Growing an Exotic Flower

I grew up in an entirely White neighborhood, in a predominantly White school system, and interacted mostly with my White family members. I watched decidedly Western TV (read: Hannah Montana) and read books with similarly homogenous characters (I still have all 58 of the Hardy Boys books). As I grew older and began my life-long obsession with historical fiction, I identified my history more with the stories of Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I than I did with those of Princess Chikako of Japan and Princess Jahanara of India. My second grade Ancestor Report described the immigration of my father’s grandmother from Germany to the United States; no mention of my mother’s family was made on that sky-blue poster board.

American and European history, however, do not represent the story of all my ancestors. Half of me is graced with my mother’s rich Filipino blood that incorporates heavy Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish influences, a far cry from the Irish and German traditions of my father.  Although I was blessed with multiple trips to the Philippines, frequent Tagalog between my mother and aunts, and monthly get-togethers with the local Filipino community, throughout childhood I continued to identify myself as an enthusiastic and whole-hearted Caucasian-American. For a while, I never felt torn between two cultures or thought that others separated me from my neighbors and their blonde hair, freckles, and fair skin.  In her essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde introduces the idea of a mythical norm, which in the United States is most often defined as “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, and financially secure.” She claims that most people acknowledge in some part of themselves that they do not fit that norm – that they are an “other” who identifies differently than that unspoken norm. I did not feel that way. My mother’s heritage simply served more as an interesting accent to spice up my traditional, White, Midwestern upbringing than an inherent part of my own identity.

It was not until the fifth grade when my “otherness” from my own community became a truly salient factor in my own identification. Two young girls about four years my junior, one from Spain and the other from Nigeria, approached me as I waited impatiently in the lunch line for my coveted Thursday ravioli and asked me, with huge smiles on their faces, if I spoke another language. A little taken aback but nevertheless pleased to once again add a little sprinkle of Filipino to my Midwestern community, I replied the negative. Almost as an afterthought, I asked them why they chose to ask me – out of all the other kids in the line –such a question.


“Well – your eyes are a little different,” one replied before scampering off with her friend.


I ran off to my best friend and urgently asked her if she saw something different too. She awkwardly avoided eye contact and told me that “yea –  they’re a little smaller than usual.”

And so began my decade-long process of self-definition. Erik Erikson, a psychologist known for his theory on psychosocial development, described this process of identity formation as a “process of simultaneous reflection and observation” in which a person constantly judges herself with reference to how she thinks others judge her in comparison to themselves. That is, I was constantly deciding between which race I “felt on the inside” and how others viewed me. Before that moment, I never thought that I saw something different in my reflection than what my classmates and friends saw. But now I had to choose. Until high school (when “more than one race” finally became an option), I alternated between “Asian” and “White” on standardized tests. It was not an option to embrace both identities simultaneously. When in the United States, I was undoubtedly Asian, as my olive tone and eye structure quickly gave away. When in the Philippines, my towering 5’ 9” frame and fair skin (not to mention that I don’t speak Tagalog) revealed my Whiteness. It was simply a battle I could not win.

As I transitioned out of high school, I intentionally chose the University of Michigan to escape that battle. Beverly Tatum, a prominent psychologist and educator on racial identity, argues that individuals belonging to a “dominant” group do not truly know the experience of “subordinates” due to extensive social segregation in both communities themselves and the wider social sphere (e.g. TV shows, books, movies, etc…). At Michigan, I wouldn’t be in a small, Catholic, White-washed school. I could interact with people from all different heritages and begin to challenge the epistemic dominance prevalent in my own experiences. I immediately enrolled in the class “Growing up Latino/a” because I wanted to engage in a discussion between myself, a self-identified privileged White woman, and those who oftentimes do not benefit from that same privilege. As Audre Lorde argued often occurs with those from dominant communities, I did not want to make it the responsibility of the oppressed to teach me about my mistakes; I wanted to seek out my own role in the cycle of systematic oppression.

