Traveling through in-betweens
Storyteller manuscript delivered by Dr. Kasumi Yamazaki on June 13, 2019 at United Way of Greater Toledo for Women's Empowerment Luncheon #BreakTheGlass, a storytelling campaign that focuses on inspiring immigrant women to break the glass ceiling.
On May 20, 2005, I came to the United States alone with a suitcase filled with dreams, excitement and a little bit of rice my family harvested in our rice fields back home. I'm sure I am not the only person who remembers the exact date of our first immigration, because we remember it with all kinds of emotions; sometimes we have a sense of relief trying to escape from the harm and violence we experience at home, or sometimes we have feelings of traumas from being separated from parents or losing loved ones trying to cross borders.
For me, as I recognize my privileges as coming from Japan, my feelings were a mixture of excitement and fear, because my only purpose was to receive the kind of education that I needed but couldn't in my tiny little hometown in mountainous Japan. I still remember the moment when I was passing through the airport customs: I could see my mom bawling her eyes out worrying about if I was handling things right, if I was safe, and if I would be okay. Because the 18-year-old me was still going through the extended period of puberty and found it quite embarrassing to cry in front of my mom or even in public, all I could do back then was to turn around and put a big fake smile on my face and said “OMG I’m fine, mom! Just go, you have to catch a train!” Then I turned around, and never looked back.
My English wasn't strong enough to be directly admitted to undergraduate programs, so I started out my academic journey by enrolling in a language prep school called the American Language Institute. At the language school, I learned how to communicate in English with peers from different international backgrounds with the same shared goal: to be proficient in English and to be admitted to the University. It was comforting to sit in classes and interact with my classmates because back then, I wasn’t aware of the true meaning of what it’s like to live and thrive in the United States as a foreign Japanese woman. This is because all my attention was centered around acquiring the most important instrument – English – to be successful and achieve great American dreams, however the words were defined to me back then.
When I eventually passed the institutional English proficiency test called TOEFL, I was thrilled. But as many of you can imagine, it didn’t go easy. During the first couple of semesters, I couldn’t follow lectures because I had no idea what professors were saying most of the time. I would try to look up a few words I caught from the speech sound in the classroom and look them up on my little electronic dictionary, but eventually, I stopped and stared at my blank notes. I tried to make myself as small as possible to make sure that I wouldn’t be noticed and picked on. I wanted to blend in so bad that I started bleaching my straight black hair using the product I bought from Kroger nearby. I stopped wearing my soft little beret hats and puffy skirts and instead, started wearing skin-tight distressed jeans and a hoodie I got from Abercrombie & Fitch. I started dropping the added vowels from my speech and worked exclusively on developing consonants that I don’t have in my first language to make sure that I eliminate my accents. Because to me, that was what I thought was the definition of “America” in the Midwest, and that was what I thought I needed to be accepted and successful.
I believe stories like these are pretty common among immigrants when our identities and the sense of self were hardly constructed, especially among international students or international scholars who have come to the United States to pursue education and scholarship. As a Japanese international woman, the identity that does not fit into any of the categories such as Asian American, Japanese American, or even Japanese, I often question this feeling of being “in-between,” craving for the sense of belongingness and visibility. Not many women recognize the interactions of more than two positionalities, but I feel it is something that needs to be heard and addressed at an event like this today. I constantly think about how I position myself and negotiate my identity between the dominant American culture and the culture that I left behind; I often wonder if I still have a place to go back. I constantly question about the use of language, when, where, and to whom I use English or Japanese, and most importantly, how to regain the accents that I once tried to eliminate.
While traveling through in-betweens as a professional Japanese woman in academia, I still try to swim in the water that was traditionally made for a particular group of academics. In the world of academia where people believe it as one of the leading environments of diversity and inclusion, I still have witnessed a variety of structural and systematic oppression and microaggressions against those of us who are marginalized. For me, to go beyond the stereotypes, I speak up and fight against many conscious and subconscious biases, including my own, through the art of teaching, while delivering the kind of scholarship with which no one would question my credibility and professionalism.
However, at the same time, I am also aware of my internal struggles and often feel the sense of loss; for example, when I hear from Japanese people saying,
“You are so Americanized!”
“I heard you are a career woman type”
while I hear from my American peers saying,
“You got this job because you are in a unique position as a woman of color”
“A person like you makes our country more inclusive and diverse!”
While intentions are as good as they can be, I question: what does it mean to be Americanized? What does “career woman” mean, when we don’t even have the word “career man”? Did I get this job not based on merit? Did I get this award not because of my skills and accomplishments? Am I really a woman of color after considering the concept of “modeled minorities” and the kind of privileges and resources I have access to while others don’t?
I believe there are multiple reasons why I am staying in academia, in particular, in the field of world language education. It is not only to challenge myself and continue searching for the balance and consensus of multiple positionalities as a Japanese international woman, but also to listen to and be there for the international students, minority students, first-generation college students, and language learners in this greater Toledo area, who may be facing challenges that are more or less similar to mine.
Quite often I’ve encountered moments where students tell me they aren’t qualified when I suggest or encourage them to apply for things such as grants and scholarships, especially among female students or even more among students from international and minority background. When they share their vulnerable self, we as educators need to keep in mind that saying “yes you are!” isn’t really enough. We need to show them they’re qualified and they can do it, and we can do so by walking through their past experiences and unrecognized accomplishments. When we do this, we’d be surprised to hear students saying “I can count that?” as many of our students do good work for the sake of public good.
After making this connection, I’ve seen students gradually gaining confidence and begin to see that they are indeed qualified. Resources are theoretically available to all students, but what’s challenging is how to connect themselves with such resources. Identifying resources is truly not enough; we need more educators who would hold hands and show students they are more than what they think they are.
I became a linguist and a language educator because I am interested in studying the narratives and the language that we use with an attempt to survive, thrive and stay alive in the system that is known to be broken. In sharing my story here today, I hope we can create a safe space for everyone to share our own stories, challenge our assumptions that unnecessarily minimize and divide us, and expand our pathways to really think about what we can do to belong and connect.
This Storyteller manuscript was delivered by Dr. Kasumi Yamazaki on June 13, 2019 at United Way of Greater Toledo for Women's Empowerment Luncheon #BreakTheGlass, a storytelling campaign that focuses on inspiring immigrant women to break the glass ceiling.
Kasumi Yamazaki is an assistant professor of Japanese at the University of Toledo, where she teaches Japanese as a foreign language and partakes in scholarly activities in the field of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Her current research focuses on the contemporary CALL pedagogy and integration, namely, the use of 3D simulation games and virtual realities, the development of intelligent CALL systems, and the effectiveness of hybrid teaching curricula. Kasumi enjoys traveling both domestically and internationally; she is also an avid brunch enthusiast and will always travel for good food and coffee. Kasumi is originally from Japan and moved to Toledo in 2005.
Our Women Economic Empowerment (WEE) is a quarterly power hour luncheon session series intended to improve and support women economic empowerment in the Greater Toledo area. WEE series presentation includes forum dialogue, panel discussion, speaking engagement or roundtable activity emphasizing on opportunities and ways to increase women’s economic opportunities, strengthen their economic leadership, and advance the rights of women in the community. Working with a variety of partners and businesses, our programs promote women’s ability to secure decent jobs, accumulate assets, #BreakTheGlass and influence institutions and public policies determining growth and development.