“The tongue can only have one national coloring;
no blurring of the colors, no blurring of the lines is visible.”
-Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue
“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity-
I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language,
I cannot take pride in myself.”
-Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands-The New Frontera
Language is a boxing match in my home.
In one corner stands my Japanese mother, coached by generations of women in her family: her sister, her mother, her grandmother. In the other corner is my Colombian grandmother alone because her son, my father, is sitting in the audience for this match, just waiting to see where the punches hit. He will only intervene as a last resort. Sitting in the glass trophy case is me, a toddler who has just discovered how to turn babbling into real words.
This was never going to be a simple game with a clear winner. From the start, this boxing match was set up to be a rivalry. It would last nineteen years and counting.
The challenges that come with having an ethnically mixed child in my experience are challenges that mainly fall on the children themselves. Outside home, everyone I encountered seemed to want to give their uninvited opinion about my heritage. As the people around me blamed unfavorable traits on “the other side” or took it upon themselves to label my identity for me, no one ever asked for my opinion. I think it was unfathomable for people to think that perhaps I didn’t want to pick a side at all, or that the side I stood on was my own, Mina’s, not some arbitrary culture slapped on my forehead.
At home, the fight for cultural dominance came out subtly. It was never said outright where my siblings and I fell on the scale of Latinx to Japanese, but influencing our places on that scale lead to battles between the two cultural matriarchs. Latinx and Japanese cultures seemed to be opposing camps. The fact that my mother and father got along at all astonished people. For us kids, the challenge was how these two cultures were supposed to blend in us. The matriarchs held so much pride for their respective heritages that it would have been a wound to the soul if any of the kids favored one culture over the other. The most explicit form of showing cultural favoritism, it turned out, was what language we chose to speak.
For my grandmother, speaking Spanish was not only a cultural value but practical. It was used in my Latinx populated Florida, and translators were always in high demand. My mother had no argument about Japanese being practical for everyday usage, but it was a great business language and would apparently stick out on a resume. My mother would add on, “It would also make Baba [my maternal grandmother] really happy,” to the end of her spiels.
The games began when I started talking. As the oldest, the fight for my culture was more drastic. Every argument was an experimental pitch for the matriarchs, and I made it more difficult by listening and agreeing with every one of them. Naturally, my mother started with the upper hand. Every word that came out of my mouth after “Mama” and “Papa” was coached to be Japanese. She used it heavily around me and played Japanese children’s shows on TV. I can still remember those shows better than any other American program. My father also started cooing in her tongue instead of Spanish or English. My father’s betrayal was a worse blow to my grandmother. When I was a toddler, my mother began taking me back to Japan. I’d spend months in her homeland. In a short walk to the train station, we could watch the environment bloom into mountains and rice paddies of the countryside or watch buildings rise into a glass city-scape. In the summer, giant floats rising up two-stories would sit outside every station, waiting to be carried by dozens of men during a festival. It was a whole new world from suburban Florida. I wouldn’t see a Spanish speaking country until I was seventeen.
My grandmother still couldn’t get a word of Spanish out of me, but she gained an ally when I entered school. The entire Florida public school system stood on her side. My best friends at school spoke Spanish; I started having playdates in Spanish speaking homes, and I had Spanish class during a wheel of electives in elementary school. I became excited about being Latina, but I was and still am mesmerized by trips in Japan. The only problem was that even with all the exposure, I wasn’t learning Spanish.
Even worse, my mother stopped speaking Japanese at home. We became accustomed to only hearing it when Mama was on the phone or someone turned on anime. My younger sister was far more stubborn and more likely to speak out than me. She didn’t take to Japanese and neither did my brother after her. When my sister was approached with Spanish, she resented the class and declared that she hated the language. Presently, both my siblings are monolingual.
As I grew up, I started to see how foolish the whole situation was. Not only did my mother and grandmother have uneasy tension for years, but neither had really succeeded. By the end of high school, the only success that came out of my mother’s early victories was that I could comprehend simple Japanese. I could overhear conversations and understand most of them. I also had exposure to the written language through a pen pal (whose letters made Google Translate my best friend). At the cusp of high school, Japanese, although weary and bloody, seemed to be winning.
Then, when it came time for me to pick high school electives, my father rose from the stands and picked a side. I jokingly toyed with the idea of taking French in high school instead, claiming that French would be “unique”. His opinion: not taking Spanish in high school was idiotic. The final blow. I started taking classes for real this time. My grandmother felt like a champion and she was exceedingly proud of any work or progress I made in class. The next time my mother took a trip to Japan, my grandmother brought me to Columbia. My mother’s compromise was that I take Japanese in college.
At this point, I’m still not fluent in either language. I took four years of Spanish and spent a month in Colombia, but I still can’t hold a substantial conversation. In Japanese, I can hold simple conversations and maybe survive in Tokyo on my own, but that’s about where my abilities end. While my matriarchs were consumed by exerting cultural dominance, I ended up in a confusing identity crisis. According to my friends, I’m not Latina because I don’t speak the language and don’t look like one. According to my family, I’m not Japanese because I’m too loud and have become so far removed from the culture.
Despite being faced with other’s opinions of my language repertoire, I have my own unpopular opinion. I was never going to be able to simply pick a side, and the fight for my tongue was for nothing. The toddler in the trophy case grew up and broke it so no one won. I was sixteen when my sister mentioned our family language battle. She said, “You know, I think they did it wrong. They should have taught us Spanish and Japanese as babies so they could raise those super-human language mutants you hear about.” Although she was probably more interested in the “super-human, mutant” part, I couldn’t have agreed more. Through high school, I carried a frustration of not knowing either language. The high school classes were never enough as the vocabulary became increasingly trivial and less applicable. I only could have learned Japanese effectively at home, but even that felt out of reach as I grew closer to leaving for college. Even without knowing both languages, they were exceedingly important to me. I’m considered a heritage speaker of both languages, but my relationship with both of them are complicated. My mother declared that I would take Japanese in college, but it wasn’t as if I hadn’t already planned to. As a college student, learning both languages fully and connecting to my heritage was a priority. My parents’ struggle for a bilingual child left me unsatisfied. I was raised surrounded by two languages but left inept in both. I was born to Spanish and Japanese speakers, and just like I couldn’t pick a side, I also couldn’t pick a tongue. I’m still trying to connect to my heritage through language, but it’s a lesson I’ve learned for any future children of mine. Maybe I won’t raise the superhuman mutants from my sister’s imagination, but I hope I’ll be able to give them a heritage language to carry through life.
I’ve grown to be able to look into how my relationship with culture and language have developed. Growing up, it always felt as though I was picking sides. As Yildiz writes, it seemed like I could only paint my tongue one color. Leaving home and figuring things out for myself, I now take ownership of both languages, however little I can use them. They’re pieces in my identity, and so long as I carry them with pride, together they represent me.