When you think about it, we’re really no more than a bunch of numbers.
35 trillion blood cells, 4.9 million hairs, and 10,000 taste buds — these are just some of the approximate quantities that make up the average human being.
Even genetically, we can be reduced to a set of percentages: 25% Japanese, 25% Okinawan, 19% Scottish, 11% German, 7% English, 7% Russian, 3% French, 2% Irish, and 1% Norwegian — these are the values that make me.
That’s a lot of variation for just one person.
So, when someone asks me what color my hair is, do I tell them that most of my hair is dark brown, with the exception of Hair #43953, which is a slightly lighter brown?
Or, when they ask me the infamous “What are you?” question, do I rattle off a series of percentages that mean nothing to them?
No, because I have learned that these numbers do not mean anything to me either.
My quest for my self-identity is a fairly recent struggle of mine, characterized by long nights staring at my ceiling, just trying to make sense of it all.
One of the first instances in which I began to question what I wanted to be called was the AncestryDNA test given to me as a Christmas gift two years ago. I was incredibly eager to explore my hidden heritage, and while the stories I had heard growing up made it very clear that I was of Japanese and German descent, the prospect of being a part of something else sparked a great amount of curiosity within me.
However, when the results arrived, that curiosity quickly died and disappointment set in. The 7% Russian was certainly interesting, and the almost 20% Scottish was significant for someone who is only half Caucasian. But it was the only 11% German that was the most disheartening to see.
Practically raised by her German immigrant grandmother, my mother proudly forced my siblings and me to down bitter batches of sauerkraut and would call us down to hinsetzen at the dinner table when we were too rowdy. She would tell us tales of the sizzling, hot plates of German egg pancakes served with sweet jams, and the jars of pickled everything — ranging from onions to cucumbers to eggs — that had lined the pantry of her childhood home.
Her stories were countless and abundant.
So, does 11%, a seemingly insignificant number, invalidate our cultural identity? Does it make my family a bunch of imposters, trying to model our lives after the shadows of someone else’s culture?
Now, here I am at 18 years old, wondering why this is all so complicated. Do I call myself hapa, as my family always has referred to me? Or possibly, should I proudly declare that I am a Nikkei for anyone willing to listen?
My relationship with titles and identities — and perhaps your own, too — has increased in complexity over time. But I believe that this is indicative of something so incredibly human: our need to be honest with ourselves.
For some, it is the affirmation of their gender that crafts their identity. Maybe they have never felt comfortable hearing “she” or “her” roll off the tongues of others, because that is never what they had envisioned themselves to be. And when they go to meet up with a new friend for coffee and ask to be referred to as “they” and “them,” they can happily sip on a latte as they realize that their new story begins, finally comfortable in their own skin.
Pronouns have become one increasingly common form of identification. As the pandemic rages on and our work is condensed into weekly Zoom meetings, employees are encouraged to present their pronouns next to their names, leaving no room for blunders of misgendering or mislabeling. Even in many of my classes, professors often ask for their students’ pronouns — a new, 21st-century form of courtesy and kindness.
Ethnically speaking, we might find also ourselves fluctuating between titles and identities in hopes of seeking something that correctly encapsulates our upbringings.
Just recently, I saw someone refer to himself as a term that I had never encountered before: Sansei .5 — a title that was meant to indicate his status as a child born from parents of two different generations, a Sansei and a Yonsei. It was quite witty and absurdly clever, but what struck me was that the term had told a story — the story of two Nikkei from two generations who came together and created a family.
I believe that we’re all innately drawn to the desire to belong to something bigger than us. Whether we find it in our schools, work, or religion, the stories and lessons we learn all connect us to our communities. So, when we tell others that we’re a college student, a lawyer, or a Buddhist, we summarize our experiences into a simple, easy-to-digest phrase. The weight of our words shapes the person that we want to be, and the person we want others to see.
Curious about how others identified themselves, I asked around, “How do you identify yourself?”
For one person, identity manifested in the description of “a bisexual Cuban immigrant woman, anti-imperialist socialist activist, and professional artist.”
For one of my school friends, it was the much simpler, “I identify as a human being.”
Despite the range of responses, there were neither right answers nor wrong answers — only words that dictated a sort of shorthand for the experiences we’ve lived and the stories we want to pass on.
And, as complex as my own personal journey has become, I believe that I am beginning to form an identity that fits the experiences I have lived and faced: I am a Japanese-German Yonsei, who comes from third-generation Japanese and German parents. I am the stories I have heard, and I am the stories I want to tell.
But, most importantly, I am the most honest version of myself that I have ever been.
The question now is — who do you want to be?
Kyra Karatsu is a native of Southern California and a first-year college student in journalism. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.