The class was a small seminar of about 20 students seated around a round table arranged to facilitate student engagement. Roughly half of the students were Latino or African-American; the other half were Caucasian. As I quickly learned transitioning between Caucasian-American and Filipino-American communities, those who belong to the majority group often do not realize they are the majority until they’re suddenly not. This was certainly evident as I stepped into the classroom for the first time. The unusually high ratio of minority to Caucasian students was immediately salient; the atmosphere was not the same vaguely-interested flavor common to many first days of class. Normal lackadaisical attitude was replaced by an inexplicable edginess. As we each expressed why we wanted to take the class, some students fidgeted uncomfortably. Others did not make eye contact with their peers. Few looked absolutely relaxed. Regardless of their demeanor, the resounding theme was that each one of us wanted to learn about a culture with which half of us had limited to no exposure. It was exciting! I was finally with people who all had different perspectives and were excited and willing to hear about other interpretations of the American experience.


By the next week, every single White student had dropped the class.


Again, I was faced with the dichotomous choice of my racial self-identification. I had identified myself as an “other” in that class, an individual who usually passes with White privilege. I was a White student who enrolled in that class to learn about different minority experiences. But I did not drop the class, as my White peers did. The African-American students did not drop the class, even though they too were delving into a Latino experience different from their own. Did that mean I was actually a minority student, because I did not feel uncomfortable enough to drop the class? Or was I a White student who just happened to be more open to the unusual racial distribution? Or was I actually teetering on the edge of White and non-White, because I was alert enough walking into the room to notice the high proportion of minority students, but not uncomfortable enough to drop the class? I could not go beyond that form of binary thinking. To which group did I belong? Whom did I represent?

As I finished my junior year of college, I finally felt like I had found a rhythm in my college experience. I had found close friends, a welcoming faith community, and a field that I felt passionate about. Never before had I felt so included and welcomed in the university setting. As I sat down with a White Ann Arbor mother in a local psychological clinic, she expressed concern that her young child wasn’t making any friends. That is, he was making friends – just not friends they would usually “find in their neighborhood.” I brushed her oblivious microaggression off, chalking it up to the overprotective tiger-mom persona she clearly conveyed to the psychologist and myself. She was only one mildly racist woman in the otherwise welcoming Ann Arbor. As soon as she left the room, the psychologist turned to me to express her dismay at such a blatantly racist comment. Especially, she said, when someone “not from her neighborhood” was sitting right in the room with her. I looked at her for a moment, confused. Who was she talking about in the room who wasn’t “from her neighborhood?”  Only the three of us had been present. Then I realized.


She was talking about me.


I was the person my supervisor (a lovely, kind, intelligent woman) considered “not from her neighborhood.” Never mind that I had grown up in the upper-middle class of Lansing, MI. Or have a two highly educated parents. Or only speak English. Again, my identity formation was challenged as I was forced to confront the difference between how others perceive me and how I perceive myself.  To many, I am an “other.” To myself, I was indistinguishable from my Caucasian peers. I believe I have a pretty hefty invisible knapsack that allows me to pass with unearned privileges that many are not privy to. But do I, really? I’ve been pulled over three times and never received a ticket… so yes? I’ve had people tell me to go back to China… so no? I’ve had strangers call me an “exotic flower” … so maybe?

Perhaps the answer, though, isn’t so easy. I am Filipina. It would be an insult to my mother and our family to deny the history that has been such a formative part of my mother’s life, and consequently, my upbringing. Yet I know without a doubt that I do live a privileged life. I’ve always assumed that neighbors will be pleasant to me. I feel comfortable wearing used clothing without people attributing that choice to my race. I’ve never had trouble finding makeup that fits my skin tone. So, perhaps, this dichotomous approach between White and non-White does not fully account for the identities that shape who I am. Maybe, after all, I am not either White or non-White. Maybe I can be an “other” in the communities in which I live, yet still experience White privilege because I am not only an “other.” And I am not only White. I am an entire being made of the intersection of experiences that have formed my world perspective, including experiences of privilege, marginalization, and some hazy in-betweens. These experiences cannot be so easily binned into two categories. Perhaps then, social expectations that so definitively categorize entire identities, including entire social movements, do not give justice to the depth of the populations they serve and their intersectionality. Maybe social justice itself, at least in part, is the process in which individuals acknowledge and engage in their intersecting identities, combine them with those of others, and use that more comprehensive viewpoint to instigate change and awareness in their communities.

