Moving forward

Jun 13th, 2020

My life makes a lot of sense on paper (or, more realistically, on LinkedIn). If you saw my resume, you might even assume that this was all intentional, that I was the architect of my own destiny since the beginning. What you wouldn’t see are decisions that I couldn’t make and, in some cases, decisions that I was too afraid to make, factors that have invariably have shaped the life that I have lived so far. The hard part – the part I’m still trying to figure out – is turning the “me” that I inevitably am today into the “me” that I desperately want to be tomorrow.

As a kid growing up in Athens, Georgia in the early ’90s, I remember always feeling different from everybody else for one reason or another, and rightfully so. For one thing, I was born in Japan and spoke Japanese at home. For the first ten years of my life, I was one of only a handful of Asian kids in my grade, none of whom were Japanese. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to college that I met another Japanese or Japanese American person my age, with the exception of one other Japanese family in Athens that we were friends with. Still, I remember having a mostly normal childhood; I played video games, watched cartoons, and hung out with friends just like anyone else. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that even though I had never self-identified as Asian American growing up – in fact, I remember feeling that my being Asian was more of a nuisance than anything – I would come to accept that I do in fact belong to that group. This itself is an ongoing lesson for me, to legitimize my own identity as an Asian American person and see it as a gift that allows me to connect with others with similar experiences.

At home, it was just me, my mom, and my sister. My parents had gotten divorced when I was young, and though I don’t remember that period of time very clearly, I assume that it had a profoundly negative emotional impact on me since I remember being pretty angry as a child. Looking back now, I commend my mom for raising the two of us by herself while also trying to kickstart her own career in a completely foreign country. At the time, however, I wasn’t capable of such compassion, and I remember inadvertently comparing my family to those of my friends and classmates. Questions like “Why can’t we have what they have?” or “Why isn’t our family like theirs?” weren’t uncommon coming from us kids. At school, I remember having to be more self-reliant because I assumed that my mom would either be too busy or too unfamiliar with English-language class materials to help, or both. The instructions to “have a parent proofread your essay” simply didn’t apply to me.

I moved around quite a bit as a kid, first from Georgia to Texas and then from there to Florida. It was there – just before starting high school – that I started to notice more differences between me and my peers. First, it was money. I think I had a pretty average upbringing, knowing that my family didn’t have lot of money and therefore not being able to do certain things. What is also true is that a lot of the people I went to school with came from much wealthier families; I knew this because I’d been to their houses before. Still, I tried not to let this affect me too much; after all, all of my closest friends accepted me for who I was, not what I had. Moreover, my main focus at the time was to do well in school; that’s the one thing I always knew that I was good at.

Beyond money, though, there was one thing that my peers had that I did envy with all my heart: U.S. citizenship. While my classmates were figuring out how to file for FAFSA, I was looking into what universities gave merit-based scholarships to international students (many made it abundantly clear that I would be decreasing my chances of acceptance if I checked the box that said “I wish to be considered for financial assistance”). While a substantial portion of my graduating class would go on to attend Florida universities at a massively discounted rate – or even for free – I was looking into alternatives since I wasn’t eligible for in-state tuition as a non-citizen. Perhaps most painfully, while my peers could travel freely into and out of the country, I was too afraid to risk travel due to heightened immigration restrictions since the September 11th attacks. I never got to see my grandfather again since leaving Japan in the summer of 2003; he passed away in 2008.

When I got to college, things felt a little easier. Everyone was more or less in the same situation: we all came in not knowing anyone, we all lived in dorms with strangers, and we all had to take classes. The majority of people weren’t going to make any major life decisions for at least four years, and I remember feeling mostly equal to my peers. I say ‘mostly’ because there were a few things that were more bothersome as an international student, like being limited to only on-campus employment or having to file paperwork with USCIS whenever my major or concentration changed (I flip-flopped between Computer Science and Psychology a couple of times, ultimately ending up with a double major). My college experience as a whole, though, was great. I made a lot of friends, grew as a person, and learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way. Things weren’t always easy, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

One thing to note about this period is that I still felt nervous about traveling with an immigrant visa – so much so that I even passed on a chance to go to my friend’s house in the U.S. Virgin Islands one spring break because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to come back. I ended up not leaving the country until more than a year after finishing my undergraduate degree, which meant that I opted not to study abroad and also didn’t visit my ailing grandmother for several years (I did miraculously get to see her one last time, as she passed away the summer that I finally visited). This was a challenging time for me, as I also hadn’t seen my dad since around the 8th grade, which naturally caused a rift in our relationship. Looking back now, I realize that the frustration I constantly felt was really just fear – fear of taking a chance to get what I wanted, of making a mistake.

Ironically, even though I never went to Japan during college, it was during this time that I began to feel more connected to my roots; I joined the Japanese-interest student group at my school, made a bunch of friends who were either Japanese or had a strong interest in Japan, and I even wondered at one point whether I would live in Japan after graduating. I never did, for a couple of reasons. One is that Japanese work culture is notoriously bad, even backward at times, and I really had no interest in putting myself through that experience. The other is that my Japanese reading and writing skills (and speaking, to a degree) are nowhere near proficient enough to live and work in Japan. I used to be self-conscious about this; after all, I look Japanese, have a Japanese name, and even hold a Japanese passport – shouldn’t I have a perfect command of the language? Over time, however, I began to realize the gift in being able to speak and understand Japanese at all, given how and where I grew up. These days I’m less afraid to make mistakes or even to sound a little “different” when I speak, because the truth is that I am different, and I’m proud of that.

I’ve also had my fair share of doubts since becoming a working person. I certainly wasn’t the best programmer in my college classes, and I remember feeling in my gut that I didn’t belong when I stepped into the office on my first day as a professional software engineer. If I’m to be honest, the feeling is still there today, severals years into my career. To state why, I think it’s because I’ve felt like a passive participant in my own journey for so long: taking one step forward at a time, not because I was heading where I wanted to go, but because I knew I couldn’t stop. Put another way, there was no chance to wander – or even wonder – as an immigrant; my one job was to stay on the path that, in the eyes of the government, brought me here. Even since becoming a permanent resident with almost as many rights as a citizen (except for the right to vote), I am still trying to shake the old habit of making a certain life decision because I think I have to; it’s been surprisingly difficult to do something purely because I want to. I realize now that I was using my past as a crutch all these years, the muscle of choice having atrophied away. With the need for a crutch gone, I’m slowly learning how to walk again, this time going where I want to go.

Needless to say, even though I worked hard to succeed in aspects of my life that I had control over, I felt that my life was shaped most tangibly by the things that I couldn’t control. At the same time, I don’t want to sound ungrateful; I know that I am extremely lucky for the opportunities that I have had, regardless of how they came to be. I also know that there was probably more that I could have done despite the circumstances – that I should have seen the glass as half-full and made the best of life. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to focus on the important things in life – to take care of my physical and mental health, remember to be grateful, and surround myself with loved ones – because I regret wasting so much of my energy on things I ultimately couldn’t change. Of course, I can’t go back in time, so these days I try to focus on the one direction I will always be moving toward – forward.