Words by Garett Omi
I looked down at the white tiles confused, angry, and most of all humiliated. I could feel the pressure of my classmates’ eyes looming in on the heavy silence, the clock’s hands striking my ears. As I gritted my teeth, my face slowly burned, my mind filled with regret. What the hell was I doing here?
Sensei’s red glossy heels sliced into the picture frame, bleeding into the sterile plain flooring.
“Omi-san,” Sensei began hovering over my seat. She was a strict Japanese woman with a bowl cut as round as a porcelain pot and pursed lips that sharply edged her smooth exterior. Her tight white cashmere turtleneck she wore everyday upheld her pristine posture and it was never a good sign to see her constricted movement transport beyond the boundaries of the blackboard. Her pale wrinkled hands leaned against my table, her rose fingernails impatiently dug into the surface.
“Do you know why you are incorrect?”
She was giving me a chance to take back what I just said, to apologize for even thinking about saying what I said. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to allow this woman to impose her perspective onto my identity; to discredit the hardships my family and myself had made assimilating into this country because of our culture.
“No,” I replied continuing to keep my head fixated on the floor, “I don’t.”
Sensei exhaled, a feeble attempt to keep her composure. Her nails dug deeper into the table.
“Omi-san, you say ‘Watashi wa Nihonjin desu’. But I say you are wrong because are you from Japan? No. You are from America-“
“But didn’t you just tell the class to state where their ancestors came from for the sake of this lesson?” I quickly challenged, “Didn’t you just tell everyone that you know that most of us are American so even if you are American you’d rather hear where their country of origin is? Paul’s an American but you just told him to say he’s Korean and Jacob doesn’t even know if he’s Irish but you told him not to say American-“
She impatiently yelled at me, her annoyance seeping through her heavy Japanese accent. My classmates twiddled their thumbs and exchanged awkward smiles at one another. She leaned in closer.
“You are not from Japan, you are not a Nihonjin. You are from America, you are an Amerikajin. So when I ask you what you are, you do not say ‘Watashi wa Nihonjin desu’ you say ‘Amerikajin’. Wakarimasu ka? Understand?”
Her words cut like a knife, slicing what was left of my broken Japanese American identity down the middle. A yonsei, 4 generations deeply rooted in American soil, 4 generations removed from the land of the rising sun; although I was my great grandparent’s fulfilled product of the American Dream, to Sensei I was the Japanese Nightmare: a Japanese that didn’t know his own tongue. Out of everyone in this cliché tedious foreign language oral practice, I was the only student Sensei stopped to blatantly point out his Americanness. I was the only student she wanted to make sure they knew they didn’t belong to their own country of origin. I was the only pitiful full-blooded Japanese student in her Intro to Japanese course that didn’t know an ounce of Japanese. I was the only student she wanted to make an example of to the class that I was not in any shape or form associated with her motherland, that I was the disgraceful ‘Amerikajin’ who sold his birthright to Uncle Sam. She could care less that my mother tried to send me to Japanese school like the other good Japanese boys brought up in America but had to stop because the other children bullied me for being too American. She could care less that the children in American public schools mocked my slanted eyes, my smelly seaweed roll lunches, and bullied me for being too Japanese. She could care less that my family was thrown into internment camps because of their Japanese blood, that my mother’s Japanese first name would forever be butchered and misspelled in an Anglo-dominant society, that my Bachan would read me Momotaro in Nihongo every night before bed, that my great grandmother literally named me the Japanese translation of “victorious” which sat on my birth certificate as my middle name.
I stared at the floor tiles long enough to distinguish there were exactly 4 strands of long hair and 2 blotches of brown coffee stains that tainted the ground. I stared long enough to see how smudged the right tile was compared to the left tile. I could feel Sensei’s presence tower further towards me, my nostrils stung by her expensive perfume, her breath reminiscent of her morning coffee.
“Omi-san”, she whispered, “See me after class.”
I finally looked up. Her back was bent at exactly 45 degrees; her dark brown eyes filled with rage, which paralleled my deep pools of sorrow and her mouth slightly formed a small curt frown. She cocked back up like a toy soldier and marched back to the front of the classroom, commencing her lesson. I remained sitting silently, my ears ringing from adrenaline, my eyes wet from embarrassment, my identity split perfectly in two.
*this is installation was brought to you for our Otherness Week. This is the first of our 'Themed Weeks' and I'm so excited to finally open up my site to friends to share their stories and ideas. We're starting the look for more folks to pitch in. If you want to write about Death or Gratitude, or topics beyond that, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org : )! Yay -