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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Grow

The Realities of Being Half (ハーフ) : Part One - Being Half American in America

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

When I married a non-American, I actually did not carefully think of the repercussions, like if my future children would fit in society. I think anyone with a mixed-race child perhaps might have to eventually deal with this even if you are both American. Looking back, I was warned long ago by a Japanese acquaintance from rural Gifu upon my telling her I was engaged to a Japanese man. She smiled sweetly and said, "Deborah San, his parents will never accept you." I laughed it off, but actually it took some acceptance on both family sides. Although I am from Virginia, I lived far away from home for many years (Chicago and then New York) after I graduated from college and my parents gradually became used to my nontraditional choices.

Just like the song - I love New York where I made my home for many years. I felt really free there. You could love and procreate as you like - or not! All three children were born in New York City. They were free. They were half American and half Japanese. In New York - it was no problem! I even had them in the manner that I chose, at a birthing center with a lovely midwife, a nurse and with my husband and dearest friends at my side. I did not go to the hospital. I did not have a doctor in attendance. I did not stay in the hospital for 5 days to a week as is usual in Japan. I had my children and went home the same day. Again, not for the faint-hearted, but it made me happy.

Mashu, Maya and Sanshiro 2000
The Murao children, Christmas 2000

Just before Mashu (the oldest) was born, we moved from midtown Manhattan to Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan. It was a lovely neighborhood and at the end of our street was a beautiful park that is home to The Cloisters, a Metropolitan Museum donated to the city by Nelson Rockefeller and houses medieval artifacts. We lived in a traditionally Jewish community and in our building, there were elderly people with tattoos on their arms, and I am not referring to the modern kind. On my floor, I befriended the elderly ladies who had lived through so much and would try to help them as I could with shopping and the like. They were kind to Hidetoshi, despite the fact he was Japanese. This is New York at its best.

Fort Tyrone Park, Washington Heights, NYC

The Cloisters Museum, Washington Heights, NYC

As necessity would have it, I needed to work from home, so Mashu needed a sitter. A fabulous Argentinian woman, named Olga, was recommended to me. I went to meet her wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She was wearing a dress, with her make up perfectly applied, house tidy and 5 little girls playing nicely in the spotless living room. The smell of vegetable soup wafted from the kitchen. She told me she only kept girls. "Boys are too much trouble," she chided me as she looked at my young son. I assured her I understood but Mashu was different. Truly he was! He was amazingly well behaved. We even took him to his uncle's Japanese Shinto wedding, where everyone had to sit quietly for about 40 minutes. I was completely confident that he could do it and he did. All the mother's in our neighborhood playgroup would say, "Wow! What are you doing? Mashu is such a great boy!"

Olga, the babysitter, gave him a trial run and was convinced. She outdid her reputation as an excellent babysitter. She potty trained all the children in her care and her husband taught them soccer. What a family!

One time Mashu had done something out of line at home and I put him in the corner to sit and think about what he did wrong. He sat there and then finally I asked him what happened at Olga's when he did something wrong. "Does Olga ever make you sit in the corner?" He paused for a second and then said, "Olga's house doesn't have any corners." Olga laughed when I told her the story and added, "No corners, just lollipops!" Touche!

In fact, I felt pretty cocky in my mothering abilities, up until Maya was born. I couldn't take her ANYWHERE. She would run and yell and disrupt everything. The same moms looked at me with pity and said under their breath, "What is she doing? That girl is out of control!" We moved from the neighborhood before Olga could reject Maya from her babysitting members.

When Mashu was 3, we decided to enroll him in the local preschool which in our neighborhood was Jewish, the YHCA. Mashu had two wonderful teachers, young Shellie and the veteran teacher, Ruthie. One Friday, Mashu came home and announced, "Ruthie is so smart! She can speak Chinese!" I realized he was referring to the Friday Sabbath prayers recited each week by Ruthie. And so, we just praised different cultures in our house.

The following year, we moved out of Manhattan. We had a plan to move to Japan and in order for Mashu to learn Japanese we signed him up for a Japanese kindergarten in Westchester County. I felt like I was moving to a different country, not a different county. I shed more than a few tears to leave Manhattan.

Mashu was the only half Japanese in his small Japanese kindergarten. Mashu's class had ten students and although Mashu did not speak much Japanese, he soon made friends and became fluent.

He did run into one problem with a boy one grade older than him, who was a bit of a bully to him and threw his Elmo backpack in the trash can. I don't think that the problem was he was not a fan of Sesame Street. The school duly took care of it and we had no more problems. To this day, Mashu and I both can remember that boy's name.

