Outsider Fits No Political Box, but Declares Choice Because “I Hope It Gets Better”

This is a powerful personal essay guest post on American culture and politics from my colleague, Tamara Fagin. Her title was “Random Musings From the Frontline” but I don’t think it’s random at all. I believe most Americans feel like outsiders at some time in their lives, and who have had the experience of being bullied or feeling like we have been treated unfairly because of our birth origins.

We are a nation of diverse heritages, a salad bowl of tossed differences rather than a melting pot where we all blend in together.

How does Fagin tie her personal experience as a one-woman salad bowl of cultures who always felt “different” with how she came to choose a candidate for president? Read on…and tell us your experiences.

All or for much of my life I have felt like an outsider.  Bullied in a sense for giving a damn.  I have early memories of eye-rolling, smirks or quiet taunts. This was not the punching, hair-pulling, tripping garden variety of physical bullying and worse, rather the insidious kind that eats at one’s insides and makes one eat lunch in the high school bathroom (it was clean and a friend joined me).

It was the one-off comment from the popular, All-American high school cheerleader that goes unanswered by one’s peers and one’s teacher. When I answered a question in A.P. U.S. History class, our teacher asked the class, “Why can’t you guys answer that question?  Tamara just moved here from Japan.“  The cute blonde cheerleader girl shouted, “She’s an import!” I can’t remember what happened after that.…

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I just remember that I wished that we were back in Japan.  And, I wished that she knew the deal.  But, c’est la vie or shikataganai, as the Japanese say.

Note to Mr. M.:  you should have called her on that.  You should have never made that comment to the class about me being able to answer the question.  I was new to the school.  I was miserable.  I missed my old school, my old friends, my old beaches, my old Japanese nightclubs, my old routine and I missed Okinawa, Japan.

Note to educators everywhere: you make the bullying problem worse when you do this kind of comparison thing. It doesn’t work for parents when they say to their kids, “Why can’t you be more like your big brother, Johnny?”  Why the hell do you think it is going to make your domestic darlings try harder?  It just doesn’t.  It breeds resentment.  It pits us against them.  U.S. blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful against different. But, to borrow a phrase from my LGBT brothers and sisters, IT GETS BETTER.

In 5th grade, my family moved from the quaint, hippy town of Boulder Creek (nestled in a majestic Redwood forest atop the Santa Cruz mountains) to the small tropical island of Okinawa, Japan. I attended 6th grade at the brand new Amelia Earhart Elementary School and then attended the brand new Kadena High School (actually served grades 7 – 12). Both were on Kadena Air Force Base, one of the largest Air Force bases in the world.

My dad, a veteran of the Korean War, is a patriotic American; he is pretty much as American as you can get.  Born in Aldenville, Massachusetts in 1933 to a physician and homemaker (this moniker does not do her justice—she ran the hospital and the family home which was attached to the hospital).  My dad was the 4th born of 8 boys. The first 2 died in childbirth.  My grandfather delivered my dad and all of my uncles in their hospital in Western Massachusetts.

My mother was a Japanese woman born on August 25, 1945 in Hiroshima, Japan; a mere 2.5 weeks after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb ever there.  My mother died a week before I began law school from stomach cancer.  We do not know if it was related to the bomb.  We will never know.  What I do know, is that life will never be the same for us with her gone so young.  She was only 47.

I am half Japanese.  I lamely joke that I was made in Japan but born and assembled in the U.S. of A.  Certified American.  Not an import. So, like our dear president, I am 100% American; and Mr. Trump and similar doubting Thomas’s (birthers—that term does a dishonor to mothers everywhere IMHO), I can produce my birth certificate but I choose not to. You are a bully, sir.  All that money and “hair” and you are a disgrace to this country.  But freedom of speech is king and you are free to make an ass of yourself.  Make my day.  Be my guest. Master Trump and Ann Coulter types only help my cause.

I leave for Japan on Thursday.  I wanted to be here for this historic election.  I am going to Japan with my husband to retrieve my maternal grandmother’s ashes and import them to the good ol’ U.S. of A.  It was not an easy call for me.  I have procrastinated all year trying to figure out what a Japanese woman born and raised on a tiny island off the coast of Hiroshima during the Taisho Era would have wanted.  It upsets me and is really ironic that I never discussed this with her.

