Fringers Part III

Part III- Journey Back Home

From the time I was very young I can recall wanting to meet my dad. I would eagerly wait for postcards and letters from him filled with photos and talk of meeting each other. Sometime in elementary school all contact fell off and by the time I was in college I still had yet to meet him. I had this fantasy that once I met my dad and went to Turkiye to meet the rest of my family it would suddenly change my life and I would find the place where I’d finally fit in.

After years of waiting to contact my father I decided to try finding him via the internet through a search engine. Surprisingly, I found his contact information on a website about his art. I emailed him at first simply asking for my grandparents’ current address as I hadn’t communicated with my grandmother in many years. This eventually led to my visiting him a couple times in Florida. During one of these visits I met my aunt and uncle who were visiting. My aunt is not an emotional person by any account, but we both found ourselves crying when we had to part ways after just a few days of laughter, exchanges in broken English and Turkish and  exchanging gifts. It would be a few more years before I would see her again.

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One of the things that stands out the most to me about my visits to get to know my dad was how aware I became of my racial/ethnic identity when I was with him. Growing up in a white family as someone who can pass, race never really came up. However, when I would go out with my dad I was acutely aware that his phenotype and strong accent highlighted my difference to others. I can recall actually being frightened after 9-11 that people would attack us as many people make no differentiation between any of the countries or people in the Middle East, seeing them all as American enemies. In an odd way, despite my constant claiming and assertion of mixed identity- these were some of the first times when it was done for me. What was often an invisible identity to others became extremely visible in a way I did not have control over. To make things more complex being in my dad’s presence not only brought my race/ethnicity into question, but his accent brought our nationality and citizenship to the forefront. Despite all of my concerns, I cannot recall a circumstance in which I experienced anything negative due to race/nationality while with my dad, but this too is likely due to his racial ambiguity and being in multicultural areas.

As time quickly passed and my grandparents heard of my interactions with my dad, they had my cousins contact me and eventually get a trip setup to visit. After over 20 years of my grandmother ending letters with, “God willing (İnşallah) we will meet one day,” it was finally happening. For my mother and future husband this was not exactly the ideal time as the U.S. Embassy in Turkiye had recently been bombed, however I had this overwhelming sense of peace and confidence that this was where I was suppose to be at that exact time and there was no harm that would come my way.
I also knew that another chance may never present itself and was determined to go.

Funnily enough my biggest fear was getting lost in the airport and not being able to get help due to a language barrier and not recognizing my cousins who were coming to pick me up. My mom had also helped me practice what to say to customs agents about coming to visit family so as not to raise any suspicions given the recent political terrain. After all of my worrying not only did the customs agent not ask a single question, but everything in the aiport had an English translation and my cousins and I immediately recognized each other despite never having met and only one or two phone calls and a handful of photos. On the ride back to the Asian side of Turkiye I was surprised not only at how beautiful and surreal the country was, but that I was hearing American music on their airwaves.

I spent the next few weeks between Istanbul and Antalya. The country was as beautiful as I’d been told and my family collectively worked to make sure I met everyone and was treated wonderfully. One of my cousins used much of his vacation leave to spend time taking me  around and we instantly bonded; it was as if we’d known each other forever. However, when I was not with my cousins, who could provide translation or when discussions would slip into Turkish or there appeared to be a disagreement of sorts I was reminded that I would never truly understand the family dynamics or feel that I one hundred percent fit-in no matter how hard they tried to make me feel included.

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The most difficult part of the trip was spending a week with my grandparents and uncle where we were unable to communicate with each other. By this point I had finished the only book I’d brought, which ironically was Malcolm X’s biography detailing his trip to the MECCA, read every book in English that my family owned and written and recorded countless diary entries. My grandmother spoke to me in Turkish at a rapid speed with a smile on her face, while my grandfather took a silent approach by grabbing my hand and taking me along while pointing at things.

