“Finding My Japanese Roots Abroad,” by Lisa Shoreland

Lisa Shoreland’s guest post today illuminates my mission to create connections across cultures. Lisa has crossed cultures in three ways–through her Japanese mother and American father. Through growing up in Japan, and then going to college in America. And through her travels to Italy and Vietnam. She’s spot on!

I enjoy how she allows her humor to roam. Laughter is a wonderful teacher. My world travels showed me how Midwestern I am–not just how American I am. So, I’m fascinated by how she found her Japanese roots abroad. –Janet


My peers at college had every reason to think I was an international student up until the point they engaged me in conversation. “Wow, your English is amazing!” they’d say, swishing their beer onto my shoes as they jumped back.

“Yeah, that’s because I’m an American.”

“No way. I see you walking to the store all the time. Why don’t you drive?”

“Because I can walk.”

“But that takes, like, thirty minutes.”

That’s usually the point I say one of three things: “Japan is a walking country,” “If only your country believed in trains,” or “Maybe if you guys walked a little more…” But I usually stop myself. It’s usually the right choice.

Although English is my first language, I was born and raised in Hiroshima, Japan to a Japanese mother and former United States Marine. I never realized until I left Japan to attend college in the States how Japanese my behavior was. I’d always figured that, because my mother was always rolling her eyes at me for my outspoken opinions and picky eating habits, I was American through and through.

(Apparently, you have to have a car first.)

Being Kind of American in America

Because many people understand America to be a melting pot of sorts, I find myself feeling self-conscious when out and about here as opposed to feeling rather confident in Japan. To this day, I wind up tighter than a tangled slinky at the mere thought of going to the bank. The first day I deposited a check—stumbling over every other word and getting the stink-eye from the lady behind the desk—still plagues my dreams.

On the other hand, I feel perfectly comfortable making a fool of myself in Japan, despite being of the age where I should be able to file my taxes all by my big old self. The difference is that in Japan, I look like a foreigner, even if I speak the language fluently. In America, I look like an American—albeit an Asian-American—and speak fluent English. If I don’t know what “mulch” is or which window to stand at to get prescription medicine at CVS, I get pegged an idiot. Blurting out, “I grew up in Hiroshima!” doesn’t exactly do much to clear the air, I’ve found.

Being Mostly Japanese Everywhere Else: Italy

Having spent the first 19 years of my life trapped on a little island (the culture of which I didn’t appreciate until I left), I became determined in college to travel everywhere I could. In 2007, I studied abroad with my American college peers to northern Italy.
Maybe it’s that I was already bilingual and the idea of learning a new language wasn’t scary or foreign to me—I was the only one to really try my hand at Italian.

I was surprised when our teacher’s son remarked one day, “You speak Italian like a Japanese person.” (Apparently, Americans have a hard time rolling their Rs.) I was more surprised when he said to me later in the semester, “You know how I know you’re Japanese? You get drunk first.”

Being Mostly Japanese Everywhere Else: Vietnam

I loved Italy, but I felt much more in my element when in 2008 I studied abroad in Vietnam. I found the Buddhist culture and many mannerisms emphasizing politeness and harmony familiar. What was also familiar was the sight of many Americans scrunching their noses up at Vietnamese food.

Lest you think I’m on a U.S.-bashing-spree, let me say that I still remember running around the house—up and down stairs, between doors, under tables—with my mother chasing after me with a bowl of some obscure traditional Japanese food.
Still, having been around Marines in Japan, I knew what it felt like to be told that my food was “weird” because it was raw or contained roots instead of ground beef and bread.

I therefore spent most of my meals in Vietnam focusing on every flavor and eating as much of a variety of local foods as I could, to pay for my past sins of a sort and prove that I was, indeed, Asian. (Inevitably, I spent many days worshiping the porcelain god with food poisoning, thinking, “Wow, this tasted a lot better going down than up.”)

I’d recovered by the time our group reached Ha Long Bay. As in Italy, I had a phrasebook in my pocket and my (stereotypical) camera in the other; I visited our tour guide on the deck and asked him for a few tips on how to pronounce certain Vietnamese words.

“Xin lôi?” I tried.

“Yes, perfect!” our guide Quynh said. “Xin lôi. What else do you know?”

“Cám ón.”

“Ah,” he said, grinning. “You’ve learned ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Thank you’ first. You are Japanese.”

Seeing as I’d never appreciated my roots until branching off into the world, there was something strangely gratifying in that remark.


Lisa Shoreland is a resident blogger at Go College, where recently she’s been researching preparing for college in high school as well as environmental studies grants. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing, practicing martial arts, and taking weekend trips.

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