“A child born mid-flight has no nation. I can pull on either culture, but they will always melt like a dream, trickle away, water on the oiled pelt of foreign.” —Jasmine Ann Cooray
I learned Spanish in a classroom in Southern California. My Japanese is non-existent.
It is an awkward moment at the Japanese market when the Japanese checker speaks in her native tongue and I stare blankly. Whenever I see a fellow Spanish-speaking person, I talk to them in Spanish. I get a strange look because in their eyes, I am a “Chinita.” I often float through social spaces telling both sides, that yes, I am one of yours.
My mother identifies as Mexican American. My father identifies as Japanese American. My family was wedged between poor/working-class, depending on the whims of the economy. For over 30 years, my father drove 90 miles both ways from suburbia into Los Angeles for work. My parents always ensured that my brother and I had what we needed to thrive. My grandparents spoiled us with the latest toys and books. As a child, I read copiously. We grew up in a suburb that was predominantly white in Southern California. As a mixed child, it was difficult to fit in with the other kids so books became my friends. I loved books about France. I dreamt one day of moving to Provence to live among the lavender fields.
There was a underwritten understanding for my brother and I that we were a trifecta of Mexican, Japanese, and American. Food was the way we intermingled the two cultures. In our home as children, we loved eating cheese enchiladas with Japanese white rice. On Christmas Eve, we continue to eat tamales and menudo. On New Year’s Day, we eat mochi and Good Luck noodles.
My brother and I deal with the same question from the outside world, “Well, what are you exactly?” As an adult, I simply respond, “I am an Asian Latina born on U.S. soil.” As a child, I would get confused and angry as to why it even mattered.
I landed at the doorsteps of Cal State Los Angeles in 2004 with hopes to double major in Chicano and Asian American Studies. I never really felt at home in either subject because at the time, mixed people were not a subject of serious inquiry. I also never felt fully “Asian” because my Japanese grandparents raised my father and aunt in El Sereno, an enclave of Los Angeles that is predominantly Mexican. This was further muddled by the fact that my brother and I were raised by our Mexican American mother. Chicano studies was alienating for me because I didn’t have actual ties to Mexico. Speaking Spanish with my peers was awkward because I was often told I spoke Spanish like the colonizers.
Feeling out of place, I took refuge in the Department of English. I began to cling to my first language because my mother often told me, “Learn your first language really well and make it your own.” I took to comparative literature and became fond of Albert Camus. Camus, the son of a Spanish mother and French Algerian father gave voice in his writings to how I felt most of my life: absurd, contradictory and seeing the world as nebulous space.
After reading Camus, I entered the history department as a double major wanting to study French colonial Algeria. It was suggested that I take a class with a historian who focused on French and U.S. history. I was not a fan of U.S. history. In high school, U.S. history was taught in the vein of nationalist narratives of American identity and white people. But, since this particular professor wrote and published extensively on U.S. and French diplomatic history, I figured I could learn more about the former French colony of Algeria.
The professor opened the class with two questions: What are borders? How have people transcended them? That quarter, we worked through these questions by looking at immigration, the global implications of the Cold War, borderlands, and the colonization of Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Philippines. This class shifted the way I viewed U.S. history. I learned that there is a long history of marginalized people who have been actively erased. After the class, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school to study this new subfield of U.S. history that focuses on empire and transnational connections: U.S. and the World.
Entering graduate school was a huge game changer for me. I was the first in my family to complete college and enter graduate school. I didn’t want to squander my opportunity. I wanted to tear down nation-centered history because colonial spaces like Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Haiti, and Guam were erased from our history textbooks, which was a grave injustice. As someone who felt erased and ignored from mainstream America, I could connect to these histories.
My advisor opened my eyes to the field of U.S. and the World. Dr. Christopher Endy armed me with training that prepared me to think about our nation’s past beyond it’s conventional borders. Generally, U.S. historians take courses that are topographic such as the 1970s or themes within a major event like the Civil War. I took a few traditional U.S. history courses, but participated heavily in independent studies and seminars that challenged the very idea of nation. I delved into nation-building, human rights, global history, and religion in U.S. foreign policy. I independently read and critiqued post-colonial theory, development and modernization theories. I became highly fluent in French, the language of colonial elites, diplomats, and my beloved Albert Camus.
