May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month.
I watched three Japanese women jump up and down on my iPhone screen, each dressed in a skin-tight pastel spandex bra and shorts.
“Isn’t this insane?” my American friend said, as he shared yet another viral video he discovered at brunch in Brooklyn. Think Richard Simmons jazzercise meets English class, if your textbook had a lesson on how to survive a mugging. It was funny but nothing I hadn’t seen growing up in Japan, where TV shows are notoriously weird. In the next scene, two white men appear on a “nondescript street” (a low-budget studio with a bench) and threaten a Japanese woman in English. “Hand me your bag! Don’t move! If you do, I’ll kill you!” one of them says.
My jaw dropped. “Um, that white guy’s my dad.”
* * *
I was born in Tokyo to Yumiko, a Japanese woman, and Philip Silverstein, a Jewish man, which makes me a “Jap Jap.” Yes, both the offensive slur for Japanese people and a Jewish American Princess. During my birth, my mom didn’t experience any contractions during labor, so my tiny head simply popped out over the toilet bowl of their cozy apartment. She freaked out and carried my bloody head back to the futon in her bedroom, where she delivered me by herself. As you’re likely starting to see, I’ve always been a pretty chill person. But one thing that’s been difficult is figuring out who I am.
My dad grew up in Uptown Manhattan in the 1970s and discovered Japanese culture in college. Imagine a George Costanza look-alike teaching himself Japanese by reading Doraemon, a popular manga series about a robot cat from the future. Yes, my dad is the original hipster. In the 1980s, he moved to Japan and pursued his passion for comedy and acting.
Laughter is a universal language; using comedy was an organic way for my dad to assimilate into Japanese society as a Western immigrant. He adopted the popular comedy form manzai, two-person stand-up comedy, and began performing with his friend Eric as “Eri-chan Phili-chan,” chan being a suffix describing something cute or silly, generally not two burly foreigners. Japanese comedy duos have very clear roles: boke (the buffoon) and tsukkomi (the straight guy). Though he’s kind of a buffoon at home, my dad was the tsukkomi to tall, slender Eric’s boke. Like any actor, my dad had a side job, and his was teaching English at a language school in Tokyo; this was where he met my mom, Yumi.
My mom was born and raised in Tochigi, about an hour north of Tokyo by shinkansen, or bullet train. Remember that house in My Neighbor Totoro that the girls move into, surrounded by fields and rice paddies as far as the eye can see? That was my mom’s childhood. So for her to teach English in Tokyo was a big deal. When my parents decided to move in together, they had difficulty finding an apartment because some real estate shops had signs like, “No Pianos, No Foreigners, Pets OK.” My dad told my mom, “Just tell them I’m a pet.” Eventually they settled into the small one-bedroom apartment where I was born. They had a zero-budget wedding at a local Buddhist temple. My Jewish grandpa, Jerome, flew in from New York, but my mom’s old-fashioned parents didn’t attend, full of post-war anti-American sentiment. They cut off my mom until I was born (I was only half-evil). Throughout, my dad remained his true self: a young American dude who fell in love with Japanese culture, comedy, and my mom.
As a kid, I loved that my dad was a comedian and actor. One of the best days of my life was when I skipped school to accompany him to a shoot for a TV dramedy called Kagayake Rintaro, about the trials and tribulations of an ad agency salesman. In a fictional commercial within the drama, my dad played a Japanese-speaking American mobster who robs none other than my idol, Masahiro Nakai of the legendary boy band SMAP. (Think NSYNC, and Nakai was the Joey Fatone if Joey couldn’t sing for shit and got by only on charm. I was eight and already knew to go for personality.)
My dad worked steadily in film, television, and commercials in Japan. One time, he played Peter Falk’s body double for a whiskey commercial. Another time, he starred in a Pocky commercial that aired non-stop. It helped to be fluent in Japanese (thanks, robot cat) while possessing that classic New York Jew look. He loved being a comedian and actor in Japan. But being a performer was also considered the bottom of Japan’s social pyramid in a very status-conscious society. “Japan idealized white westerners, but white westerners could never truly become part of Japanese society,” he told me.
Eventually, we left Japan because of their educational system, which becomes increasingly strict after elementary school. For example, most middle and high schools in Japan have strict regulations that stipulate you can’t wear nail polish, dye your hair, pierce your ears, or wear your uniform skirts above a certain length. My parents felt these rules were irrelevant to education and wanted my younger brothers and me to have a freer future. As we were leaving, performers in Japan were finally moving toward unionizing, becoming one step closer to legitimizing themselves in society. My dad sacrificed that to move back to America.
My earliest memories of life in the U.S. as a seventh grader are of being assigned a desk between two boys, Jeremy and Chai, and just laughing at them as they pulled one prank after another. I was nervous and scared, and barely understood what any of my classmates were saying, let alone able to do homework or follow Medieval History class. My new classmates were confused that I had a Jewish last name but didn’t speak a lick of English. I thought about taking on my mom’s maiden name, Suzuki, to justify the way I look or how I didn’t know English, but initials for “Anna Suzuki-Silverstein” on my L.L. Bean backpack would’ve been too scandalous for middle school.
