Questions From Two Mixed-Race Daughters About Our Strong Immigrant Mothers
Welcome to The Blend, a new HelloGiggles vertical all about the mixed experience. To learn more about The Blend (including how you can send us your pitches), check out our intro post.
Before we were editors at HelloGiggles, we were grad students at USC. As we bonded over writing workshops and the bizarre situation we found ourselves in — teaching undergrads how to write about race when we were in our early twenties and learning to do that ourselves — we discovered how much we had in common as mixed-race daughters of immigrant mothers.
Although our mothers come from very different parts of the world, one from Jamaica and one from Japan, our relationships with them have some striking similarities: the way we admire them, the way they sometimes wrap their love in prickly language, the way we strive to understand them knowing we never completely will. When we decided to write about our mothers in a joint essay, we started with a long list of questions for each other. In the end, we interviewed ourselves with these ten.
When did you first start thinking about race?
Nicole Adlman (NA): In second grade, my mom came to visit my classroom at my new school on Virginia Road, a curved, sleepy street that framed the small building and populated a portion of its students. I was in Ms. Brown’s class, likely coloring, or maybe reading, or possibly writing. My mom was suddenly behind the closed door of my classroom, waving through the window. She smiled, and I said to Dan, the boy nearest me, chest puffed and proud, “That’s my mom.” He looked at her face, the color of coffee after cream, and said, “No, she’s not.” I countered that, well, yes, she is. And he again looked from me to her, and said, “No, she’s not. She’s black.”
Race wasn’t in my language before we moved from Brooklyn. Mom was mom and Dad was dad. We lived in Kensington, one of those spotless-in-memory neighborhoods on a spotless-in-memory street that was host to many Hasidic families. I loved it there. We moved north a month before I turned seven, settling on a tree-lined street in a historic black neighborhood. Even then, there was no racialized color to a girl who just saw the green of the trees, and the grass, and the awnings over our new house.
Dan, for me, shook that lens. Suddenly my mom was Black, and I was…not Black? But I was Black (if she was Black!). All confusing and weird for a seven-year-old who had before then likely, maybe, possibly used a yellow crayon to color herself on white paper. Not because of skin color, but because yellow.
Mia Nakaji Monnier (MNM): I always knew that my mom was from Japan and that I was part Japanese, but I didn’t really start thinking about my identity in terms of race until college. Before that point, my family’s culture was my world, and it felt completely normal. Even when I was little, growing up in small-town Illinois, we celebrated Japanese New Year with sweet black beans and tiny fish, took our cousins’ hand-me-down kimono to school for show-and-tell, and listened to my mom’s minor-key lullabies at night.
My dad, who is American and white, lived in Tokyo for a year in college, and while his Japanese is imperfect, he also contributed to the sense of Japanese-ness in our house in small ways, like saying “ittekimasu” when he went out the door and “tadaima” when he came home (those phrases like “see you later” and “I’m back” but more ritualized, said the same way each time). My mom, meanwhile, made American dishes she may have picked up from her friends at our Unitarian church, who she told me years later taught her how to be a parent. We ate rice with every meal, but with things like pork chops, sauerkraut, and frozen peas. When people asked me if my mom cooked Japanese food at home, I didn’t know how to answer. To me, it was just food — and my mixed family was just my family. We also moved a lot while I was growing up (seven times before I graduated from high school), which made us especially close but also isolated in a way, like an odd subspecies of island bird.
When I went to college, in a small town in Vermont, I noticed for the first time that people didn’t always see me, culturally, the way I saw myself. I decorated my room with my kokeshi dolls and Japanese dollar-store finds and ate the microwavable curry my parents mailed from home, which by then was Southern California. One friend observed this and told me, “You act a lot more Asian than you are.” That was the first time I wondered, how Asian am I?
How do you identify, racially and culturally?
NA: I identify as Black and Jewish, or Black and white, or biracial. I don’t often say “mixed.” I’m not sure why I feel like I have less claim to the word than any other mixed person, but I like to spell out with color, say the Black and then say the white (or Jewish). I’ve recently started to say things like “I’m Black,” and then feel uncertain in that ownership. It almost feels like I should have come to that identification sooner, like clinging to “and white” for so long has harmed my ability to verbally own my blackness, to just say I’m Black. I’m 26, and identity is still a work in progress for me. This is probably infuriating for POC who worked much sooner to find their sense of race. But I didn’t start to think critically about identity until I had to teach as an assistant lecturer in grad school. Making students question the politics of race and class in Los Angeles made me more curious about my politics of race, and why I sometimes saw one or both or neither in the mirror.
