Culturally adrift


Theo Arbez

For most of my life I’ve paid very little attention to the fact that I am biracial: a mix between Japanese, French, English, Scottish, and maybe Spanish. The rare moments when it became obvious were when others pointed it out. A prime example is middle school, when the amount of jokes peaked about the size of my eyes or other body parts, food-related comments about rice or soy sauce, and fake accents. Looking back, “jokes” may not be an accurate description, but middle schoolers aren’t exactly known for their quality sense of humour. 

In later years, an opposite dynamic occured as people became more familiar with the idea of whitewashing. Discussions shifted toward me being “basically white” — an understandable conclusion given my complete lack of an accent, ambiguous racial appearance, and inability to speak any other language than English.

From left to right: my great aunt, great uncle, and grandmother.

My mother and my aunt.

But again, moments like these were rare. On the whole, race played little to no role in my understanding of my own identity. This was reflected in my own family. Family discussions of being Japanese were often directed toward Japanese culture in general and from a distance, or they were about older relatives who seemed, in some ways, more distant than Japan itself. Similar things were true of my father’s European heritage; it seemed we had a highly individualistic conception of identity.

Neither my mother nor my brother speak Japanese, though we do enjoy Japanese food and art. We very rarely had get-togethers with Japanese relatives, which only lent to the feeling that my family was small and fragmented. However, for the most part, none of this bothered me, and I didn’t feel any tension between the two sides of my biracial makeup.

However, this disregard for race changed after my grandmother passed away during the summer. As may be common when a family member dies, I realized things about her and about myself in her absence. 

My grandmother Lillian at 92.

I began to think that she represented my direct family’s last overt connection to Japanese culture. I lived upstairs from her in my third year of university, so I’d see her frequently to bring her lunch, or walk her dog. At this point, her short-term memory was quite poor, but her long-term memory remained. We had many conversations about her time growing up on Vancouver Island and the internment of her family during World War II. She would often repeat anecdotes of being nearly washed away during a flood on her way back from school, or of the way that her family’s horses had followed them to the edge of their property as they drove away to be imprisoned. 

Whenever I went to her house she would greet me at the door in Japanese, though I’d simply laugh and never bothered to learn what she was saying. Many of the letters and cards she gave me included my name written in Japanese. Following her death, I stayed in her house, and her absence became palpable. Part of this absence had to do with the lack of these overtly Japanese things that I was used to hearing and experiencing. My ignorance of my family’s history and culture became much clearer.

Despite my sustained ignorance, one thing has remained clear: the effect of Japanese internment during World War II. It is no stretch of imagination to presume that it greatly influenced how my grandmother’s generation contextualized their identity within Canadian society. My mother strongly believes that internment, as well as the racism that her parents faced in general, caused them to raise their children to blend in as much as possible. They dressed in Western clothing, attended predominantly white churches, and did not teach their children Japanese in a structured manner, and still, the community constantly rejected them. 

Even my mother, who grew up in Toronto during the ’60s, faced a kind of overt racism that I never experienced; she described being called a “Jap” and being spat at. The generations prior to my own had very legitimate reasons for not passing down the cultural knowledge that I seek today; our contexts are widely different. 

My great aunt Amy at age 96.

My great aunt and my mother.

When I realized that I am a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, and my grandmother, who died at 93 years old, was second-generation, it became clear how long this side of my family has lived in Canada. Were I to learn from the experiences and knowledge of my remaining Japanese relatives, perhaps I would develop an understanding of Japanese-Canadian culture more than Japanese culture. Japanese-Canadian culture is reflected in my relatives’ Western dress, the significant amount of Western food my grandmother cooked, and the gradual disappearance of our Japanese language. 

Despite my own guilt about losing touch with this culture, I am cognizant that this process started long before my birth. My grandmother and her relatives lived their entire lives in Canada. And perhaps, Japan during that time ⁠— and indeed now ⁠— would resemble something quite different from their own experiences. Seeing as my interest extends beyond my family’s history and context, the process of exploration can’t necessarily be described as reconnection, but rather as a kind of starting anew. With this comes the feeling that I can choose which direction to move toward, which parts of Japanese culture to embrace, and which others to ignore.

My grandfather and my mother.

My great uncle and the dog, centre left, and some unrecognized faces.

I’d like to pause and address the film photos embedded in this article directly. Each is indeed worth a thousand words; however, as Susan Sontag describes, “Photographs which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” While looking at them, I began to wonder how a family would chronicle itself before photographs existed. While written and oral accounts would better convey continuity and history, it would be difficult to access such immediate and tangible memories through them. It feels as though I am in the opposite situation; these vivid scenes are before me, but they lack any significant context about who these people were, where they came from, and what they lived through. 

As wonderful as family photos are, it quickly becomes clear how inadequate they are when this context is missing, and how anecdotal my understanding of my family is. For example, my grandfather, pictured here several times, can only be described as a complicated and exuberant figure who skied and built a log cabin in the Rocky Mountains ⁠— someone who seemed to be full of life. However many other anecdotes that I won’t delve into for privacy reasons, show him to be — as many are — a deeply flawed individual. 

My grandfather, Buster, who went by Bus.

It has been an interesting process to connect dots like these. Many of the stories about my grandfather have caused me to look up to him very much, despite the fact that I never knew him well and remember nearly nothing of my brief time with him. However, this connection and admiration has little to do with him being Japanese, but rather is the result of the hilarious and exciting amalgamation of memories which have portrayed him as an almost beatnik figure. In fact, most of what I connect with actually seems more similar to my father, who is of European descent.