The kindergarten moms were typical Japanese ex-pats. They lived near other Japanese, went to the Japanese supermarket, the Japanese hairstylist and pretty much lived in a Japanese world during the time they were in America.

We once went trick-or-treating at a building when almost all the residents were Japanese. One of Mashu's good friends lived there and all the little Japanese children were dressed up and would ring a doorbell to be greeted by "Kawaii" (Cute!) Some residents just left baskets of candy in the hallway, trusting the children to each take only one. Can you imagine how that would work anywhere else?

Just when Mashu had truly fit in the Japanese world, we moved to Virginia for one year, while Hidetoshi went to graduate school in London. We moved within America but truly we moved to a different culture. Although there are many lovely people, we were now living in a much more homogeneous area. We lived in a small city near my hometown in a very conservative area of central Virginia where at that time, Asians were rather rare.

Mashu was enrolled in the local public school. Maya was three and attended a local church preschool. I was home with Sanshiro and doing some computer work from home. Mashu had to start all over. He had just learned all his hiragana and katakana and although he knew his ABCs and was fluent in English, he could not read. On top of that, he was late to start the school year because Sanshiro decided he was quite comfortable as an inside baby and made his debut into the world ten days late.

Mashu was assigned to a terse first-grade teacher who was not exactly thrilled by the prospect of one more student. I don't think she would fare well in Japan where a typical class is 30-35 even for first-grade.

About 6 weeks after Mashu joined the class, I had my first parent-teacher meeting with said teacher. The first thing, I noticed was she didn't have his name on the bulletin board with all the other children's names. She matter-of-factly informed me she did not think he could pass first grade because he could not read. He did not meet the standard. I informed her she had not properly included him in the class and he WOULD read and I assumed it would be without her help.

We began the family reading project. I worked with Mashu, my sister helped and lent us an online program that her children had used and my niece, Lauren (9 years old) at the time started playing school for Mashu and his cousins. She even had a teacher's bell! In six weeks' time, Mashu stool in front of the class and read "Green Eggs and Ham" and went on to read 100 books in first grade and received a reading prize. Take that!

Poor Mashu, in addition to his reading struggles, had some bullying problems as well. One big boy in his class called him "China Boy" since as we all know, all Asians look identical. For the first time, Mashu had no friends. I became his soccer buddy playing in the field outside our townhouse.

We made our own fun at home, for instance, I would put a mattress on the floor and then pretend it was the gymnastic event at the Olympics. I would call, "Mashu Murao". He would have to raise his hand and say, "はい" (yes) then do a front roll and a back roll. Maya and I would clap and cheer. Then it would be Maya's turn. She, at age three, could do it as well.

Sanshiro was watching and I assume thinking, "So this is what you are supposed to do!" Little did I know, she and Sanshiro would later be doing gymnastics and literally turning flips in our house in the evening. It was like I had brought up a family of trained seals!

Maya had her own troubles in being half or so her teachers thought. At 3, she was not talking very much. The director of the preschool recommended that she go to speech therapy. I am not opposed to speech therapy, of course, but I knew she was fine. She just did things when she was ready. When she walked for the first time, she walked steadily across the room. When she tried riding a bike with training wheels at 2 and a half, she rode it without wobbling and even turned in circles. Maya talked a lot at home, but most of it was nonsense sounds and with recognizable words at the end such as "Daddy" or "rice". But she got her point across.

Later in Japanese kindergarten, she had notebooks full of the same patterns, a lot of tiny scribbling on the lines (I think imitating cursive writing) and then a smattering of recognizable Japanese or letters of the English alphabet. Some scholars argue that two languages at home is confusing for a child but I actually think she just had her own style. Soon she was talking away in complete sentences.

In the meantime, she had her unique ways of communicating like greeting her best friend, Andre, in preschool. Each morning, they would see each and their hello was to lift their shirts and show their bellies. Weird, but very cute!

Later, she did the same kind of thing at a Japanese kindergarten with a little blonde-haired Russian boy. When they saw each they would give a weird salute with their right hands outstretched from their foreheads. So Maya was not only half but also unique! She got along fine.

Happily for Mashu, eventually, he fit in too. He is really good at making friends so before long, the boy who called him "China Boy" became his friend and just before we left Lynchburg and moved to Japan, Mashu had a birthday party attended by a house full of friends.

But our adjustments were not over, now we all had to start over yet again, this time in Japan. Next time, I will share some thoughts about being half Japanese in Japan.

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