I am what I am

Please don’t ask me where I come from.


People ask me where I came from, whish is a difficult question for me.  I have to ask back, “How far do you want me to go back?”  Probably they expect me to say that I come from Korea, China, or Japan.  I suspect that people are not ready for me to say that I came from Chateauguay in Quebec, Geneva in Switzerland, or Lesotho in Africa.  I was born in Japan to be sure, but that was before three score years and ten.  Yes, I am a Canadian of Japanese descent.  But that classification hardly explains who I am.  If you want to know exactly who I am, you will have to hear my whole life story.  Otherwise you have to accept me as I am.

One day during the early eighties, a CBC Radio reporter came to interview me.  She was working on a program about  “missionaries.” I thought that she came to me because I was a missionary of the United Church of Canada in Lesotho in Southern Africa.  I had a good time talking about my experience in Lesotho where I spent seven and a half wonderful years teaching at a university.  Not only did I speak about my teaching experience, I spoke also about making friends with some extraordinary people like Desmond Tutu and Steve Biko..  Desmond taught in the same department with me.  Steve was a prominent student leader in the University Christian Movement of South Africa in which I was a Regional Director.   I also spoke about some exciting experiences, like traveling through the war-torn Mozambique in an armed convoy or being banned from South Africa, and a 73 hour detention leading to an expulsion from South Africa.  I thought that the interviewer was quite happy to record those stories.  She said that they were extraordinary.  She taped about three hours of the interview.  

When the program was broadcasted, however, the segment from the interview with me was a few seconds clip about my being a Christian in the non- Christian Japan.  My recorded voice said only one sentence, “Being a Christian in Japan, I was a foreigner  in my own country.”   I suspect that the producer didn’t expect a person of Japanese descent to be a Canadian missionary in Africa.  The interviewer apologetically informed me that my part in the CBC program was intended to have been the condition of  “being a Christian in a non-Christian country,” or some thing along that line.  So, all my experience as a missionary was nixed, because I was a Canadian of non-European origin.  

At another occasion, I met a Dutch man at a meeting in Ethiopia who was working for the Africa desk of a Dutch missionary agency.  He was puzzled by the fact that I was working in Africa.  Het asked me,  “Aren’t there more work in Japan for you?”  I could have asked him the exactly same question; about more work to do in the mostly secularized Netherlands.  I could also have said that there was more growing and vibrant churches in Africa, where the number of Christians was increasing faster than in any other continents.  But I didn’t.  Nevertheless, I was appalled by his naivete.

My problem with Canadian multi-culturalism is that it encourages stereotypes and boxes a person into a prescribed mold.  Granted, it has done a marvelous job making people of other non-Anglo-Franco cultures and races normal in the Canadian society.  But there are problems if one’s identity depends solely on one’s ethnicity and culture.  Not everybody accepts one’s ancestral tradition totally.  There are people who want to get away from their traditions.  Once I was doing a walking tour of Cologne in Germany with an Australian colleague.  We were totally in awe of a marvelous city which was full of history.  We met a young man at a beer joint.  He was a local and volunteered to give us a guided tour.  We were grateful.  However, he had hundreds of questions about Australia and Canada.  He said to us at the end of the day that he knew where we came from by our speech and wanted to find out about our countries.  He wanted to migrate to Australia or Canada.  We said, “Why?”  We didn’t understand why anyone wanted to move away from such a beautiful and historic city.  But he said that the city was so full of history and tradition that it was stifling for a young man like him.  He just wanted to get away from it all.  You don’t box such a person into the same box he or she is trying to escape from.  This doesn’t mean that such a person hates his or her country of origin.  It simply means that one feels one has to dictate one’s own destiny without feeling chained.  Everyone has to have freedom to choose a course of one’s life.  

On the first day at my protestant chaplain’s office at the university in Lesotho, I was very excited when a Botswana student phoned to make an appointment – the very first client.  He said he wanted to make  a “serious request.”  He came in, hesitated a little, and asked me if I “could teach him Karate.” What a let down.  I didn’t know Karate.  In fact, I hated lessons in marshal arts in the middle school because of its military overtone.  I was no use for him, a failure, not because I was not a good spiritual counselor nor my theology was weak, but because I was a Japanese who didn’t know Karate.

One can be quite content being ignorant of one’s ethnicity, too.  I don’t think there is anything wrong in that.  Try Hawaiians.  Many of them have so much mixed racial background that they are not sure which particular race they belong to.  Yet, I don’t know any Hawaiian who is unhappy because they don’t know exactly who they are.  In fact, they are some of the happiest people I have encountered.  My daughter grew up in a multi-racial university staff community in Lesotho.  Her friends were Africans and Europeans of various colors of skin.  Asians were not many, none in fact, of the Oriental variety  The first time she saw the Oriental person, after the age of self-consciousness, was the time when she ran into many development aid workers from China at the airport in Lesotho.  She was afraid of them, because she had never seen such a people who did not belong to any category of people she had known.  When she came back to Canada, she was classified officially a member of  “visible minority”.  She came home from school one day and said, “Did you know I was a visible minority?”  She thought it was very funny.  