Unpacking identity can feel raw. I’ve been forced to question specific instances in my life when internalized racism was at play, and to analyze external factors that caused my hate and anxiety to curve inward. But the process is also invaluable. This is the first time I’m even writing about my thoughts about my own race and identity, and how it relates to my mother.
MNM: I still sometimes feel self-conscious that I’m not Asian enough — to write about race, to tell stories that should be told by a person of color, to call myself a person of color or Japanese American. But I do call myself both those things, as well as mixed. I don’t call myself white in the same way (though I’ll say I’m half white) because it sounds mutually exclusive of anything else. But I am proud to be my dad’s daughter, and to have roots in the Oregon countryside where his family comes from.
For most of my life, I just went by Mia Monnier, but when I started writing professionally, I began using my mom’s maiden name, Nakaji, which until then was one of my two legal middle names. I like that, unlike my ethnically ambiguous face, my name communicates my mixed identity immediately, letting me skip a bit of explanation and start a little deeper in the story.
How do other people relate you to your mom — do they find you similar or different? How would you describe your mom’s personality and how would you describe yours?
NA: Everyone knows I’m my mother’s daughter (except for Dan from second grade). I look like her: ovular face, stately forehead, almond-shaped eyes with brown irises so dark they could be black. I look like her in pictures. I look like her in person. The only thing different about me is the texture and length of my hair (kinky, wavy, long) and my skin, which burns easily in the sun. (She and my brother deepen.) Other people say that I’m “little” her, or look like her sister. I was born four days after her 24th birthday, in August. We’re the same sign, if that means anything, but I’m more able to put on the mask of extroversion than she is. She is a reader and I was a reader, and we used to spend long afternoons in the library consuming stacks of books like pancakes. We would take stacks in the tens home. I learned my love of reading from her, which in large part helped me in becoming a writer. I like irony, and vulgar humor, and the word fuck. She likes teasing and stories. We make each other laugh as much as we make each other cry. Which is (almost) good, right?
MNM: My mom and I probably seem different at first glance: She’s outgoing, charming, and very open with her emotions and her quirks. I tend to be more reserved, except in that I write about myself for the internet. My youngest brother and I have talked about how we got our calm personalities in response to our mom’s effusive one, like we’re reigning it in for her vicariously. But my boyfriend, who sees the many versions of me, knows that we’re secretly very similar. He sees me flip from calm to anxious to doing a dance across the apartment in the span of a night.
I’m used to the surprised comments I get when I tell people my background — “You don’t look Japanese,” “I never would have guessed,” “I can kind of see it now” — but one that actually bothers me is, “You look nothing like your mom.” Even my mom has told me we don’t look alike. But despite our obvious differences, like our hair (hers straight and black, mine wavy and reddish brown), sometimes I look in the mirror and see her. I see her in other parts of me too: I have her wide feet (which she apologizes for often), her addictive personality (usually channeled toward binge-watching and binge-knitting), and her sensitivity (which comes with a heavy dose of Japan nostalgia in both of us).
When did she move to the U.S.? How often does she visit her birth country? Does she still have family there?
NA: My mom showed me her visa for the first time a week ago. In my mind I had always imagined her emigrating in the fall, and I was right. She arrived October 8th, 1986, less than two months after her 20th birthday. She lived with most of her family (three sisters, three brothers) in a small apartment in Brooklyn, the city in which she would meet my father, the city in which she would have me. She visits Jamaica every few years, and I’ve traveled with her to the country a handful of times. Sometimes to resorts, sometimes to the countryside, sometimes to the small one-level house my grandmother still owns in St. Catherine’s. My grandmother, who usually only spends summers in New York, is now here for an indefinite period. She misses Jamaica. I don’t know if my mom misses living in Jamaica. Maybe she misses the simplicity; maybe she misses the perpetuity of warmth. I really don’t know.
