Recently a meme grabbed my attention and transported me back to 4th grade recess. The photo showed three eggs with different colored shells: one brown, one white and one pale pink, sitting next to three sunny side up eggs in a pan. The message of the meme was to explain racism and to remind us that we are all the same color on the inside. While I immediately thought of the playground of School 57, my experience there was not exactly the same as the meme.
My Mom and siblings and I, along with our Japanese Spaniel, Miss Puff, had just moved to Indianapolis, Indiana after my parents divorced. My teacher introduced me to my classmates as the new girl who had just moved here from Japan. My parents had been missionaries in Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, for my first ten years.
Looking back on that day, I don’t doubt I was different, although I thought I looked like my classmates for the first time in my life and was curious about them. I was a skinny white girl with brown hair and green eyes. That’s not what my classmates noticed first though.
My clothes were likely hand-me-downs from the mission box which usually arrived well after they were out of fashion. I was wearing high-water pants before they were stylish. I didn’t know any American TV references because I grew up watching Topo Gigio (a little cartoon mouse), Godzilla and sumo wrestling. I went to Japanese schools but had learned to read English after school with the Sally, Dick and Jane primers my Mom ordered from the States. I probably sounded funny and certainly didn’t know any cool slang.
When my new classmates stood up to play the recorder in music class, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know the first thing about it and consequently squeaked loudly until I just learned how to fake it. The xylophone, which had been my first instrument, was not part of the curriculum in my new school.
When we got to the playground that first day, and away from the teachers, the taunting began. The kids laughed and called me an “Egg!” “She’s white on the outside and yellow on the inside.” They chased me around the playground, stretching the corners of their eyes up to mimic Asian eyes, yelling, “The Japs are coming!” I was shocked and shamed. I didn’t understand why the kids were being so mean: these kids who looked like me and spoke English.
In Japan, where I looked different than all of my classmates, I had always felt special, treasured and cherished. I had learned noticed that I could make an awkward, shy friend, instantly popular by asking them to come to my house for a play date. When I got stitches in my leg one time, my classmates fought over who got to carry my books for a week. When my Japanese teacher told my classmates I was American, they excitedly asked me to teach them some English words. I knew I looked different: I towered over my friends who all had dark hair and beautiful almond eyes, but it didn’t matter at all. I spoke Japanese and wore a gray uniform and a red book bag to school just like all of my friends.
When my brother and I rode the trolley to school, I would hear other riders whisper about how large our noses were. In fact, it became one of our favorite games to sit very quietly, letting them talk about our ghost skin, big noses and fine hair. Right before we got off at our stop, Fred and I would start speaking fluent Japanese to each other and the gossipers would be mortified that we had understood everything they had said about us. None of that ever bothered me though. It was just a game and I felt admired for my differences, not shamed.
My Mom pulled us out of School 57 after a few months and we moved across town to a new school. It was my chance to start over. No one would know I was secretly Japanese. I would just be the girl who moved from another school. I quickly learned how to blend in. I watched Gilligan’s Island, That Girl and Dark Shadows after school. I ate Ding Dongs, Hostess Pies and Twinkies for snack. I stopped speaking Japanese, even at home. I still had no sense of fashion, but that didn’t matter as much at School 77. I became a crossing guard, went out for track , learned how to play kickball and joined the choir. I became more American and finally made some friends.
I missed my old life though. I missed tofu, rice balls, ramen and fresh fish. There was not much Asian food available in Indianapolis in 1969. One weekend, my Mom, drove us out into the country. She heard that the farmers were growing soy beans to feed to the cattle but it was not available in the grocery stores. Americans did not eat Edamame back in those days. We found a secluded spot to pull over. We climbed the farmer’s fence and picked a huge bunch of soybeans. My mom, the good missionary, stole soybeans from some cows. That still makes me laugh. But she did it to feed her homesick kids!
By the time I went to Indiana University, Asian food was plentiful and I had gotten over the need to hide my past. I didn’t realize how much I had reintegrated my Japanese childhood however, until my own boys were in third grade. I was volunteering in Cody’s classroom when one of his friend’s mom, Kazuyo, approached me. She seemed surprised that I was Cody’s Mom because she had assumed I was Japanese. When I laughed and asked her why, she said her son had told her that Cody was Japanese. That evening when I asked Cody why he told Grant that he was Japanese, he answered very innocently, “I’m not?”
In my attempt to share my own childhood, I had unwittingly led my kids to think they were Japanese. Sure, I raised them to love sushi, edamame and rice balls. And they could both count in Japanese and use chopsticks like pros. We had lots of Japanese art, dishes and for a time there was a kimono hanging on our bedroom wall. But didn’t they notice they were white boys? Apparently not. My dad had remarried a Japanese woman and they had a daughter, my half-sister, so the boys had a Japanese Grandma and a beloved aunt who looked Japanese. I never thought to sit my boys down and tell them they were white. It seems, I had raised two eggs, just like myself.
Thankfully, no one was making fun of my boys in school and no one cared what their nationality was because their classrooms were a mini United Nations, full of kids from diverse backgrounds. After I broke it to them that they were white, I figured we’d just move on and they’d get past their initial confusion. However, for International Days in 5th Grade, they both asked me to make rice balls to take to their classroom potluck to represent their ancestry! When I told them again they were not Japanese, Devin pleaded, “But our ancestors are!” I guess he meant his Grandma Takako. I couldn’t argue with that even though it wasn’t technically correct. Obviously they identified as Japanese. The rice balls won out.
Years later, when Cody was applying to NYU, he wrote an essay on the shock of finding out that he was white bread instead of white rice when he was in third grade. I actually love that he assumed he was Japanese and was proud of it, although I never wanted to cause either of my kids any confusion about their heritage. You can bet my future grand children will eat edamame! They might even identify as Japanese. I’m OK with that.