One of the memories I cherish the most was when my grandparents took me into town. We went into jewelry store after jewelry store where trays of gold were pulled out and they would look at me and point to the gold bracelets being displayed, while I would get extremely uncomfortable because I had no idea how much the jewelry cost. Finally we entered a store where one of the employees was able to translate and let me know that they wanted me to pick out a bracelet. I chose the smallest one. It had delicate circles that reminded me of the waves at the beach in Antalya.  I watched as my grandfather pulled out what appeared to be an extremely large amount of money after they weighed the bracelet. My uncle and grandmother motioned for me to kiss my grandfather on the cheek as we walked out and as I did a very large grin spread across his face. Shortly after buying the bracelet my grandfather took a trolley back to the apartment and it was clear that his only purpose in coming along was to get me a special bracelet. When it was time for me to leave their home and return to stay with my aunt they each pulled a “typical” grandparent move, pulling me aside and “sneaking” me money.

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The trip taught me two things. The first was that my family in Turkiye loves me simply because we are related; they don’t care if we speak the same language, live in the same country or have hardly spent any time together. They love me because I exist and nothing can stand in the way of that. I had heard about family being of extreme importance within Turkish culture, but experiencing it was quite another thing. The second lesson I learned was that at my core I am truly American and always will be. Even if I learn the Turkish language, spend every summer abroad and immerse myself in Turkish culture every second of the day I will still be the fringer within my family.





At the beginning of my journey I focused on finding an experience or place that would instantaneously make me feel one hundred percent understood and accepted at all times. I lived based on the premise that I was lacking something that I needed to find and only then would I be complete. What I found along the way was a series of confirmations that I am a life-long fringer and that my experiences and occupation of strange spaces—somewhere between Europe, Asia and America, between Christianity, Islam and spirituality, being a white passing Middle Eastern woman, yet identifying as mixed because I understand this experience more than my own culture— are what make me who I am.

One of the most powerful revelations I came to was at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity a couple of years ago. After watching the documentary “A Lot Like You” I became very emotional and asked the biracial filmmaker Eli Kimaro if after traveling to Tanzania and shooting a documentary about her journey she has ever truly felt like she fit in with her Tanzanian family. Her response was profound. She told me that maybe our purpose isn’t to fit in. She gave an example of how she kept asking her aunts about their lives and cultural practices that she would have known never to ask about had she grown up in Tanzania, but through her outsider status she didn’t and persisted. Eventually her aunts opened up about being raped and brutalized. She told me that it was by her being an outsider that she unknowingly asked inappropriate questions, which ultimately resulted in her aunts finding some healing from what they had experienced. She then proceeded to tell me that her daughter has seemingly from birth had an innate and profound connection to Tanzania, so maybe that connection is not part of our purpose, yet our purpose of being fringers is just as important.

Now, instead of focusing on lacking knowledge and experiences I think about what I do know and who I can touch and connect with as a fringer. I understand a mother’s desperate love to protect a child from a culture she did not understand how to navigate, so somewhere in a synergy of love and fear she did her best, which meant distancing the child from the rest of her family and identity. I know what it’s like to “reclaim” your name and heritage and find a parent using Google. I know what it’s like to be raised by a biological parent, yet take the journey of a transnational/transracial adoptee to find their biological family members only to realize how much you are like them, yet how you are so completely shaped by the family that raised you. I know what it’s like to take a life-changing journey that is simply a beautiful exotic extended vacation to those around you, meant to be discussed for a week or so upon return before being shut away in photo books to be discussed on a rare occasion. I know what it’s like to be an adult in academia and still get that feeling of discomfort when asked how I identify or worse yet, have my identity policed by others. Most of all I know that the validation and acceptance I flew thousands of miles to find was never something anyone else could provide. That’s the ironic thing about journeys, we frequently come to the realization that what we believed to be lacking and searched for externally, has in fact always resided within the core of who we are patiently waiting to be realized.

bio elmsNaliyah Kaya is the Coordinator for Multiracial & Multicultural Student Involvement & Community Advocacy at the University of Maryland College Park where she works closely with Multiracial/Multiethnic and Native American Indian/Indigenous student groups, serving as an advocate for the needs of these communities. She currently teaches TOTUS Spoken Word Experience and Leadership & Intersecting Identities: Stories of the MULTI racial/ethnic/cultural Experience.

As a poetic public sociologist, Naliyah utilizes poetry as a medium for teaching and social change. She encourages students to engage in artistic expression as they examine their own identities, beliefs and values and as a form of activism in promoting social justice. It is her hope that through this process of self-exploration students will embrace cultural pluralism, find commonalities across differences and engage in research and dialogues that seek to benefit the greater good of society through positive social action.