You would have thought that this might have come up while my mother was dying in a hospital in Kobe, Japan.  You think this might have come up when I visited my grandmother all of those times while I was attending Tsuda College in Tokyo or when I was in Hiroshima doing research on social programs for the elderly. You think that this might have come up because I was a tax lawyer and even practiced estate planning law toward the end of my legal career.  How could I have been so negligent?

When my grandmother had a major stroke last year, I was not able to talk to her or her caregivers.  It seems that even Japan has enacted patient privacy laws.  There was no advance health care directive or power of attorney on file.  I was not her guardian.  She had no living children or heirs according to the official Japanese Family Registry – my mother never registered my brother and me.

What was my dear obachan?  A ward of the state?  She had 1 living younger brother – a man I did not know.  How could I not know her only living brother? He lived less than an hour away from her?!

I appealed to the hospital staff in Akashi from my home in California. I sent desperate faxes of pictures of me with my grandmother.  I had Bullet Train passes with dates of trips that I had saved from Tokyo to Nishiakashi.  I had pictures from April of 2006 when I took my husband, daughter and then 1 year-old son to visit her.  None of this worked.

I enlisted Japanese friends who were respected professors and government employees to contact the hospital on my behalf.  I was told to get to Japan ASAP.  I hired a lawyer.  He drew up the paperwork.  I was finally able to see her… but it was too late.  She was gone… or almost gone.  I visited with her for 2 days.

Going through everything in my head.  What could I have done differently?  I should have visited more.  I should have called more.  What a mess.  What a frickin’ mess.

I returned to California beaten.  Very unsure about whether being half Japanese, bi-racial, bi-national was worth it.  I didn’t get to have nice holidays with my grandparents.  I hardly ever saw them growing up.  I could not communicate with my grandparents until I was in college because I did not speak Japanese.  My mother translated everything.  Why couldn’t I just have grandparents who popped over and watched my soccer games like everyone else?  Why? Why? Why?

The day after I got home from Japan, I woke up and checked my email. My grandmother had died last night I was told.  She probably died when I was on the plane coming back. “What would you like us to do with her stuff?” they asked.

So, now I prepare feverishly to go to Japan with my husband.  We will go to the Buddhist temple where my grandmother’s ashes are stored, meet with her only surviving brother – who is understandably disappointed with me for my complete failure to handle this in a timely, efficient and appropriate Japanese manner, meet the real estate agent who has recommended that we cut the price of my grandmother’s modest home by 50% in order to sell it (we have had no offers for 9 months but it went on the market right after the Tsunami, hardly a good time for a quick sale) because it is on the proverbial slippery slope —the same sloping mountain side it has been on for 60+ years without incident!  We will try to eat some good sushi (Jiro Dreams of Sushi; Jiro-sama, please save us a seat at your sushi counter – a big seat for my husband and regular one for me onegaishimasu), see some cool stuff, soak in a nice onsen and purchase a new, state-of-the-art rice cooker.

So, how will I be treated in Japan as a hapa haole or as the Japanese say “hafu” (means half)?  I don’t look Japanese.  I somehow got all of the haole genes. I am often mistaken for a Latina. I use that to my advantage whenever I can. 😉

I am more Japanese than most folks would ever imagine and certainly more Japanese than pretty much any Japanese-American you would meet in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo or San Francisco’s Japantown.  I have been to more places in Japan than my mother and grandmother combined and more than most Japanese nationals I know.

So, let me tell you how I will be treated.  I know this well from past (painful) experience, and I doubt that things have changed much in the last year.  I will be treated with the utmost respect and polite distance.

Japanese people, bless their hearts, will use the appropriate honorific speech for someone of my educational background, gender and age.  They will be REALLY nice to my husband.  He will be treated like the prince that he is. 😉

I will be told umpteen times how good my Japanese is (even though it will never be really good) and how well I use my chopsticks (even though I am not so good at using chopsticks; my Jewish husband has much better form than I do, and I ask him to teach our kids!). And, people will be shocked when I tell them that my grandmother, grandfather and mother were Japanese.