My relationship with Jamaica has oddly become more superficial over time. The first two times I went, when I was three and when I was six, were deeply visceral experiences. Jamaica was another world, and my mom was different there. She danced and walked around topless and laid back into the waterfalls at Dunn’s River Falls with no fear. She was beautiful. I was young, and in my eyes, she transformed. A woman of the sun and the trees, but still my mother. Those trips are hard to recreate now. Everyone is older. No one can plan full reunions anymore. Families have broken apart and transformed into something new. We’re 20 years removed from the ‘90s and young motherhood and from seven siblings still close to the time when they still lived together. Jamaica is different now. I might go with my boyfriend this year; my parents might meet me there. But it won’t be 1993.
MNM: My mom came to the U.S. in 1977, at the age of 22. She had Japanese American relatives in LA who helped her find a job (at a Japanese American retirement home) and a car (a little red Datsun with cartoon ladybugs on the rubber floor mats). She told me that she only planned to stay for a short time, to experience life in America and practice her English, which she’d studied in Japan. Seven years later, she met my dad, and in 1989, the year after I was born, we moved farther from the Pacific Ocean, to the Midwest.
Since then, my mom has only gone back to Japan a handful of times, the last time more than a decade ago, when the second of her parents died. Her younger brother lives there still, and when I studied abroad for a year in college, I got to know him, his wife, and my two then-little cousins. My uncle took me to our furusato, our homeland, on the coast of Wakayama, where the cliffs reminded me of those surrounding the beach town my family finally settled in after all those years of moving. He told me that, due to a shipwreck in the early 1900s, our family is part Turkish, making my great-grandmother as mixed as I am, and my mom and uncle’s eyes a light honey brown. I wonder what else I don’t know. I hope my mom and I can go to Japan together, for what will be the first time since I was a toddler. What will she be like there? Will I see a side of her I’ve never seen? Will she feel at home, like a plant in its natural climate?
What experiences has your mom had that you haven’t?
NA: My mom has been called things that I haven’t been called. I can’t imagine these things, even though I’ve sometimes heard her called them in person. I’ve been called a Black girl in sheep’s clothing, and a tragic mulatto, but she’s been called worse things. I don’t know what it was like to grow up poor in a poor country, to be sent to distant family members while my mother went to do domestic work in Scarsdale, New York. (We would later live 15 minutes from Scarsdale, where my grandmother cleaned and mothered for a rich, white family.)
I think she’s experienced more overt racism; I experience the racism that comes from people either not knowing my ethnicities (and saying racist things they would not say otherwise) or knowing my ethnicities and reconciling them with jokes. I’ve also experienced hostility for passing. I don’t know the immigrant experience, and I don’t know what it is like to have to learn another country’s culture to assimilate. She’s a teacher, and she was told once, early on, that she had to lose the last vestiges of her accent (or pronounce words in ways other than she was taught) to help her young students learn “proper” English. She had to whitewash herself, and I’ve never been compelled to do so by an employer or by anyone else, really.
MNM: My mom left her family in a time before the internet and raised three kids in her second language, in her second country, with very few people around who looked like her or shared her experience. Even when we lived in California, she was different from the Japanese housewives, who came with their husbands on temporary corporate assignments, and different still from the Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans) her age, whose parents and grandparents — like the relatives who helped her move to the U.S. — were forced to live in concentration camps during WWII. I know she was sometimes very lonely and often felt like people stared at her, whether in hostility or curiosity, when she went out.
By the time I was a teenager and we lived in suburban Texas, I’d found a group of almost entirely white friends, and I felt comfortable with them, so much so that when my mom told me how she felt white people looked at her, I told her she might be imagining it. It still hurts to remember I said that, and I wish I could take it back. In this way, I guess my mom is right when she says we don’t look alike: I look white enough not to have to decode a stare to gauge my safety. Instead, I tell people who I am — once even drunkenly interrupting a friend of a friend as he talked about the Asian Americans at the table across the room to say, “Full disclosure: I’m half-Japanese.” Not that announcing my identity stops all ignorant comments. And when I experience racism, part of my anger comes from thinking, if people see me as other, how do they see my mom?
And how did your parents meet?
NA: My parents met in 1988 in Brooklyn. I love the story. My mom worked at a bank that doesn’t exist anymore, one of the “new girls,” fresh off the plane from Jamaica with the lilt of patois still in her language. My dad went to visit one of his friends, Anita, at this bank. I don’t know the nature of the friendship. Maybe the check deposit line always filtered to her when he was at the bank. But he went to see this Anita, and that is when he saw my mom. “Who is the new girl?” he asked his friend. Anita sized the look on his face and said, “I don’t think she likes white guys.”