A native of Washington State, Naliyah grew up just outside of Seattle. She earned an A.A.S. from Shoreline Community College, a B.A. in Sociology from Hampton University, and received her M.A. & Ph.D. in Sociology at George Mason University. Her poetry has been published in Hampton University’s literary magazine The Saracen, George Mason University’s VolitionVoices of the Future Presented by Etan Thomas and Spindrift Art & Literary Journal.

Learn more about Naliyah and her work on her website.

Liminality as Inheritance: On Being Mixed and Third Culture

The following is adapted from previous posts published at Discover Nikkei and Best American Poetry.

“To be hybrid anticipates the future.” —Isamu Noguchi, 1942

Noguchi’s prescient words are manifesting on every level in our time. Just look around you: rigid binaries and categories continue to shift, dissolve, and flow into one another, creating a new “third”. As a woman of mixed heritage I’m compelled by the process that unfolds in this liminal space—a space that isn’t this or that, but is its own realm—a borderland of both/and. It is a space of fluidity and potentiality where all my “selves” are free to be, where I’m beholden to no one culture, camp, or tribe, but can instead move between and among them. It’s an exciting, and destabilizing, time in which to be alive.

The symbolic and psychological meanings of “borderlands”—both internal and external—have been my preoccupation for years. It’s a preoccupation that comes with the territory. I am the daughter of a Japanese mother born before World War II in Tokyo to an upper middle-class family and a French Canadian-New Englander father who grew up during the Great Depression in a working class, bilingual family. My parents raised my brother and me with both cultures in various locations in California, Micronesia, and Japan. This last is why I also consider myself an adult Third Culture Kid—a person who’s been raised in places and cultures other than her parents’ passport country/countries. TCKs internalize aspects of all the cultures in which they’ve been immersed while not having full ownership in any. Consequently, I’m adaptable, curious, restless, and can live pretty much anywhere. My least favorite question is “Where are you from?” because it is impossible to answer. If I were to use a food metaphor to describe my internal experience, Asian hot pot (or nabemono in Japanese) probably comes closest. Although I often felt “other” as a younger person, in midlife I’m finally learning to settle into and appreciate my unique background and have mostly let go of struggling to fit in. I’ve come to learn that I prefer the in-between.

Months after my birth in Kobe, Japan, my father moved us to Southern California and then on to Santa Barbara, Guam, and Tokyo. This regular uprooting, combined with my bicultural upbringing, contributed to my feelings of otherness. In the sixties there were few children like me, even in California, where I spent my first nine years. As a child, I felt I was different from most of the people around me, but didn’t yet understand how or why. Not until I lived for seven years in Guam, where my father taught high school music, and then spent a year of high school in Tokyo did I have regular contact with other mixed and Third Culture kids.

Mom + DadMy otherness, I was to learn, is a family legacy. My mother, who left Japan alone as a young woman in the mid-1950s to follow her dream of living in America, and against her parents’ wishes, was not cut from traditional Japanese cloth: ambitious, outspoken, creative, and intellectually curious, she felt constrained by the limited options available to women in post-World War II Japan.My father, whom my mother met in Boston where they were both students, was “other” in his family by being the only one of seven children to attend college and to live outside of the United States.


My strong-willed mother, socialized in post-World War II Japan, was, paradoxically, also dutiful and self-sacrificing. Like many of her generation, she taught me to read and to play the piano at home by the age of three and before I began any formal study in either; patiently tutored my brother and me to read and write Japanese; and read to us in both Japanese and English. I now marvel that my mother, who struggled herself as an isolated immigrant woman in her adopted country where she was interchangeably devalued and exoticized, managed to do these things for us from her deep sense of love and duty. Her innate strengths, cultural values, and, yes, otherness made possible her later career as an entrepreneur, where she moved easily between diverse business and social groups, successfully negotiating multiple, and sometimes conflicting, sets of interests and expectations.

Guam 1970 - Tumon Beach

When we made the rare family trip to Japan, my mother made a point of introducing me to traditional Japanese arts and culture. Among my favorite memories were our visits to the vast, colorful, and cacophonous basement food floors, or depachika, of Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya, my mother’s beloved Ginza department stores. Wherever we went in Japan, I could sense her wordless love for the country and culture she’d left behind. Although it would be years until I could appreciate what she’d given me, I absorbed what she offered until it became a part of me.