Everyone has a variety of intersecting identities that shape the way he or she views the world and interacts with others. Gender, sexuality, race, and able-ness are only a few of the identities that people can claim to be their own and that can affect the way individuals interpret their world. Many people grow into adulthood fully aware of their many overlapping identities. I did not. I am continually adjusting my interpretation of myself in terms of both race, womanhood, social class, and education and reflecting on the ways different interpretations of these identities affect how I present myself to society and how society views me. And this, in a narrow lens, is the foundation of social justice. Social justice relies on both the process through which individuals and communities can reflect on and acknowledge themselves as a coalescence of many identities as well as the progress we’ve made to empower that coalescence. I have realized that I don’t need to neatly bin myself into White or non-White. That simply doesn’t do my person justice. I am a White, Filipina, educated young woman…and so much more.


Andrea Maxwell was born in raised in the Lansing, MI area. Her mother grew up in Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines, and her father is originally from Indiana and is of Irish and German descent. Andrea is currently a senior at the University of Michigan studying Neuroscience and Psychology and is interested in the intersection of biology, psychology, and social justice. She hopes to serve as an advocate for human rights through both clinical and research involvement in the mental health field.

Monkey in the Middle

Growing up we always got the “Oh! Such pretty girls you have!” compliment. Growing up it was fun knowing we were “pretty” and being told that everywhere we went. However, as we got older, we started to see what it really meant, or at least our perception started to shift on our meaning of that compliment. We knew we were very blessed and thankful for our skin color, and hair we were lucky to have, but we didn’t want to be just another “pretty” face in society, we wanted to make a difference. Some made it seem like we always had everything given to us because of how we looked. Yet, we could never quite fit in with the black kids or white kids because of our background. We were either too white, or too black, so it was as if we were the black girl when with the white kids in school or the white girl with the black kids and too “boujee”, like everything was just handed to us on a silver platter and we couldn’t understand what being black really meant. We were like a walking target of jokes, of “oh, you won’t get it, you’re not black enough”, or “it’s a white people thing, you won’t understand”. It seemed like no matter what we did, we could never get it right; and the fact that we’re all 3 years apart and still heard the same thing from our peers bothered us. It just really shows that no matter what age or generation we’re a part of, it’s like those mixed kids will get those comments. We’re forced to be only one side of ourselves to fit in, or if we don’t, then we don’t belong to either group. Just a monkey in the middle. As we continue to grow, we don’t want to be just pretty faces for we have goals and ambitions. We want to do something in our lives to not prove to not only others, but to ourselves as well, that we are somebody in this world, and we don’t have to pick a side to do it.

As sisters, we conquer in our own unique ways and in many different aspects of our lives. We don’t want to be just “pretty”, we want to be smart, intellectual, proactive, leaders, and role models. We are heavily involved in our community, giving back to our church, schools, and teams that we are a part of. Graduating high school and going to college, we each have our own niche.

Megan, the oldest, studied abroad which led her to more adventures in Panama. She completed 2 years of service in the Peace Corp and now speaks fluent Spanish. With that, she will now be going on a mission trip with our church to help translate.

Amanda, the second oldest, graduated from the military college of South Carolina, The Citadel, as a top student-athlete. She dominated on the court and academically, which led to her currently work for a large company while pursuing her dream of modeling.

Alexis, the youngest, is currently working on her degree in education to teach middle level math and social studies. However, in the meantime she has shown her presence by playing on the volleyball team and she continues to give back to her community, while balancing the job of student athlete, and coaching club volleyball.

