In the basement of the finest and perhaps most politically controversial restaurant in Oberlin, OH – an Asian fusion restaurant that dares combining ciabatta and seaweed – I sat somewhat dumbfounded by my company: ten other student leaders of Oberlin College political organizations and our esteemed guest, Lt. Dan Choi. Patiently waiting for my ramen dish (sans organic fish cake), I listened to my peers pelt questions in Lt. Choi’s direction. Finally, a pause in the conversation just long enough for me to muster the courage to speak my mind. After twenty minutes of blabby mainstream environmentalism, I felt prepared to add some color to the table. In the company of all white people withstanding one other student and the revered guest himself, I felt a moral (and intellectual) obligation to ask Lt. Choi about race.
How has your Asian American experience affected your military life? Your queerness? Your activism?
In his response, I first heard the term “closeted Asian.” Comparing his race to his sexuality, Lt. Choi surmised that he often felt more like a closeted asian than an inconspicuous queer. The term – analogous to its sexually-oriented counterpart – refers to the socially induced phenomenon of Asian people hiding or distancing themselves from their racial, ethnic, and cultural identity in hopes of feeling more “normal.” This is a common trend, especially for those who grew up in racially stratified, yet color blind suburbs that seem to sprout all across the country.
Although I grew up in a NJ suburb with racial tensions divided along a strict black/white paradigm, I never went through a “closeted Asian” moment. In fact, during my adolescence I flaunted my ethnic background, undergoing multiple transformations that asserted my Japanese cultural citizenship. My racial identity has always been one of my most visible and openly performed identities. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for my ambiguous racial appearance, I grew up stressing my identity through Japanese tropes: listening to Utada Hikaru, eating nato, using cutesy stationary, and most unfortunately dressing Harajuku style when I was in middle school. And although it bothered me to hear my friends and peers constantly remind me that I “look so Asian,” I felt so much pride for that part of myself. I let my culture/ethnicity lead me as a mediator between the black/white outlook that beset the people around me. When I heard Lt. Dan Choi utter the term “closeted” I naively perceived myself above it.
A wiser, more introspective version of myself can assertively determine that I was wrong. I may not have been a closeted Asian, but I was closeted. I hid the other half of my ethnicity – my mother’s history. I am a Jew, yet I never cared to make this a defining factor of who I was. I never had a bat mitzvah, however I did grow up under menorah lit December nights, fasting, and the Afikoman during Passover. I remember my mom recounting a fantastical version of the Maccabees. I remember synagogue on the high holy days, and Jewish pre-school where my sister and I were scolded because we looked different from the other kids. I remember so much of my Jewish upbringing, yet for some reason I have masked these experiences by an overarching “Asian experience” that I claimed my own.
As multiracial, multiethnic people, we must constantly negotiate our different backgrounds. For a long time I felt like I needed to choose between Judaism and my Japanese heritage, there was no compromise. Although, I still don’t feel like I have reached a point of complete serenity in terms of race, I am way more aware than I was before. I don’t claim one racial category because I don’t feel like I fit the current constructed molds. Like many other multiracial people, I consider myself in a liminal state not quite conforming to a single race. I identify as Japanese, Asian American, and Jewish all at the same time as interconnected entities. This is who I am, no longer closeted.