My father has said that what saved him from the limited prospects of his Depression-era, provincial, and conservative Roman Catholic upbringing was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. There, as a young soldier living away from New England for the first time, he was introduced to Western literature by his bunkmates who’d attended college. On leave in Japan, my father fell in love with Japanese culture and, much later, returned to permanently live in that country, where he has remained for nearly 40 years, occupying the unique borderland of the long-term expat. After his military service he attended college in Boston on the GI Bill and later completed a Master’s degree in music education, eventually taking a risk by embracing his lifelong passion for directing choral music as a full-time vocation and sharing his passion with an international community of singers and music lovers in Tokyo for 30 years. It’s amazing to me that my father, a man of humble origins, went on to cultivate such an expansive and creative life, despite many early setbacks. His otherness became a resource.

family, Upland

In my early twenties, living in L.A. after college, I began to feel curious about Japan and my Japanese self and moved to Tokyo in 1985. There I worked at tedious jobs, but the visa they afforded and the money I earned allowed me to explore Tokyo, travel within Japan, and socialize with my Japanese friends, who, although they were very kind to me, mostly regarded me as gaijin (“outsider”) and periodically wondered aloud when I would return to my country. People of mixed-Japanese origin—known as hafu, or “half” in Japanese—were not as common in Japan as they are now, and increasingly so. Although I learned much about Japan and valued what I learned, it became clear to me that I would never—could never—be considered Japanese, even if I read, wrote, and spoke the language fluently, married a Japanese man, adopted a Japanese name, and lived there for the rest of my life. After a couple of years of this marginal and marginalized existence, feeling lonely and at loose ends, I returned to the U. S. I now periodically travel to Japan to visit my family in Tokyo and Kamakura when I can. Today, we can see that Japan’s deep-seated and rigid boundaries against “other” are being strongly challenged, both within and without its borders. Dynamism is working against stasis and change is inevitable.

Like many TCKs and persons of mixed ancestry, I have searched all my life for “home”. In late 2012 I relocated to the Los Angeles area after more than two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. L.A.’s a good place for in-between-ers like me. In this sprawling metropolis with no center, a place that’s in a perpetual state of fragmentation, disintegration, and transformation and whose population represents every culture and nation, I can enjoy a sense of internal and external spaciousness. But it’s a restless city and its vast size lends itself to tribalism. As a relative newcomer, it’s been challenging to find a place of belonging. But then I’m reminded that, as an adult TCK who’s moved over 40 times since my birth, I’ve always felt this way, no matter where I’ve lived. I belong everywhere and nowhere.

I’m grateful that, in addition to beautiful mountains and beaches, L.A. has a significant presence of people of Japanese descent. When I’m not in Japan—a country that I consider my spiritual home—my primary contact with Japanese culture here has been via my excursions to downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo. I don’t consider myself Japanese American because that’s an identity, a community’s history, that my mother’s family doesn’t share. The Japanese American experience seems, to me, to be essentially tied to the internment on U.S. soil of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. That said, there is something deeply nourishing about spending time in J-town, an urban borderland that’s not America and not Japan, but a liminal space where I find solace—a feeling that’s almost belonging—in familiar objects, images, and food.

These many years later, I am still learning how to make peace with the big questions: Who am I? What am I? And, more importantly, how do I want to be known, first and foremost, to myself? I feel like I’m finally approaching a kind of clarity and hard-won self-acceptance. As a friend recently wrote to me, being mixed seems not just liminal, but is a space of its own that’s not quite defined and maybe never will be. In Japanese British filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s excellent documentary Neither Here Nor There, she movingly describes her own struggle to define and integrate the various strands of her mixed heritage and growing up as a Third Culture Kid between Japan and England. Like Yamazaki, I am learning how to be “other” and yet find “home”.

Note: I was re-introduced to the notion of “borderlands”, as it applies to mixed-race experience, by Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, author of When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities (Stanford University Press).

Mari-LEsperanceBorn in Kobe, Japan, Mari L’Esperance is a poet, writer, and editor and lives in the Los Angeles area. Her poetry collection The Darkened Temple (2008 University of Nebraska Press) was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize. An earlier collection, Begin Here, was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. With Tomás Q. Morín, she’s co-edited an anthology Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine (2013 Prairie Lights Books/University of Iowa Press). You can find Mari online at