Two Cultures, One Journey

By Sophia Clark

Two Cultures, One Journey

Eight hours had passed since my last meal. My stomach ached from hunger, and my sweat clenched the heavy layers of fabric close to my skin. My ribs constricted with every breath from the towels fastened around my torso to get rid of my curves. My obi, a thick, gold sash over six feet long, seemed to tighten with every step I took as the cicadas cried out in chorus around me. My four inch high zouri sandals and long robes only allowed me to take baby steps, forcing me to stand straight and tall. The thick fabric at my throat pulled my head back to elongate the nape of my neck, the only exposed part of my body apart from my palms and face. Thirty bobby pins held my dark brown hair in a messy bun, pink roses picked out by my mother embellishing the do. I kept a smile plastered on my face to satisfy the exceedingly large amount of photographs my parents were taking.

After three and a half hours of professionally done hair styling, makeup and photo shooting, I stood before my parents and a small shrine that I visited as a young child, a whole life ahead of me as an adult, a woman. This was my seijinshiki, a coming of age ceremony that every 20 year old man and woman in Japan celebrates in a kimono, the traditional and most honored garment of Japan. This was a day for my family, friends and all of Japan to welcome me into the world as an adult.

Born of an American father and a Japanese mother, I have always felt out of place in America and Japan, because somehow everyone always knows I am a foreigner wherever I go. I have dark hair and pale skin, but I am taller and have longer arms and legs than Japanese girls. In America, I am automatically labeled as “the Asian girl” for my looks. Ever since I was a little girl, people seem to stare at me, trying to figure out where I am from. Most of the time I don’t know where I really belong. My favorite thing about me now is that I am multiethnic, but that was not always the case.

The first time I wore a kimono was the day I was born. It was the 18th of June, and I was brand new. A thin, white ubugi, a thin garment for newborns gently wrapped me up, held together on my tiny body with carefully tied bows. As the thick humidity grew into July, I had my very first ceremony, the omiya mairi at one month old. This is when a new child is brought to the shrine to celebrate the birth, and to pray for good health. The grandmother on the mother’s side holds the baby, wrapping the small, fresh child in a kimono that he or she will wear in three years time for another event, the shichigosan. My kimono was white and red, the colors of the Japanese flag and good luck. The small blue flowers on the fabric matched the sky colored robes of my grandmother’s, who was proudly holding her third granddaughter.

The shichigosan – meaning the seventh, fifth, third – is a series of family events celebrated in November when the child reaches the age of three, five and seven. The health and upbringing of the child is celebrated in this rite of passage. I remember as a little girl looking forward to each kimono-wearing event. I adored the smooth fabric of the kimono, the attention, and more than anything, I felt centered, looking Japanese and feeling Japanese. On kimono days I was not torn between two cultures.

Through middle and high school, I did not feel pretty or confident. I did not yet know that I would go to America for college. I did not know whether to say I was American or Japanese since I was both. I did not know which country I identified with more. I did not like being stared at in public, as people tried to figure out why an Asian-looking girl was calling a tall, blond-haired white man, “Daddy.”

On my 20th birthday, my aunt and grandma who had not communicated about the subject, both bought me a kimono as a surprise. Thank goodness they were both different colors and equally outstanding. The kimono from my aunt was a light blue with a hint of a silver shine, black flowers at the rims, paired with a gold and emerald obi. The one my grandmother chose for me I wore to my ceremony in July, a bright rose pink paired with a gold and black obi. This one was more playful, bringing out the fun-loving, girly girl in me. Perhaps I will pass these kimonos onto my cousins’ daughters or even my own someday. For now, they are tucked in dressers, waiting to be worn by a hopeful young girl like me.

Between the time I arrived at college at 18 and now at 20, I have decided to tell people that I am Japanese, since Japan is where I grew up and where I call home. I have realized that I can be more expressive and natural when I speak English, and I have accepted the fact that people are curious about me because I am different. More than anything, I have realized that being different, being both Japanese and American, is what sets me apart from everyone else – and I would never change that for anything.

About this writer

  • Sophia Clark Sophia Clark currently studies journalism and music at the University of Oregon. She is part Japanese and part American, and grew up in Osaka, Japan, until she was 18. She enjoys cooking, photography, writing and music. Her website is sophiaclark.weebly.com.

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5 Responses to “Two Cultures, One Journey”

  1. What a lovely story, Sophia. I spent time teaching in Asia and have talked to several of my multi-racial friends in America about their transitions. I understand it’s hard, but embracing it as you’re choosing to do now is the most wonderful thing. You’re lucky to have such a broad understanding of both cultures, and the ability to choose where you belong. Keep writing!

  2. Yoshio says:

    It’s beautiful !
    The kimono looks great on Sophia.

  3. Sophia–What a descriptive, moving AND illuminating piece. I especially loved the first paragraph.

    (I am glad it was you and not me in the kimono. I’m hot in shorts and a t-shirt these days. ;)

    Thanks for sharing your family, your vulnerability and your evolution…

  4. Sophia Clark says:

    Thank you Jessica, Yoshio, and Sioux for the wonderful comments, I’m so glad you enjoyed my piece.

  5. Melisa says:

    You are definitely not alone about identity problems! My cousins’ children are half Asian and look much more Caucasian. One time my cousin brought her very blonde children to the park. One mom panicked and nearly called the police to say she kidnapped then but other moms from the neighborhood told her they were actually her kids.

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