Hello! For the month of May I am excited to celebrate Asian-American heritage. Each week will highlight either someone with Asian-American heritage or some aspect of Asian-American culture.
Kicking off the month is an interview with my dear friend, Meredith Katsu-Campbell. I met Meredith in 2007 at Anderson University. We lived across the hall from each other. I don’t remember how it was brought up, but there was a distinct moment where we realized we were both one-quarter Asian. We’ve celebrated our similar heritage ever since. I asked Mer to help me out by answering a few questions about her family.
Please describe your family tree.
“My grandfather, Nobuyoshi Katsu, was born in California in 1920. His father, my great-grandfather, Miyahei Katsu (born 1885), moved from Amami Oshima, Japan to San Francisco in the early 1900s and actually jumped ship! He went back to Japan for his wife, Hajime. They had seven kids: Fumi, Keiko, Kay, my grandpa Noby, Mei, Lily, and John. My grandpa was born sickly, so they took him back to Japan for his health and to show off the first boy, as was tradition. He was nursed back to health with a diet of fish and rice. While they were in Japan, Mei was born. She is the only sibling actually born in Japan. In San Francisco they owned a flower shop and eventually a full nursery. However, they lost everything when they were forced into the internment camp.”
How did an Asian heritage influence your childhood? What are some of your best memories involving this heritage?
“For starters, we had sticky white rice almost every meal. We used a few Japanese words instead of English, like zori instead of “flip-flop,” and words to be discreet when talking about the bathroom. We got together with my dad’s side of the family almost every holiday, but that may have been more a Katsu thing than a Japanese thing. It’s hard to tell what was influenced by my heritage and what was just my parent’s influence. My grandpa Noby never attended Japanese school after American school because he wanted to be purely American. He married my grandma Lois who was a tall, beautiful woman with English and French heritage. I remember being stunned when my dad said that his parents couldn’t just get married anywhere. At that time there weren’t many churches that allowed interracial marriage. I couldn’t believe that. My dad said they didn’t grow up doing a lot of traditional Japanese things. My grandpa always had a beautiful Japanese garden and loved rocks. He and my dad would pull over if they were driving and saw a cool rock, just to bring it back to the gardens. My dad’s auntie Mei taught him Origami, so my dad passed that along to us too. We folded paper cranes and lilies out of the church bulletin during services. I even included origami in my graduation speech. Oh, and we had homemade sushi for Thanksgiving.”
Do you remember having a specific moment where you realized your heritage or was it always ingrained? Do you remember having a specific moment where you came into that heritage as your identity?
“I always felt it was ingrained. I was very proud of being part Japanese as a kid and told everyone and felt so cool. I always wished I looked more Asian. I still identify as white because I am treated as such. Even though I always knew I was part Japanese and liked to tell everyone I never really felt Japanese. I never felt different because I looked like everybody else and had a similar lifestyle. I never felt I earned the title. I do remember learning about the internment camps. The thought that my grandfather and his family were there, that family I knew and loved went through that ordeal, changed something in me. At the time, some of my friends had never known about that shameful part of our history.”
How did being part Japanese affect your childhood in regards to other children/adult’s reactions to your heritage?
“All my classmates thought it was cool, but they asked me how I could be Japanese if I didn’t look it. I remember teaching friends in second grade how to use hashi (chopsticks). I don’t remember learning how to use them, I just always knew. They used to ask me to say stuff in Japanese. I only knew bathroom words so I refused to tell them any and tried to explain just because my grandpa was of Japanese heritage didn’t mean we all just spoke Japanese. My grandfather didn’t speak Japanese except for a few phrases. Being a Japanese-American during WW2 meant you felt pressure to prove your patriotism. Adults would always ask what my last name was and I was always proud to explain it’s Japanese.”
How does being part Japanese affect your adulthood?
“Honestly I feel like I can’t fully claim my Asian heritage because I have benefited from being white. I feel too privileged. I grew up white middle class. When filling out forms, my mom tells me to check the Asian box, but I never feel like I can. When I was a sub at a high school once an unruly student called me an inappropriate racial slur. That was the first time in my life anyone had called me that. It was awful. I sent him to the office. I had an ex-boyfriend throw that word around, not toward me, but when I asked him to stop he argued that it wasn’t a bad word, or even mean. That might have been worse. Most of the time though people are just curious when they find out I’m part Japanese and just want to learn about my family and I’m happy to share.”
What are your favorite Asian-American cultural influences?
“Wabi-Sabi – the art of finding beauty in the broken and imperfect; nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. Often broken objects like bowls are repaired with gold. The flaw is seen as a unique part of the piece’s history, which adds to its beauty. Other things are sushi, cherry blossoms, and Nintendo.”
What concerns do you have for any future children you might have in light of recent events and overall racism?
“I want my future kids to feel more rooted in their heritage. To know the food, the music, the books, important people. I want to expose them and immerse them in all types of cultures. I want them to know they are loved, worthy, and fierce. I do worry about how I can teach them to handle hate and racism. The fact that I would need to teach them about it at all is heartbreaking, how do you go about it? Knowing what is OK and not OK – sometimes people overlook words or phrases here or there and fail to realize its implications. It’s important to speak up and explain why something is hurtful, but it needs to be done in a respectful manner. It’s easier to correct children, harder to correct adults. Also, forgiveness. Being proud of who they are and where they came from and who they are in Christ. I worry how the world may tell them who they are, but I hope I can instill in them that their worth comes from God and that they are loved with an everlasting love.”