My mom rebuffed my dad’s advances more than a few times, but he kept visiting the bank, and waiting in line to see her, and passing her notes under the teller window that made her snap, “Do you want me to lose my job?” He could have been a robber. But he was just my dad, and they began to date, and later she got pregnant with me. They married two months before I was born, in June 1990. I came in August, a soft, wormy infant, pink (from my father’s side) and long (from my mother’s side). I had almost no hair, but the dusting of strands on my head were blondish-brown. “She’s blonde,” my mother told me she said when she saw me. “My baby’s blonde.”
MNM: In a fitting turn of events for two bookworms, my parents met at a bookstore. My dad had moved to LA from Oregon and was visiting a Japanese food festival when he ran into a friend he studied abroad with in Tokyo. This friend managed the Little Tokyo branch of Kinokuniya Bookstore, where my mom worked on weekends for the employee discount. I imagine her at the counter, seeing him walk in through the door, but I don’t know if it happened like that. I don’t know much of anything about the early days of their relationship. But I did hear from one of my Japanese American aunties that my mom stopped by her house before her first date with my dad, excited and nervous. I’ll have to pry a little harder.
How does your dad fit into all of this?
NA: My brother’s and my mixedness wasn’t an overt conversation in our household as much as just generally talking about Jamaica or my mom’s Jamaican upbringing was. My dad is a downass Jewish dude. He’s always embraced my mother’s culture, has always tried to assimilate (and has sometimes been spurned for doing so), has been a Black ally since he was a young boy growing up in Midwood, Brooklyn. He prepares delicious, peppery ackee and saltfish as good as any Jamaican granny.
My dad knows that I identify as Black and Jewish, and he knows I have deep interest in Jewish culture (although I wasn’t raised Jewish). I went on Birthright last year, and had a formally informal bat mitzvah on Masada in the Judean desert. Through my boyfriend, I’m being introduced to Israeli Jewish culture, one that is much different than the laid-back New York Jewish I grew up knowing. My mom, meanwhile, is a devout Christian, but peripherally accepts that I’m leaning more toward Judaism. How could she not? She married a non-religious Jewish man, and gradually became more religious as she got older. My Jewish identity hasn’t complicated our relationship (yet), but it puts me at a distance from something close to her heart, and I don’t know how she’ll feel if I decide to formally convert. I don’t think my growing kinship with Judaism means I’m conforming to whiteness more than blackness, but it stands as “difference” between my mother and me.
MNM: I write pretty often about my mom, I majored in Japanese in college, and I worked in LA’s Little Tokyo for six years. Sometimes I worry that my dad might think I’m not as interested in him or his side of the family, and I hope that’s not the case. I’ve asked him over the years, not in those words exactly, but he’s never been less than supportive. Like my mom, he grew up in a small town, in a blue-collar family and, for some reason, had the itch to venture beyond the world he knew. Around the time my mom moved from Osaka to LA, my dad moved from Oregon to Paris and Tokyo, though he stayed in each place for just a year. Even though they’ve struggled with money for as long as I’ve been aware, both he and my mom encouraged me to pursue my dreams, and when I started college, all three of us took on huge loans that we’re still paying off. I feel both grateful and guilty about that.
Similarly, my dad told my brothers and me that we weren’t half anything but double. I think he wanted to give us an expansive view of the world, to have us believe that we could go anywhere, try anything. In reality, I don’t think either my brothers or I actually feel like perfect doubles or chameleons who can fit anywhere. We all have our own boundaries around our identities and our own insecurities. I’ve met other mixed people with a white parent who seems to co-opt the issue of race and talk over their kids, insisting that being mixed is easy or that cultural appropriation isn’t real, to give just a couple examples. I’m thankful that my dad gives us room to think for ourselves and approaches culture not with defensiveness but with openness and curiosity.
What do you wish you knew about your mom? What do you wish your mom knew about you?
