STORY: How Travel Helped Me Learn To Love Myself
Flying back to Japan after meeting my American family. Less than a year old.
DIFFERENT STROKES, DIFFERENT FOLKS
"Where are you from?" asked my driver as I hopped into the back of his car in a narrow alleyway of the Thamel district of Kathmandu.
"Chicago!" I cheerily replied. The name of my home was always sitting on the tip of my tongue when I met new people while traveling. Asking where someone is from is the most common way to break the ice, so it's not difficult to be prepared with an answer when you're on the road. As famous as I tend to think Chicago is, experience has taught me that it's not always the most recognizable American city to others. For my driver this seemed to be the case as he cocked his head to the side in thought for a moment before following up with "USA?"
"Yes, the US." I answered, pulling the seat belt across my chest and fastening the latch. He nodded his head for a second before stopping and tilting his head inquisitively to the side again. And then it came.
"Are you sure? You have Chinese face."
My eyelids fluttered open and closed as if someone had thrown a drink in my face and I realized I was desperately fighting the urge to retort with a snarky comment. Back home in the US a comment like that would immediately be recognized as a bit offensive because as a general rule we avoid talking about race when first meeting someone. This wasn't home though and different societies have different rules of engagement. When you've just sat down in the back seat of a car in the middle of Nepal you have to suspend your gut reactions and learn to breathe a little bit.
"Yes, I'm sure." Tight lips with a hint of a smile. Forced or not, it worked as he nodded his acceptance of my answer and put the car into drive. As we weaved through throngs of people, animals, and rubbish strewn about the road, I gazed out into the chaos and laughed to myself - this wasn't the first and definitely would not be the last time I would face questions about my identity while globetrotting.
GROWING UP HAFUU
Race, to make the understatement of the year, is a complicated issue.
As an American of mixed race (Caucasian father, Asian mother) ancestry, it's a topic that has been a majority defining element of my life. But despite a dual racial identity and the added bonus of being gay, I like to believe I'm reasonably well-adjusted on the topic of my identity. Middle-aged "me" is happy in his skin and doing his best to enjoy life.
I wasn't always so self-aware and confident though.
My first memory related to race happened when I was in the first or second grade. My father was in the Navy and spent much of my early childhood years out to sea for long periods of time. Consequently I spent much of my time around my mother and her sister where the constant immersion in Japanese meant that it was my first language and the one I used most often. When it came time for me to enroll in school I immediately ran into problems - my English was not very good and I often found myself using Japanese with people that had zero understanding of what I was saying. It wouldn't be an issue if I had attended a Japanese school, but I started school in the US. As is common with children of just about any age, the teasing and ridicule started pouring in every time my mouth opened and I fumbled with English.
It had an immediate impact on me. My mother still remembers to this day the afternoon I came home with tears in my eye and screamed at her, "I wish I wasn't Japanese! Don't you EVER speak Japanese to me again. I AM NOT JAPANESE."
Some of my first years of schooling in the US.
Hovering between two worlds and not even old enough to understand why I felt pressure to belong to either one, I coped with my insecurities by rejecting my Asian background. I stopped speaking Japanese, I forced my mother to stop speaking it to me, and I did my very best to try to ignore that part of my life. As time went on I slowly lost my ability to speak the language and whenever people asked me, I would tell them that I was white. Despite living in Japan and despite being surrounded by children of military families from every background imaginable, I continued through my childhood years doing my very best to ignore the fact that I was Japanese.
Even during my time in college and my first few years of "adulthood", I actively choose to pretend I wasn't Japanese. Coming into my own as a gay man had introduced a new layer of complexity into my racial identity. It didn't take me long after my first toe dip into the dating pool to recognize that people valued white standards of beauty much more than they valued any other. I was met by a constant barrage of men telling me that they weren't interested in dating an Asian man. Physically I'm rather racially ambiguous with most people assuming I'm white or Latino. In some areas of the Midwest I am occasionally mistaken for Native American. But that's just the gut reaction people have to someone they're passing on the street. When it came to love and sex, suddenly what I had always perceived as something relatively invisible appeared to become a Time Square billboard.
CONFLICTED TIGER, UNHIDDEN DRAGON
For someone that had spent the majority of his life pretending he wasn't Asian, this was an earth-shattering experience. This was the world telling me that despite all my silly self-delusion, everyone saw through the charade. And what's more, that my fears had been true - being Asian was something bad.
As time went on my dating struggles continued. Most men, whether they themselves were white or not, weren't interested in dating someone who wasn't white. This was the dawn of the era of online dating and the gay community really took to this option as it allowed you to connect with one another in a safe space free of the fears of "being gay" in public. The anonymity of online dating creates distance from your humanity and inevitably that distance gets filled with brutal honesty. Raw human truth.
Just about every "hello" from me was met by a "sorry, no Asians" if I was lucky or a racial slur if I wasn't. On the rare occasion when someone was interested in dating me, many times it turned out to be someone who fetishized my race - men who were looking for a submissive Asian "boy" to fulfill some crazy Madame Butterfly fantasy. I hobbled along romantically for years wishing I was white instead of the mixed raced monster I felt like. What a double-edged sword I felt life had given me, to finally come to terms with my sexuality only to have that experience confuse me further about my racial identity.
This confusion continued at varying degrees until I ended up with my current boyfriend, Zach. As sweet as he is, even our first interactions were tainted by my previous experiences dating as a mixed race man. When he first contacted me on a dating website, he mentioned that he often found himself attracted to men who were "hapa", a Hawaiian pidgin term that means "mixed". While in Hawaii the term can mean a mix of just about any race, over the years it has also been used to denote individuals who are mixed with Asian in some way. Based on my previous experience with fetishists, I was immediately turned off by this message and essentially blew him off for three months until his persistence lead to me deciding that going on an actual date would demonstrate to him that we were not a love connection.