All three of us work very hard to make an impact on each individual we encounter. We strive to do great things in life and follow our dreams, yet many think it comes easy for us, when in reality it doesn’t. We all have our stories, our own unique struggles and victories for we’re human just like everyone else. We want to start with the movement #Other. In society, we have all encountered numerous of times where we are asked to select our race and when we are only allowed to choose one race, we are once again forced to pick a side; shadowing half of who we are. We challenge everyone, whether white, black, hispanic, asian, biracial or multiracial to choose Other. We want to get rid of being labeled by skin tone, gender, or backgrounds and just see each other as human beings. We all live in this melting pot of different backgrounds, all connected by the love and respect we are to share with other beings. We hope to stop bullying no matter what race, gender, religion, or sexual preference. We want to challenge society to see people for who they truly are in their mind and soul and not their predetermined labels. We’re all just human.


Megan Rudnik received her B.S. in International Business with a minor in Spanish and her MBA from Winthrop University. Since graduating, Megan spent 2 years in the eace Corp, serving in Panama. She also recently completed 4 months in China teaching English.

Amanda Rudnik received her B.S. in Business Administration with a Concentration in Accounting from The Citadel. While at The Citadel, Amanda played all four years on the Citadel volleyball while serving in various leadership roles in the South Carolina Corp of Cadet. Amanda now currently works for a large company and pursues her dream of modeling.

Alexis Rudnik is currently a student at Winthrop University, studying Middle Level Education Math and Social Studies. Alexis was a member of the 2016 Winthrop Volleyball team and is currently coaching volleyball at the club level.

We all grew up in Minnesota for 10 years before moving to our current residence in South Carolina. Our mother is African American and Native American and from Alabama. Our father is Polish and German and originally from Minnesota.

Can We Talk

Please check one of the following boxes:








In my younger days I remember filling out a job application and staring at that question about race for so long. Do I check the ‘Black” box? What the hell is “Other?” My hand hovered over the question for a long time …

The more I write about life as a mixed-race person, and what this means to me as a mother, woman, writer etc, the more the writing itself tends to be less about race and more about missing pieces, and figuring out the order of these pieces and how to put them together. And not only the pieces I’ve never had, but re-working and making do with the ones I do have.

My dad and I have never had a face to face conversation. We’ve written emails back and forth here and there over the course of 15 years. I’ve been struggling for a while now, stuck in the two parts of myself, wondering where I am supposed to fit. What stories are mine? What stories do I have the right to tell? I hold on tightly to fragments. I wonder if he knows the complexities of what I went through growing up. I wonder if he would have constructed a conversation with me as a young girl and given me advice on how to deal with questions about where I came from. I wonder how that conversation would have sounded.


From: Dad

To: Chelene

Sent: Sunday April 28, 2013 6:37 p.m.

Subject: Re: Uganda 1972: An Erasure Prose Poem draft

Oh my god, this is very good Chelene. How did you do this? It has some really good depth in how you constructed this. If anyone who reads both the articraft in your creation with the context of the true reality for those who were ousted as well as the dictatorship of what happened especially without changing the order of the words, tells a story almost in a biblical way.


From: Chelene

To: Dad

Sent: Sunday April 28, 2013 5:45 p.m.

Subject: Uganda 1972: An Erasure Prose Poem draft

Uganda—the pearl of Africa.  The beauty of a peaceful sun setting could not erase our growing feeling that the flavour of a once promising land was evaporating.  African kingdoms: The Bunyoro kingdom, the Buganda kingdom—it’s strength abolished and divided.  The people were divided, shaken by the expulsion, the elimination—Amin’s brutal reign of terror.  Carpenters, mechanics, shoemakers and tailors—the middlemen.  The sting of a privileged position?  Never.  The political winds transformed into a choice.  Minority eyes prevailed that day.  Identify yourself; breakthrough for Uganda.  The Asian presence of Kampala.  His palace.  His tombs were woven thatched roofs that swooped to a point high above the straw-laden floors below, lending a cathedral-like silence to the sacredness of the earth below where royal attendants continually watched over the remains of their dead kings.  Kampala—the arched and pillared windows were endless.  Nestled behind sundown, an Indian dialect of silks and cottons.  Our eyes lettered names like “Patel” and “Desai” “Bombay Emporium.”  The ashes of Uganda walked many miles and carried their heads.  It was tedious work.   It took years.  The image was small, this image.  It was the same image they left behind.  Why should we wait in line for justice?  Help us begin to drink the pain of Uganda.  The mountains appeared at sunset.  The hillsides of women flowed in the breeze.  The men brought comfort but their eyes told accounts of death.  In their minds, their birth.  Like precious jewels in a hairdo or turban, we heard stories of escape.  They looked back on the homes they built.  They looked back on the tiny store their grandfather established.  A mirror of minority alone in their difficult hours.  Uprooted.


