You look Japanese, but you aren’t.

I’ve never really felt like I fit in anywhere. Not in my entire life. (OK, that’s a lie, I felt like I fit in with my sisters… But then again, I don’t think that really ever counts…) I have always hovered somewhere on the outskirts of all the groups of people I’ve ever been around. Being in Japan, where people tend to look more like me hasn’t changed that either. Since moving here, I have learned a great deal about myself, and have solidified my ability to adapt and welcome the fact that I do not really actually, fit in… anywhere.

My friend Will, from the military base, tells me that I’m a chameleon (maybe that’s why it’s my favorite lizard). Like, you can’t figure out my ethnicity unless I tell you, and when I’m around a certain race of people, or trying to mimic the look (Tahitian dance) I often look like I belong with them. He’s not the first, and probably not the last person to tell me this. It’s always been a constant discussion topic in my life, and I love it. I am proud of where I’m from and who I’ve become. But it does leave me feeling sometimes like, “Crap, sorry you expected me to act a certain way because you thought I was a certain thing, but I’m not. My bad.”

Will and I yesterday before he leaves Aomori for Vegas :'(

Will and I yesterday before he leaves Aomori for Vegas 😥

I think I thought that moving to Japan, and being Asian would some how help me to feel more like I fit in with other people who looked like me. FINALLY, after years of walking around and sticking out, I was finally going to just blend in… wrong. I learned that really, I just blend in at all the wrong times, like, when I need to find out information and people insist on speaking to me in Japanese… even after I tell them I don’t speak it. Or, when they say something like, “Oh, well you know what I mean.” No. I most certainly do NOT know what you mean… I could be annoyed, but I’m not. It’s actually kind of funny, occasionally, after I tell a stranger I can’t speak Japanese or they get a glimpse of my ink, they just… completely stop talking… and a fog passes over their face and they go blank. Not sure of what to say. Usually, it’s something in Japanese again, and I all I can do is tell them “sumimasen”, smile, and wave goodbye. When I was thinking about the countless times I’ve been told I am something I’m not (Japanese), I’m constantly reminded why it really doesn’t bother me.

It’s cuz of mom..

Mamma and some of her siblings. From left to right: Rose, MOM, Rick, Joe.

Mamma and some of her siblings. From left to right: Rose, MOM, Rick, Joe.

When I was in about 1st grade I really had some gender identity questions. Like, totally real ones. I remember feeling so mad at my mom because I wasn’t born a boy. I can’t explain it more than that really. Everyone called it a phase, but it wasn’t like all the other kids’ “phases”. I really, genuinely, wanted to be a boy. It was the gender I identified with. It was a way for me to feel normal. I was young, no doubt, but I remember telling my mom I wanted her to call me Tommy. I would constantly insist that she called me Tommy… like a weirdo…

“It’s TOOOOMY. Moooom!” I’d tell her.

“But, your name is Tori.” she insisted.

“That’s a girl’s name.” I spat.

“ACTUALLY it’s not. It’s also a boy’s name. Besides, it’s just a name, you can be whatever you want.” she smiled.

“Whatever, I want to be a boy.” I sneered.

“Fine. Whatever. You’re still my kid.” She told me.

My mom. She really listened to me. She may have seemed to just brush it off, but she didn’t make a big deal about my insistence. She let me play with Ninja Turtles, dress like a boy, refuse dresses, chop off all my hair, SAY I was a boy, try to go by a BOY NAME. I would go out clean and come home muddy, bloody, and panting from running around with the other boys in the neighborhood. I understood what my body was, and that was not an issue. I’d use the girl’s bathroom, I’d say I was a girl when teachers would ask, but whenever I was in the supermarket or mall, and someone would tell my mom, “Oh you have such a cute son.” I’d hear my mom say, “That’s actually my daughter, but it’s fine, she loves that you think she’s a boy. Did you hear that Tori? You look like a boy!” I’d usually ball my fist, pulling it next to my side and let out a victorious, “Yesssssss.” She told me that no matter what, I was her kid. That no matter what, I was important to the world, and that I could really be anything or anyone I wanted to be. She never made me feel ashamed for not being sure, she never called it a ‘phase’, she never downplayed my feelings even as a child. She never made it seem like what I was saying was… weird. She explained things to me like I was older, and made me feel like I understood my feelings. Now, being older, I really think she believed I did. We had lots of discussions about boys and girls, and how other people might react. Usually, the discussions were mostly in the form of her asking me a bunch of questions, thus forcing me to analyze how I would respond to certain situations and people.

That's me, that handsome young boy on the right. With my mom, sissy April (left) and sissy Star (right)

That’s me, that handsome young boy on the right. With my mom, sissy April (left) and sissy Star (right)

I eventually met an actual boy named Tori in my neighborhood and humbly accepted the fact that it was indeed a boy’s name too. So, I stopped telling my mom that she should call me by some other made up name. Even though the insistence to call me Tommy stopped, my want to be a boy did not. I found everything about it easier. I could play, climb trees, hit things, belch. No one expected anything of my hair, clothes, or manners. In my PE classes my teachers always treated me like a boy too. “Tori, you’re strong like all the other boys! Hold your arm hang for 2 minutes. It’ll be easy for YOU.” All my friends were boys. I had one real friend that was a girl. ONE. And she was a lot like me. Thick-skinned, tough, dirty (in all sense of the word), and really felt like, not “one of the boys” but an actual one. In 4th grade there was a group of 3 boys who constantly mocked me, telling me that I was weird, ugly, and that I would NEVER look like a girl. Little did they know I had hoped it was true. Unfortunately for me, were they were so so wrong…

Then came the summer before 6th grade. That’s when my entire life came crumbling down around me… BOOBS.