The crux of this article is me sorting out my chaotic thoughts on what it really means to be part of a culture, what role that culture plays in my own identity, and how much attention I want to devote to it. It is relatively easy enough to begin learning Japanese, cooking Japanese food, or reading about the history of its people; all that is needed is the requisite will, power, and patience. But several issues arise when I focus in on this. 

Firstly, why put so much attention on the Japanese side of my ethnic make-up? Yes, it is more unique and ‘exotic,’ but the other side is just as diverse and rich in history. 

I’ve found it strange when people, mixed race or not, pass off entire cultures under the vague and unimportant category of “white.” When others would comment that I was “basically white,” they were reflecting this sentiment. But I’d be equally as interested in delving into that other side of my racial identity.

Secondly and finally, I think that I’ve actually viewed being racially ambiguous as a privilege and enjoyed the individualistic kind of identity that my family has facilitated — one which lacks any clear group context. I have rarely felt beholden to either side, and I feel free to embrace whatever aspects I see fit. In a world in which racial identities can be so important in determining the way that people live and die ⁠— or are interned — there is a certain freedom in not connecting or being assigned to any culture, of remaining culturally afloat.

My mother, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather some time during the 1960s.

The prejudice which my family faced was unquestionably terrible and wrong. By the point at which they were interned, they had been present in Canada for two generations. Furthermore, they were interned for a war which was more centered around Japan and the U.S. than Canada, making them far removed from the Japanese who were waging war in the Pacific. They were legally citizens and contributed to their local communities. Despite this, their property and land — which they fostered for decades — was forcefully removed from them and they were eventually shipped across the country to Ontario without a proper say, all on the basis of their race. 

I also understand that much of it took place in a very different context. We were at war with Japan, and Canada was likely interning the Japanese as a capitulation to the U.S. and their stronger concern towards a Japanese threat. Furthermore, racism toward Asians undoubtedly predated the internment. While my relatives never spoke to this personally, a rudimentary glance at Canadian history will make this point clear. This racism likely went so far as to develop a view of Japanese and Asians in general as being substandard citizens, drastically lowering the bar for justifying their internment.

However, in a certain way, I am grateful that memories of the discrimination were not passed on in great detail, grateful that the resentment and fear that come along with being persecuted were not handed down and sustained. My grandparent’s efforts to assimilate my mother and aunt into white Canadian culture feels emblematic of those feelings. Indeed the difficulties my family faced is likely an important reason for there being a long and gradual process of cultural loss. This resentment and fear may have manifested in other ways, such as my grandmother’s very suspicious personality, or maybe my grandfather’s alcoholism, though these may also have existed independently as traits. There is no end to the amount of speculation or even projection that can take place when considering this history of discrimination and my own family history. 

My grandmother and great aunt at her 75th wedding anniversary.

I do think there is a risk for over expanding its influence and contextualizing my Japanese Canadian entity almost entirely around said racism and persecution. Despite wanting to know more about this period of my family’s history, in a certain way my ignorance around it places me in a position to better appreciate them as individuals, rather as part of a group identity framed around a collective suffering. Furthermore, the resilience which my relatives possessed and their ability to advance beyond their experiences of racism has constantly been notable to me. At the end of the day, they seemed to return to a certain degree of normalcy, being concerned primarily with their businesses, family affairs, and politics of the day. This would have run the risk of being ignored, had my family been stuck in the past.

I recognize that certain groups still face continued persecution in many real and immediate forms, robbing them of the ability to move on from such things. However, I feel that I have been given the opportunity to renew my family’s interpretation of their Japanese identity, given that I am racially ambiguous, live in a diverse and accepting city, and come from a comfortable socioeconomic background — all things which I am very much grateful for. I have no plans to ignore this part of my family history; if anything, I’d be interested in learning about this history beyond my own family.  

As of now I am nearly certain I’d like to have a family in the future. I often think about what I will be able to pass on to the next generation about everything I’ve discussed. Again, the legacies of prejudice my family faced should not and won’t be willfully forgotten, but I would prefer to embrace the culture for its own sake and for its own wonderfulness, rather than focus too heavily on past wrongdoings, or the suffering my ancestors experienced. Societies change and are capable of atoning, and seeing how the experience of internment influenced my grandmother, I would not desire to pass these feelings on to anyone.

My great uncle Mike at age 99.

A moment of irony transpired on a recent visit to my great uncle and aunt’s house in St. Thomas. After I described my motivation to learn more about Japanese culture, my great uncle showed me many family photos and a collection of original Japanese woodblock prints, and even gifted me a calendar with Japanese phrases translated to English. The first page reads, “Human ignorance is endless.” At the time I simply chuckled at it, but now it seems somewhat relevant. What spurred on this article was my own realization of the ignorance I have toward my family history and Japanese culture, the knowledge that I may never come close to remedying. 

Even during this visit, my great uncle attempted to update me on the goings-on of my other more distant relatives in the area, asking in a nonchalant manner if I knew who he was talking about. Somewhat guiltily, I responded no to nearly every name. The calligraphy on the calendar and the words my great uncle spoke in Japanese might as well have been Mandarin or Korean. 

But despite all this, I feel as though an exciting new beginning is on the horizon. Perhaps my feelings about my Japanese heritage will change completely in the near future, but in the meantime, I look forward to starting the gradual journey from ignorance to competence. While it is nearly impossible to conclude such a chaotic thought process, I will leave it at that, for now at least.

For Lillian. 

My grandmother and grandfather.

Photos provided by Theo Arbez

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