I mean… jaw-dropping SHOCK will pass across their faces.  It will be fun for the first day and after that it will get old.  I will wish that I can just blend in and go on with my business.  But, that will never happen as long as I look the way that I do, walk the way that I do (like an American – taking up too much space and too proud), talk the way I do and look people in the eye with a little too much intensity and directness.

I will tell people that I’m half Japanese and people will shake their heads and crinkle their brows and try to compute that… “Hontoo ni?” Really? Yes, really.  There will be a disconnect.  But, no matter how good my Japanese is, no matter how much Japanese history, proverbs and strange only-Japanese people know kind of stuff I know, I will always be an outsider to them.  I will always be a gaijin (literally – outside person).

I was made in Japan – my mother was very pregnant with me when my mom and dad fled Japan for America.  My father worked for the U.S. government and wrote his Congressman and the Embassy/Consulate and requested an emergency transfer back to the United States for himself and his pregnant Japanese national bride.  Somehow they agreed.

Somehow the story of my affluent maternal grandfather, Mr. Noboritate, and his henchman (including the local police) and their bullying of my dad and my mother struck a chord with someone. Somehow his concerns for my mother’s sanity and the well-being of his unborn child resonated with someone fairly high up somewhere.  My grandfather was a nutcase.  He threatened my mother with a knife when she told him she was going to marry my dad.  She was young.  My dad was 13 years older and had been married before.  I get it.  I would not have blessed that marriage either… but a knife?


It was the 1960’s when my parents delivered their engagement news. Don’t kid yourself that the revelation of their marriage plans would have fared much better in the good U.S. of A where miscegenation was still against the law in a staggering number of states.

In spite of the challenges and my mother’s broken English, their love thrived and they were married until my mother’s premature death.  My maternal grandparents, on the other hand, divorced when my mother was still in elementary school.  This was the early 1950s and divorce in Japan at the time was unheard of and women’s rights in Japan was even more remote (or not even a concept yet!).

My grandfather was so unfit that even the desperate Japanese Army in the waning days of the World War II would not conscript him.  He was a flat-footed, he was mentally unstable, he was the only eligible bachelor on the island left for my unfortunate grandmother to be set up with in an arranged marriage.  He was a jealous, drunken fool and liked to beat her and chase her with a knife around the house.  She hid in the closets until he would fall asleep.  I can only imagine the horror.

At some point it must have become unbearable.  She made the Sophie’s Choice-like choice of staying with the madman or leaving my young, vulnerable mother to be cared for by his relatives.  She fled to Kobe—I guess she had a brother up there.  I’m not 100% sure.

I should have learned more about this sordid chapter of the Noboritate family history.  But now it is too late. They are all gone. How this must have felt, I can only imagine.

Anyway, I’m half Japanese and half French, I typically say; even though my dad is really of French-Canadian descent.  But, I am really 100% American.  I do not feel like an import.  I feel American.

Do I drive a Japanese car?  Your damn right I do.  I love my Lexus.

Do I like Japanese food?  Of course, I do.  I grew up eating steamed white rice every day.

Do I worship the emperor?  Are you kidding me? Of course, not.  No way.

I am 100% American – that I’m sure about.  But, I feel very conflicted these days.  Elections and the Olympics tend to do that to me.  I feel confused. Do I cheer for Japan or the U.S. in Women’s Soccer?  I usually go with whoever is winning. 😉

I don’t fit into any neat racial boxes and neither do my kids (it gets more complicated for them!).  At some point you have to wonder, what is the point?  My daughter is ¼ Japanese, ¼ “black” (well, technically, her paternal grandfather was from Trinidad, and my ex doesn’t like the phrase African American so I will honor her wishes here), ¼ French-Canadian and ¼ French (but my daughter’s paternal grandmother was born and raised in Algeria – so does that make her North African? She sure as heck did not feel French when they were forced out of Algeria and had to settle in the South of France – but that is another story for another time).

I don’t fit into any neat political boxes either and hence my dilemma this morning.  I need to fill out my ballot.  I need to turn that in tomorrow and really start focusing on my trip.  Argh… What to do?  I’m socially hyper-liberal and moderately fiscally conservative.  I am pro-choice and pro-parents’ rights but pro-tax reform and like the idea of a flat tax with credits/exemptions to address equity concerns (as long as they don’t wreck the simplicity/efficiency of the flat tax).