NA: I wish I knew more of her experiences as a young woman in her late teens and early twenties. She used to tell me stories of her and her siblings’ adventures when they were younger, like that time Aunty climbed an orange tree and got stung by a band of bees. Or when my other Aunties took on a bully in a synchronized offensive dance from two sides. To me, those stories were as visual as a Disney movie. But there were fewer tales from after she entered high school, and her mother moved to New York, and the family split up. I could just ask her. But maybe I’m scared to, or maybe it feels like there is a reason I don’t know. Is that weird? I’m being weird.
I wish my mom knew that she is my hero, and that I want to be like her, and that I love her more than anything. Maybe she does know, but I don’t say it often enough.
MNM: I wish I knew more about my mom’s life before she was a mom. A while ago, a relative approached her for a genealogy project. She wanted to map exactly how our branches of the family fit together. But my mom told me she didn’t see the point: People live and they die, and why try to document it so meticulously? I only learned last week that her dad, my ojiichan, worked in a blanket factory, that the town my mom grew up in is known for blankets. Her mom, my obaachan, was a tailor, which I think about now as I sew my own clothes. I wonder what their family life was like when my mom was young — not just the events but the feelings. There’s the common trope of the Asian American parent who doesn’t say, “I love you,” though they communicate their love through their actions. But my mom has never made us guess how she feels. I wonder how she turned out that way. And I hope she never has to guess how I feel about her either.
Does the current American political climate affect the experience of being your mom’s daughter?
NA: I’ve never felt less mixed than the night Trump was elected. I experienced something that can’t be described as anything other than Black rage, and sadness, and a sense of otherness sticky and deep enough to drown in. I cried cold, bitter tears on November 8th, like many of us did, but my sobs felt suffocating. I couldn’t swallow air. In that moment, I felt like America hated all of me and what my existence represents. America hated Obama. America hated blackness and mixedness and otherness and women. Election night felt like a surface wound opening from the inside. But having to live in Trump’s America empowers me to explore privilege and the politics of race. I want to know more. I want to do more. I want to be more. This is the time for POC to take pain and turn it into something powerful. By the way, I don’t know if my mother cried. I should ask her.
MNM: Trump’s election coincided for me with a bout of serious anxiety, and it was followed soon after by a strange incident with a close friend of many years, in which they let slip their thoughts on race and I did not like what I heard. Together, all those events made me feel tired and powerless. My parents always told my brothers and me when we were growing up that our differences — our mixed heritage, the many places we lived — were an asset, that they’d help us understand and communicate with a wider variety of people. I took for granted that as we grew older, we’d see the U.S. open up rather than close in on itself.
What does “America first” mean for families like mine? What does it mean for immigrants like my mom, who want to make a home where they can parent and knit and watch Korean dramas and do all those mundane, peaceful things that make up a life? I also want to be more active, more vocal. Lately, just being myself feels like swimming upstream, but I want to take my love for writing and turn it into something useful.
What is one of the most important things you’ve learned from your mom? What advice does she always give you?
NA: She wants me to do, which is both infuriating and motivating. The Jamaican form of encouragement is often negative reinforcement: She has told me I’m not enough (of a writer, a thinker, a creative), and I respond by pushing myself to be enough of those things for both of us. Or sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m mired in laziness and uncertainty about my future as a writer. I don’t want to disappoint her. I have before, when I turned down a diversity full-tuition scholarship to go to the college I should have gone to. My mom does tell me to persevere, and to do, and to not give up or take “No” from anyone. Maybe this is why I have a hard time hearing “No,” and why I do everything I can to change any “No” to an answer in my favor. I’m a perfectionist because of how relentlessly she pushed me in school (toward scholarships, better grades, writing contests, extracurriculars, and books), which is not always a good thing but never wholly a bad thing. I work to be a better writer because she won’t let me forget that I could be. I’m writing now, mom. See? Thank you.
MNM: The Japanese form of encouragement tends to be pretty layered, too. My mom used to tell me, “You can’t praise your own kids — it’s like bragging about yourself.” But when I moved out of my parents’ house, she became much more open with the encouragement she always showed me, even if in a somewhat more guarded way. Now, she tells me to go for it and, when I write a story, to “put everything in there.” I’m trying to learn from her boldness — and on the other hand, from her contentedness, the way she lights up over small things, like taking a walk by the beach, tasting a new tea, or finding yarn in the perfect color. Some of my anxiety comes from loving my parents so much, and feeling so loved by them. I fear a time when they won’t be around, but they’re here now, and I want to settle into that luck and happiness.