In our current era of harsh borders, the erasure of Latinos and Asians from the fabric of North American mainstream society, anti-immigrant and migrant fervor and hyper-nationalism, my education is helping me make sense of these United States.
Identity-wise, I still feel neither here nor there. However, the cruelty of our times has made me fully appreciate my unique blend of cultures. Division is seen throughout society but my family and I are closer than ever. I continue to have an uncomfortable relationship with American identity. I was born in the United States, but I do not feel kinship with the majority of people who call themselves solely American.
Long ago, I accepted my place as a stranger in my nation and cultures. The absurdist xenophobic nationalistic commentary of “if you don’t like it here go back to where you came from” is especially idiotic for mixed folks or those residing in colonies. No one should be here on the mainland except indigenous people. I can’t split myself between Mexico or Japan. I wouldn’t fit into either place because of language barriers. Colonized people who come here didn’t want whites to invade their lands. The majority of us are strangers to the white elite invention of America as a nation whether we are conscious of it or not.
This dark period of this nation’s checkered history also puts a personal spotlight on my family’s transnational past. The challenges that shaped my grandparent’s generation seem to be recycling themselves yet again in the 21st century. This simultaneously horrifies me and creates deeper connections to my grandparents because they too lived in midst of concentration camps and massacres of Latinos. They too also felt like strangers in the United States.
My Japanese grandfather, Teru “Ted” Tambara, was incarcerated as a U.S.-born citizen at Manzanar during World War II. During his life, he never discussed the horrors of his incarceration as a child. He served as a Green Beret jumping from planes during the Vietnam War. After the war, he worked as a public servant for the City of Los Angeles. My grandfather devoted his life to serving this nation. An avid reader, he cherished local and ethnic print media. He read the LA Times and the Japanese newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, every morning as a means to connect to his culture and community.
My Japanese grandmother, Keiko Tambara, stood on the deck of her father’s fishing boat off the coast of South Korea as the U.S. dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. As a consequence, she suffered a life of trauma. She married my grandfather and immigrated to the U.S. during the Korean War. She spent her life missing Japan deeply. Just like her granddaughter, she felt like a stranger in the United States.
My Mexican grandfather, Anastasio Armas, was a Zoot-Suitor during World War II. My grandmother detested that he spent so much money on a suit. In context of the horrific Zoot Suit Riots, where Mexican American youth were violently attacked by white men. My grandfather wore the suit as a symbol of rebellion against the anti-Mexican fervor of 1940s Los Angeles. He later went on to reluctantly serve in the U.S. Army. He was stationed ironically, in Japan during post-WWII reconstruction.
My Mexican grandmother and whom I was named after, Luz “Lucy” Armas, stood in soup lines during the Great Depression. As a teen, she worked as a waitress in her aunt’s restaurant in Freeport, Texas. She served Black customers during a time when Mexican businesses were segregated from Black businesses. My grandmother, like my mother, was light-skinned. They spent a significant portion of their lives feeling like strangers in their community of East Los Angeles because they were considered neither Mexican American nor Chicana based on their skin color and minimal ties to Mexico.
Historical moments which impacted people of color such as the Zoot Suit Riots, segregation between Latino and Black communities, and in-depth dives into Japanese Incarceration are erased from U.S. history textbooks. As a consequence, the history of people of color in this nation spent much of the 20th century written through the Nativist narrative of Americanization by white historians.
Americanization embraces the false belief that people of color undergo a process of shedding their cultural and ethnic identities in order to become a “American” in the United States. American is defined only in relation to elite white cultural values—like speaking English only in schools and at home. This view of history falls flat because systemic racism, anti-immigration and colonial policies based on race have always put people of color in the position of “other” and strangers in lands they call home. This is despite the fact that many served in the U.S. military and changed their names from Teru to Ted or Luz to Lucy to sound more “American.”
In the Age of Trump where Americanization lives on, I look to my nebulous identity for guidance. In 2019, I know what my grandparents knew—this nation was built and sustained by the marginalized with the belief that one day Democracy could only be actualized through the inclusion of all.
The only difference is in our contemporary times, I can unapologetically be Asian Latina and dream of a world beyond borders and nationalism.
Lucy Keiko Tambara is an educator who lives in California. She tweets from luludoesyoga.