Seven years later, it's clear he won that argument.
It was refreshing to have someone in my life who was interested in my heritage but didn't turn it into a sexual quality. Someone who found my unique background an asset and not a liability. Someone who understood that I was attractive even if Asian men are almost never viewed as such in the American media. After a year of dating I was finally starting to feel comfortable in my own skin around him, but that didn't mean I had learned to embrace who I was.
That came once I started hopping on planes and exploring the world.
IT'S A BEAUTIFUL WORLD AND I'M A PART OF IT
I've always been very curious about the world around me. As a child I was fascinated by geography to the point that my mother would forgo reading me bedtime stories and instead would quiz me on world capitals. One of my favorite toys as a child was a globe you could plug into the socket and then use a magnifying glass to read facts about different countries in the world. It goes without saying - I was meant to explore.
My first trip into the wild unknown was back to my homeland - Japan. You may be shaking your head and muttering to yourself about how I'm half-Japanese and spent almost my entire childhood in that country, so it's not exactly "unknown". But you'd be wrong. Oh so very wrong. Having spent much energy since the age of fifteen trying to forget everything about my heritage and my life in Japan, not only was it a trip into the unknown but it was a trip that I didn't even know at the time that I desperately needed.
Waiting to board my flight on that first fateful trip back to Japan.
Since we had started dating, Zach had talked about his desire to visit Japan, to which I often said I wouldn't mind visiting but I really wanted to see places like India or Africa. Fate may have been conspiring against me though, as once we had decided to take a trip as a couple the first low-cost fare that popped into my view was a $400-ish round trip to Tokyo directly from Chicago. We booked it, we took it, and I found myself fighting back tears as we walked off the plane. To this day I still don't know what inside of me caused the waves of emotion, but I instinctively knew it was a positive thing.
Over the next 10 days in Japan I felt a healing process begin. Even though I had lived almost my entire childhood there, I didn't have the maturity to appreciate that part of my being. I was stuck in a juvenile state of denial, so my trip back was just the opportunity I needed to kick start my memory. As an adult that had struggled for so long with his racial identity and longed quell that endless fight, I re-entered Japan with a thirst for the beauty and uniqueness that comes with being Japanese. Unlike as a child where I sought to forget, I wanted to embrace everything that I had felt so embarrassed by in the past.
I felt rejuvenated by the trip, returning to Chicago with a renewed sense of self-love. The trip had awakened an intellectual curiosity within me that would start me on the long road to healing myself.
Since that trip over seven years ago I've attempted to return to Japan at least once a year. Japan is a fascinating destination that warrants extensive exploration within its own right, but the drive behind my constant pilgrimage is my desire to further explore everything I denied for so many years of my life. I get on an airplane and fly half way across the world but when I land I'm really arriving inside my soul. Each trip back to Japan is an opportunity for me to move the dial a little bit on learning about my background and about where I come from, and not only that, but to embrace them as positive parts of heritage.
Every morsel of Japanese food erases a sliver of the memory of people making fun of the food I ate as a child.
Every peaceful walk through a Shinto shrine erases a sliver of the memory of people telling me I should be ashamed of being from a group of people responsible for World War II.
Every biscuit fed to a tame deer in Nara erases a sliver of the memory of people asking me whether Japanese people eat dogs and cats.
Every dip into the volcanic-heated onsen simultaneously heals my body and my soul.
I can't say for sure whether I would have continued to struggle with my racial identity if I hadn't taken that fateful trip, but I do know that going back to Japan was the catalyst that kickstarted my desire to bring resolution to the conflict in my heart. Travel brought something to my life beyond the usual kitschy souvenirs and photographs that people expect, and I think it's important that people who seek travel think of the more philosophical benefits hopping across the globe can bring to your life.
YES, I HAVE "CHINESE FACE"
So that's where I find myself now - a hapa man approaching middle age who is just starting down the road to self-acceptance. It's really difficult to measure progress on something like self-acceptance though, isn't it? It's a subject that all of us work on in one way or another and the journey rarely, if ever, has a visible end point. And maybe that's why I'm still so enamored with travel - because I know there's so much work left for me to do.
Japan will always be a travel destination listed on my future itineraries because it's something I know I need to grow as a person. But that doesn't mean I won't continue to explore new destinations and cultures as time goes on, because every new culture I explore only further emphasizes how each nation on this globe is unique and beautiful. It's one thing to work on accepting myself, but if there's one thing that process has taught me is that we all also need to work on accepting each other.
This world is vast and it's filled with people of varying skin tones, religions, and beliefs. And let's be honest - it's very easy to let the fact that we are different get in the way of realizing that despite that we can still respect and love one another exactly the way we are. Travel is an excellent vehicle to allow you to get outside of your comfort zone and meet people that will challenge the way that you look at the world.
Just like traveling through Jordan and eating meals with Muslims gave me perspective on how I should react to the threat of terrorism. Or how traveling through India gave me insight into the impact of global poverty and how I view economics as an engine of change. Or even something as simple as traveling a few hundred miles within my own country to Mississippi giving me new eyes on how I view the American South.
Travel gives me an avenue to learn about myself and grow as a person, to overcome the barriers I built within my mind that prevent me from loving myself. And at the same time, travel gives me an opportunity to learn about the world we live in, open my mind, and more importantly open my heart. Having the opportunity to travel means I have an obligation to make sure when I interact with people in a foreign city or back home in Chicago that I am not contributing to a toxic society that made the younger version of myself so unsure about his place in the world.
So with that in mind I'll continue to board planes and march through new cities with my Chinese face held high, looking to learn a bit about myself while exploring this amazing world.