I considered the pieces. I re-ordered the pieces. Using ONLY the pieces I had, I created a conversation between my father and I:


Uganda—the pearl of Africa.  The beauty of a peaceful sun setting could not erase our growing feeling that the flavour of a once promising land was evaporating.  African kingdoms: The Bunyoro kingdom, the Buganda kingdom—its strength abolished and divided.

“If anyone who reads both the articraft in your creation …”

A mirror of minority alone in their difficult hours.

The people were divided, shaken by the expulsion, the elimination—Amin’s brutal reign of terror.  Carpenters, mechanics, shoemakers and tailors—the middlemen.  The sting of a privileged position?  Never.

“With the context of the true reality for those who were ousted …”


They looked back on the tiny store their grandfather established.

The political winds transformed into a choice.  Minority eyes prevailed that day.  Identify yourself; breakthrough for Uganda.  The Asian presence of Kampala.  His palace.

“The dictatorship of what happened …”

In their minds, their birth.  Like precious jewels in a hairdo or turban, we heard stories of escape.  They looked back on the homes they built.

His tombs were woven thatched roofs that swooped to a point high above the straw-laden floors below, lending a cathedral-like silence to the sacredness of the earth below where royal attendants continually watched over the remains of their dead kings.

It has some really good depth in how you constructed this.” 

The mountains appeared at sunset.  The hillsides of women flowed in the breeze.  The men brought comfort but their eyes told accounts of death.

Kampala—the arched and pillared windows were endless.  Nestled behind sundown, an Indian dialect of silks and cottons.  Our eyes lettered names like “Patel” and “Desai” “Bombay Emporium.”

The ashes of Uganda walked many miles and carried their heads.  It was tedious work.

“How did you do this?”

It took years.

The image was small, this image.  It was the same image they left behind.  Why should we wait in line for justice?

“… tells a story almost in a biblical way …”

Help us begin to drink the pain of Uganda.

especially without changing the order of the words.”

“Oh my god, this is very good Chelene.”


With these missing pieces, I answer my own questions: am I even “mixed race?” What is this and what does it mean? I remember thinking about the terminology used to define those who did not fit neatly into categories of race. Mixed, bi-racial, blends, etc. I wonder if we can do better. I’ve been picking sides all my life. Switching sides when it suited me best, and always wondering how to “construct” this conversation with myself. Do I have to self-identify? Do I have to check a box on a form? Who wants to check “other” box? I don’t.


continuing studies shots of chelylene for brochure

Chelene Knight lives in Vancouver, BC and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio 2013 in the poetry cohort. Chelene is a Library Assistant at the Vancouver Public Library, and Managing Editor at Room. Previously, she worked as a Manuscript Consultant through SFU, and as a proofreader at Montecristo magazine along with other editor gigs with a poetry focus. She has been published in Amazing Canadian Fashion MagazineSassafras Literary MagazineemergeThe Raven Chronicles Literary Magazine, and in Room 37.4. She just finished her second manuscript, Dear Current Occupant, a collection of sonnets, prose poems, and letters which is forthcoming with BookThug in 2018. Chelene is now dabbling in short short SHORT fiction. Her first book, Braided Skin, was published by Mother Tongue Publishing in Spring 2015. Find out more about Chelene at and @poetchelene.

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