I am liberal and even libertarian at times but I support better food labeling, better environmental and food safety regulation and I support our military but I want our troops the hell out of Afghanistan.  I support our bases in Japan but I desperately want to go there and tell the troops – please, please, please leave the local people alone.  Respect them.  They may not look like you but they have sisters and mothers just like you do.  Do not abuse them.  Do not rape them.  Treat them like you would like to be treated.  Get along.  Be an example.  This is all they know about America.  Do not tarnish that.

To make things even more interesting, my family and I lived in Columbus, Ohio for most of 2011 and part of this year.  We also visited this summer.  It was insane the amount of political ads that were on the radio, T.V. and EVERYWHERE.  I feel for my fellow Ohioans… you must be SICK TO DEATH of this election.

I am so glad I got to know you better Ohio. I was fortunate enough to get to know Jennifer Brunner, the first female Secretary of State of Ohio and the author of the new book, Cupcakes and Courage (about her unsuccessful U.S. Senatorial campaign – looking forward to reading that on the plane to Japan), her amazing sister, Andrea Dowling—you are so supportive, welcoming and warm—the best qualities of a Midwestern woman, and my senpai and fellow Bryn Mawr alumna, Pari Sabety.  On the other hand, I was also fortunate to attend an intimate lunch with Senator Rob Portman and Jewish leaders (thank you Bob for that invite).  I met all of you in my first month or so of moving to Columbus.  It was quite an introduction to Ohio politics.

OHAYOO Ohio! Good Morning, O-H-I-O!  Thanks to the time change, it is still morning in California.  It has always struck me as funny that ohayoo in Japanese means good morning.  They are pronounced the same way.  Must be fate that I married two Ohioans and that many Japanese companies, such as Honda, have such a big presence in Ohio.

So, Ohio. You have been on my mind and most Americans’ minds lately. There is less than 12 hours to go until my polling station closes in California (thank you CNN for the countdown!).  I may be conflicted, confused, wishy-washy about many things and who or what propositions I’m voting for but one thing for sure is that I am going to vote.  I will take my kids with me and let them watch me vote.  I will make a big deal of walking to our local fire station or biking there (weather permitting) and exercising my right to vote.

I urge you to get informed.  You still have time!  Please vote.  And, get your neighbors, the elderly, the young hipsters, everyone, to vote. Teachers please share with your classes that you voted!  Take this opportunity to teach what is right and what is truly 100% American.

Our presidential vote in California might not count…but vote to reelect President Obama anyway to send a message if you value tolerance and inclusion. And, we have so many important issues on the ballot—issues that affect our schools (California Propositions 30 and 38), our streets, our safety (such as those regarding GMO-labeling (California Proposition 37)), human trafficking, the death penalty. Get out there and vote.  Proud to be an American, a Californian and half Japanese.  Feeling very patriotic and optimistic. PEACE. LOVE. OUT.

TAMARA MAYUMI GENEST FAGIN resides in Los Altos, California with an active elementary school duo and a great mensch of a husband with an even greater sense of humor.  She is a dedicated (and sometimes overzealous but well-meaning) community organizer and is the current Director of Development of The Fit Kids Foundation in Menlo Park, California (www.thefitkidsfoundation.org – please LIKE us on Facebook!). She is a proud graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Law School and was a Fulbright Scholar to Hiroshima, Japan in 1991-1992.  She also attended Tsuda College (1989), Stanford Law School (1995-1996) and a ridiculous number of other schools.  She loves to cycle, hike, cook, read, watch sports and hang out with her awesome friends and family. This is her second blog article.


  1. Stuart Fagin on November 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    2 thumbs up!! I especially liked the part about your husband. 🙂

    • Tamara Fagin on November 7, 2012 at 9:16 am

      Nice to have a fan! 😉

      • Troy Christmas on November 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm

        Two fans

        • Tamara Fagin on November 8, 2012 at 8:47 am

          I have always liked you a lot, Troy! 😉

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