Identity Piece by Emily Talmi
I grew up listening to my parent’s recollections of our family history - my father being of Jewish descent and my mother Japanese. One of my fondest memories as a young child was when we would travel to Los Angeles and visit my Jewish great aunt and uncle. My uncle and I would routinely take his dogs on a walk around the city, and he would tell me stories that seemed so foreign and so old, and yet were not that long ago; being a history junkie, these tales consisting of tragedy and survival, were so captivating to me. Jews have been historically oppressed and persecuted throughout the years, seen as outsiders or subhuman, eventually leading to the ‘final solution’ during WWII; we would discuss the great atrocities that happened to our ancestors - my Grandfather and his immediate family being survivors of the Iași Pogram in România where many Jewish villagers were rounded up and shot, while thousands of others were put in cattle cars and transported to concentration camps. After learning more about our rich history, and gaining a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish, holidays like Passover and Hanukkah began to hold greater meaning and gave me a sense of strong pride.
Though my father’s side undoubtedly surpassed my mother in the sheer quantity of history telling, my mother’s family were also subjected to great injustices. During WWII when the U.S. held American born Japanese persons in internment camps, due to their fear that the Japanese would act as spies for Japan, my grandfather and great-grandfather were both put in camps and stripped of their humanity and personal belongings - having their vineyard and home seized with no compensation.
And besides the fact that these stories belonged to my family, and were deeply ingrained into the making of who I am as a person, I had a nagging feeling that there was something missing - that these stories were not my own to tell.
Being bi-racial, and growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and then attending a university that similarly lacked diversity, I felt I could never truly identify with one group. I could never fully relate to my caucasian friends - beyond just the obvious dissimilarity in physical features - there was an inherent internal difference. And though that makes sense as I am not caucasian, I still found myself teetering on the line between my two races - never truly resonating with either. During my freshman year of college, I decided to attend a Hanukkah service at a Rabbi’s house. I came in with the grandiose idea that I would finally be able to understand the inner makings of myself; finally enabling me to validate my racial identity, yet to my dismay, the event didn’t transpire the way I had hoped. When it came to celebrating holidays like Passover and Hanukkah with my extended family, I always felt at ease, so I had the impression that those same feelings would arise, even with complete strangers - that of whom shared the same heritage as I. Though naive to think that this event would be the saving grace to all my prayers, my yearning for belonging began to quickly diminish as it seemed like an unattainable and forlorn dream. My first attempt at satiating my hunger for belonging, resulted in me feeling even more ostracized as all the other Jewish members were more involved with the synagogue and connected with their Jewish heritage.
Similarly, growing up, I’ve never felt I fit the stereotypical “norm” of being a Japanese woman. When people asked what my ethnicity was, they would always be dumbfounded by the fact that I was half Japanese. I never really thought twice about their exclamatory utterances, but as I got older, I soon came to realize that it began to take a toll on my identification with being Japanese.
Once all these feelings began to surface, I had trouble with expressing my issue concerning belonging, as I felt it wasn’t a valid conflict in comparison to other peoples’ struggles - merely a mental battle only I could understand. I began to feed myself damaging thoughts - I wasn’t white enough, I wasn’t Jewish enough, and I wasn’t asian enough.
As I’ve learned to become mentally stronger and opened myself up to getting to know a diverse group of people, I’ve slowly come to realize that many people - young and old, male and female, from many different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities - share similar desires and struggles with their own identity and also yearn for belonging and inclusiveness. Though my personal battle might differ from others, there is solace in knowing that we all share this burden. Despite the fact these differences are what cause the fracture of understanding in our own minds, it can also become the binding agent for us as humans. And as we all partake in this journey we call life, there is beauty and power in knowing that there are others that bear the same weight of struggle and hardship.