I duct taped those sweater puppies for a couple months straight. Trying my hardest to hide them under my baggie shirts. If all my friends saw what was happening to me, my life would be over. They would see me for what I really was (as if they didn’t already) and I would be DOOMED.  The duct taping only lasted for a few months, and after that, I was a full C by the time I was 12… Twas a shame, but a reality I had to accept and appreciate. I think, that’s when for me, I was able to accept what I was. I feel lucky in that way, I know people whose gender is not tied to their bodies at all, but for me, I think I could have gone either way. Mom told me to love me for me, so, I was going to do just that. I transitioned rather easily, but for some of my prepubescent guy friends, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

I spent the years following that, just being me. I learned what it was like to look like a girl, feel like a boy, and feel good about myself. Since then I’ve spent my life pushing all the boundaries of sex and gender roles. I am a true feminist at heart, and believe I can accomplish absolutely anything regardless of my race or gender. My mom never held me back from anything I told her I wanted to do or be. When I told her I was going to join the wrestling team my freshman year of high school, she didn’t even bat an eye. All she told me is, “Well, if you start it, you better not quit. Follow through with the whole year.” And so, I did, along with 50 other boys. I would come home sometimes ranting about the comments of parents who pulled their kids from our matches because I was a girl, or yelling bad things to me because I was a girl, or whispering things to their friends BECAUSE I WAS A GIRL. Slap on being a mixed race kid who can’t even speak the native language of her own family, now that’s just a recipe for feeling out of place.

My high school wrestling picture.

My high school wrestling picture.

But I digress. Mom. She taught me that I may not ever really fit in anywhere, but that it is not a bad thing. Each person is unique, and each person looks and acts differently. She told me to love who I am, REALLY love who I am. She taught me how to be confident and proud of where I come from and what I’m made of. She taught me to be realistic and ready for anything. She told me I could be anything and anyone I wanted to be. She taught me that all people in this world want one thing: to be loved. It can look different in each of us, but it’s there. And when I talk crap about someone, or I refuse to talk to them because they’re weird, that they probably are just wanting a friend too. And it’s my job to get over myself, and try. Multiple times, before giving up. She also told me to love my body, and remember that I should use it while it’s young. That someday it will look and feel old, and that’s OK too. She taught me how to appreciate things I deemed as “negative” attributes about my personality, and how to work with them. More than anything, she taught me how to adapt.

And that’s just it… I adapt. I can’t tell you how much I’ve felt out of place my whole life (beyond the gender thing). I’m 1/2 Vietnamese, father is the youngest of 9 and the only one who married a non-Viet lady. My sisters and I were the only ones who couldn’t speak the language at our family gatherings of 50+ aunts, uncles, and cousins. I spent my life hearing a language that I never learned to understand. Maybe that’s why I’m fine not really understanding Japanese while I’m here. I think mom, put up for adoption straight from the Indian Reservation, must have felt out of place too, not ever knowing all her blood brothers and sisters after being adopted. And I think that’s why she wanted my sisters and I to have confidence in who we are and where we come from. And to never, ever be ashamed.

So here, in Japan, I adapt. People stare at me in summer when my ink is out for the world to see. I am too broad and busty to fit in most of the women’s clothes here, so I am hand sewing and altering most of what I get. I’m learning to appreciate cute stuff. When a Japanese person insists that I know about cultural cues, I accept that they can’t understand and say sorry for things that I don’t think  I should be sorry for. I get used to being in a group of fair skinned co-workers who probably speak way better Japanese than me, and have the service clerks stare straight at me as they answer my friends. I realize that I am not the ‘cool’ kinda foreigner with light skin, eyes, and hair who gets the awesome exotic treatment from most of the people around them. It’s cool. I’m cool with that. I will always fit in in the wrong situations, and stick out just the same. And, as long as I can just continue being me, that’s all I really care about.

Thanks mom.

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6 thoughts on “You look Japanese, but you aren’t.

  1. A great example of how much there is to each person and that our outsides reveal very little about us, despite all the importance put on them.
    i enjoy all your posts so much!

  2. This was awesome, Tommy. Jk!!! Thank you for sharing this. It’s a very personal part of your life story and I’m so fortunate I’m able to read this. You’re an amazing woman and person and I love you for who you are!! 🙂

  3. I completely understand what you went through. I felt like I was dealing with the same thing growing up. My mom is mixed japanese native american and my dad Swedish. So I grew up in Hawaii as the white boy, but I didnt grow up with my dad. I lived with my mom and hawaiian-chinese step dad. So even though I was the whitest thing you ever saw, I didnt identify myself as that. I related to the Japanese and hawaii side more. I never felt like I fit in in Hawaii even though it was my home and the only place I knew. So when the time to move off to college came I moved to Pennsylvania. I experienced the most culture shock moving there, more than moving to Japan. I finally looked like everyone else and blended in, but still I was so different. Not only did I think more about the japanese side of my family, I was also dealing with some other identity issues. You realized you didnt like being a girl, I realized I didnt like being with girls (hah). Learning to accept one part of my has really helped to accept who i am entirely.

    Anyway, Thank you Tori for sharing. Its good knowing that there are others out there who have felt like they dont fit in. But all that has done is shaped us into the chameleons( i love that term) we are today. Adapting to any situation were put into.

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