial wunderkinder as hybrids. Just kidding!

A stereotypical view of Japan is that it is a homogeneous nation. One people, one language, one history (and one time zone). Thus, you are either Japanese, or you are not. Such a binary view boils down to this: when it comes to race and identity, you can't really be partly Japanese or live two cultures at the same time. This concept was difficult for me to grasp the first few years I lived here because I hail from Canada, a young country that trumpets its multicultural makeup as one of its social attributes and a significant source of national pride. Viewed from the perspective of a society founded on the merits of the melting pot and/or multicultural mosaics, Japanese society’s relatively insular view of itself, and the new words such as half which are used to describe ongoing changes in its makeup, are hard to understand. But Japan isn’t the only country in the world where kids are of mixed parentage. So will her half status be a burden or a blessing for Lady E. down the line?

Allow me reduce this to a personal level with a few observations. My experience with mixed race or mixed nationality kids (i.e. have dual nationality, or kids who physically look Japanese but do not speak the language fluently, or were reared in a different culture, and thus find it hard to conform socially) is that they can have a hard time in a society that highly encourages fitting in. These children are different from the norm. Issues such as bullying in schools and discrimination (whether or overt or unconscious) are real. Also, factor in high expectations from both sides of the family to master two or more very difficult languages. Then include being singled out and treated differently, for better and for worse, every now and then. Finally, note that Japan does not recognize hyphenated names, and dual nationality kids must choose which country they want to identify with by the age of 22.

On the other hand, Japanese society is changing. Japan is beset by a low birthrate and is slowly but surely coming to realize it has to rethink some longstanding attitudes toward female roles in society and immigration policies. Plus, it has had decades of interaction with other cultures through internationalization efforts such that its parochial tendencies are ebbing. The impact of the Internet in bridging language and geographic barriers helps, too. Also, a wave of TV personalities who are of mixed parentage have become famous. In fact, the most popular female Japanese TV personality in 2008 was a young half woman named Becky, whose face is ubiquitous throughout Japanese media. Finally, two words: President Obama. If America can transform its thinking about race so dramatically, then there ought to be sprouts of optimism and hope worldwide for similar changes elsewhere.

So when I contemplate how we will prepare the Rising Daughter to navigate the various social obstacles and opportunities that she will come across in her life, I believe the answers lie in old chestnuts. Being a half kid brings with it the advantage of not being constrained to one choice. Being open-minded and tolerant will enable her to be the best she can be in a world that most likely will never be completely ethnically-neutral. Mental agility will allow Elena to express her identity in her own way. I am confident we will be able to impart these qualities to her in the years to come.

Learning from those who walked the same road before also yields some fresh perspectives. One of my co-workers, Michele, is half Japanese, half American, and she is an amazing source of practical wisdom for Lady E. One of these nuggets is: “As a senpai of your daughter, I want to tell her... although it may be tough, I believe that one of our responsibilities is to spread the good part of the other culture...” Very cool. Dale Carnegie mixed with a dose of the United Nations.

So I have concluded that what I will say when people ask what I think a half really is: a half is a lot more than one.

May 23, 2009

A Tale of Two-Wheeled Woe

This one is just a rant. Because I can.

I’ve been driving motorcycles since I was 20. I love the damn things even though I’m well aware of the dangers involved. For me, the fun-to-drive factor outweighs the risk. As an incurable motorcycle enthusiast, it pains me to reveal my dark secret to you: I am now a shell of a man, a mere fraction of what I once was, for I now drive a scooter.

I reported on the passing of my beloved Kawasaki Eliminator due to a road mishap in a prior post: Since then, I’ve been driving my beautiful wife’s not-so-attractive “Suzuki Let’s II CA1PA” 50 cc scooter to work and around the city. Why no brawny replacement for the Kawi? The global economic meltdown has contracted my economy.

Aligned with this drawdown, I had to “reprioritize” my finances, which meant my wheels shrank from this proud stallion... this overgrown skateboard-with-a-motor.

(The add-on rear hard case trunk was my idea. If I am compelled to ride a moped, I want to ramp up the geek factor to the maximum.)

Is “engine displacement” still a measure of a man?
You bet your sweet ass it is.

Younger men, with their decorative girlfriends or wives riding on the back of their bikes, snicker and point at me now during my commute home in the evening. They rev their engines tauntingly. And as a Dad, erstwhile pillar of society and responsible head of a nuclear family unit, I have to eat it. But my inner thug cries out to go well over the speed limit on twisty roads and hang it out a tad. I think I deserve to rev it up a little--
don’t we all? Also, thinking long-term, when the Rising Daughter has risen and is off on her own life adventure, I want to take Naomi out again for the occasional touring foray into the pavement jungle.

The solution to this sorry state of mobility affairs?
a) wait for the lottery tickets to hit the big one. “Hello BMW salesman!”
b) B-A-I-L-O-U-T
c) your donations are welcome (please send me your contact points through the comments feed) :)

C’mon, folks, let’s extend a leather-gloved helping hand.