I tried to have a sense of humor and make the best of my new life. Our school had an annual seventh grade nativity play, which depicts Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem before Jesus is born.
The drama teacher didn’t know what to do with the new girl from Japan who didn’t speak English, but we came up with a brilliant solution: I would play an innkeeper who doesn’t speak. On the day of the play, we all nervously awaited our turn to pop on stage and say our lines. When the kid playing Joseph knocked, I open the door and popped my head out. I saw the crowd of parents and teachers and nearly choked on my nerves.
“Is there room in your inn?” he said.
I didn’t understand his lines but I shook my head “no,” made a very sad face, and shut the door. That was my first “acting job” in America, and a lesson in how to play a comic relief.
As I grew older, I began pursuing comedy in a subconscious attempt to figure out who I was. Early in my career, a casting director told me that he could never cast me in Fiddler on the Roof, the famous musical about Jewish life in Imperial Russia in 1905, because I didn’t look Jewish enough. This was when I finally took on my mom’s maiden name, Suzuki. If I could joke about being a “Jap Jap” in my stand-up, maybe I could find answers through offensive jokes. Navigating my identity has been a defining theme in my comedy. When I was new, I used to try to figure out what people wanted to hear, instead of what I want to say. What jokes do people like about Asian people? Or Jewish people? One of my earliest jokes was that when I met someone new, I would bow, then start looking for change on the ground. Oh yes, I joked about how Japanese people bow and Jewish people are cheap. Oy vey. I wonder if my dad did the same when he was first starting out. What do Japanese people want to hear an American say?
Since then, I’ve realized that as an immigrant and a woman of color, I can use comedy as a tool to reclaim power over my narrative and identity. I still often refer to myself as “Jap Jap” or “Oriyenta” (yenta in Yiddish means “blabbermouth”). If the audience is mostly white, I let them know that, yes, these terms are offensive and, yes, I’m allowed to use them and they are not. Or I say, “Does anyone here also do comedy in their second language? That’s what I thought.” I’m very vocal about how I’ve achieved my American Dream, which was to understand joke structure and execute it in front of a crowd as little as ten people. Of course, sometimes my comedy is irrelevant to my identity. I’ve definitely translated the Friends theme song into Japanese and sung it just for the pure joy and nonsense.
Even when I’m performing with others, it’s important for me to stay true to my mission of honoring my cultural background. In 2015 I founded a parody J-pop group called AzN PoP! combining my two passions, Japanese pop culture and comedy. It’s been liberating to perform funny songs about oppression and racism and inter-Asian conflicts with other female Asian comedians in schoolgirl outfits. One of our most popular songs, “White Guys,” is a passionate ballad about how white men, no matter how busted, can somehow date attractive Asian women because, well, they’re white. It’s a subversive take on the idea of Asian fetish, but instead of doing a straightforward critique, we assert power by ironically proclaiming our love for horrible white men. While we sing the catchy chorus, “We’re searching for the white guy of our dreamz,” images of the Koch brothers, Guy Fieri, and more of our unlikely love interests are projected in the background.
The song especially hits the spot for Asians in the audience with white partners. I admit, as the only white-biracial person involved, this group is a way for me to feel more Asian, but it’s also a way for me to represent the underrepresented — the mixed Asian. I still don’t see myself in television shows about all-white families or all-Asian families, but at least I can try to represent the mixed experience. I once heard an audience member say about me, “Why is she in the group? She’s not Asian.” That’s why I’m in the group.
A few years ago I co-created the web series Japandering with my boyfriend, Omar, who is a second-generation immigrant. It follows a Japanese American protagonist who visits Tokyo as an outsider to figure out who she is. Sound familiar? Upon hearing we were making a web series, the popular Japanese TV show Why Did You Come to Japan? decided to document us for a week. On the final day of filming, the host asked, “What made you decide to do this?” Unplanned, I blurted out in Japanese, “My dad sacrificed his dream in Japan to give me a better life, so I’m continuing his legacy in America.” In the end the show decided not to air our segment because I was not “foreign” enough. My quest to reconnect with and reclaim my Eastern roots through comedy was not exactly the “American tourist in trouble, hilarity ensues” narrative their audience expects weekly.
My dad no longer performs on grungy stages in dive bars as he did in his youth, but he still enjoys cracking jokes. The other day, I taught him a joke that a kid taught me: “Why does the mushroom get invited to all the parties? Because he’s a fungi!” My dad totally took credit and told his dentist that he came up with it. I haven’t spoken to him since.
I’ve also started to screen that “Take Anything You Want” clip at comedy shows in New York. Inevitably half the audience knows the video and it gets a laugh, but the best part is bringing the “special guests” on stage afterwards for an audience Q&A: my parents.
When that little Jewish boy from New York went to live his Japanese Dream, he had no idea his daughter would come back to carry it on as her American Dream. Feeling inspired, I asked him recently (for slightly selfish reasons) if he had any advice for people pursuing their dreams.
“Set your goals and don’t let other people get in the way,” he said.
“Great. One last thing, what’s your favorite joke?” I asked. “And don’t say the—”
“The fungi joke.”
“Well, dad, I already used that joke,” I sighed. “How am I supposed to end this essay?”
As if a brilliant idea suddenly struck him, he said, “With a period.”