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The World

Growing Up Different but Never Alienated

With a Japanese mother and Australian father, she was treated as half foreign in Japan. Now she prepares to leave but finds it bittersweet.

October 02, 2005|Natalie Obiko Pearson | Associated Press Writer

The experience of my age demographic is captured by "Golden Half," the wildly popular 1970s singing group that helped inject "haafu" into the language.

The five women, all of mixed Japanese and Caucasian parentage, were glamorized and exoticized. They were the forerunners of the Eurasian face that continues to sell in Japan -- the haafu seen on fashion magazine covers, as TV personalities, as MTV video jockeys.

It's that fascination with the familiarly different that has women here running to plastic surgeons for eyelid incisions and nose jobs to look more Western.

But you won't find us haafu in the halls of political power or the boardrooms of major corporations; these are reserved for the "truly" Japanese.

As a haafu friend once put it, "You never get full admission to the club."

Knowing that you're different, you go through childhood either trying to prove your legitimacy, or turning your back on trying to be Japanese.

As an adolescent: I didn't just speak Japanese, I spoke the gritty dialect of the Kansai region that many outsiders find unintelligible. Even my international school, full of Westerners, abided by the suffocating rules of the Japanese seniority system: Juniors were silent until spoken to and carried their superiors' bags on sports trips.

By the time I left for New Jersey I was exasperated. I said goodbye not expecting to come back, except to visit my parents.

I'll always remember the feeling of liberation upon arriving in America. My appearance drew no attention, I spoke English with the neutral American inflections picked up at the international school -- I could pass.

Then came the pitfalls of my unfamiliarity with America: I knew none of the references to popular culture. I wasn't used to interrupting people so I never got a word in edgewise. I thought a Subway sandwich was something sold in the subway.

In Australia and the United States, countries of immigration built on diversity, I can pass as a native. In Japan I can only do it over the phone. The game is up the moment they see my face or hear my name -- Pea-ya-son, as it's pronounced in Japanese.

I did eventually come back, three years ago. I write this on the eve of my departure. This time around, I've come to understand that although my birth certificate says I'm Australian and I speak like an American, I'm more at home in Japan than any other country.

This has spurred me to become naturalized as a Japanese citizen. Many acquaintances show surprise that I didn't do so years ago. But somehow it seems fitting that I waited until now, after living in both Western and Eastern cultures, and can make a balanced decision.

Now I'll be living in Latin America, where my appearance, behavior, speech, everything will set me apart as a foreigner -- a strange choice, some might think, for someone who has struggled ever since those early days at the playground to find where she fits in.

That doesn't distress me as it once could have. I feel more comfortable on the periphery. Home is being on the outside.

Natalie Obiko Pearson, half-Australian, half-Japanese, was an AP correspondent in Tokyo who is now assigned to Caracas, Venezuela.

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