I do not dislike things Japanese.  But I like what I like and don’t like a lot of things Japanese.  Nobody can push stuff I dislike into my throat.  Some of my favorite foods are Japanese and enjoy preparing some of them.  But the best two in my culinary repertory are French.  In terms of the geographical areas I am interested in, I am passionate about the issues related to Africa and the Middle East.  In fact, I am not too familiar with Asian affairs.  We lived in the Global Village.  Much of classical arts now belong to all of the human race no mater where they originate.  Aren’t some of the best Symphony orchestra conductors non-European?  They don’t have to specialize in African, Middle Eastern, or Oriental music.  I heard some time ago a debate about Seiji Ozawa’s interpretation of European music.  The question was if his ethnicity influenced his interpretation.  The question did not make sense to me.  Mozart is Mozart interpreted by a Finish, an Indian, or a Japanese conductor.  In the same token, good food is a good food regardless of the cook who prepared it.  Only question that should be asked is the quality of the art.  There is such a thing as an universal standard.  Likewise, I believe there should also be a Canadian standard.

When I came to Canada, my first pastorate was a United Church of Canada Japanese congregation.  To be sure, it was organized according to the United Church Manual.  But the only thing United Churchy about it was how it was governed.   It was in many other ways distinctly Japanese.  Japanese Christians in Canada were mainly converts as the result of the work by the Methodist Church of Canada.  And the first church was founded in 1892.  So the Japanese church was not new in Canada.  There were many second and third generations Japanese Canadian United Church members.  

However, the church in Vancouver was different in 1957.  The uniqueness of the congregation in Vancouver was the fact that many members were, unlike other Japanese United Church congregations, relatively new converts.  Many of them became Christians as the result of the work done by the United Church of Canada during their removal and internment beginning in 1941.  They felt betrayed by their own country when Canada treated them as “enemy aliens.”  But the United Church stayed sympathetic to Japanese Canadians throughout the war against the tide of hostile sentiment among many Canadains.  For those converts, the United Church represented the best of Canada.  They might not have changed their culture and life-style on the surface, but their conversion was a paradigm shift at the core.  They adopted the core spirit of Canada as their foundational philosophy, and their conversion to Christian faith by joining the United Church of Canada represented a profound commitment to Canada.

One of them in my congregation who converted to Christianity was Mr. Sen-ichiro Asai.  He became Christian at the age of 60 during the war at an internment camp in Tashme a few kilometres west of Hope.  He told me about many cultural events that were popular before the war.  He spoke about exhibitions in marshal arts, flower arrangement, Japanese dance, etc.  They were well attended popular events by Canadians.  But, “Did those cultural events changed the mind about us? Apparently they didn’t,” he said.  Canadians, some of whom might have attended those events and liked them demanded our expulsion, just the same, he said.  “Except,” he continued, “the church, CCF, and the Canadian Jewish Congress.  They were the ones who lived by the principles of British fair play and justice.  And they helped us.”  So he was baptized, and joined the United Church.  He never learned English.  But he was a proud Canadian and an Elder of Vancouver Japanese United Church.  I met many people like Mr. Asai in Vancouver.

I believe that there has to be a set of core values that binds Canadians together.  Merely accepting all the cultural traditions of all Canadians and term Canada as a mosaic or a bowl of tossed salad does not unite us.  Multi-culturalism characterizes Canada as a tolerant country.  Tolerance may work as a uniting force of a country in an ideal world that has no conflict. But the world in reality has many conflicts.   It may also work if Canada is a neutral country like Switzerland.  But neither option is viable under the circumstances where Canada is placed geographically and politically.  I don’t think Canadians are prepared to pay the cost of being neutral.  Then there has to be a decision to be made about alliance.  That is where the values come to fore as an operating principle.  Our decision not to participate in the wars in Viet Nam in the sixties and in Iraq in 2003 was not based in our principle of tolerance.  It was based on our belief that Canada is not a part of an empire.  Domination and subjugation of another country without consent of the world wide community is not according to our value.

We do enjoy living in a tolerant and multi-cultural country and intend to keep it that way.  But choosing our partner also is our value based practice.  So how is a decision to pick our partners made?  Multi-culturalism helps us accept people who are different from us, but does not help us reject some of them.   Our love of humus, Kabuki, Mozart, or Chardonnay is not enough to help choose an enemy.  It used to be a religion or an ideology that did that.  But that is no longer the case.  It has to be something we all agree on.  It has to be the principle based on values that help us make tough decisions.  When we know what it is that unites us, we may have to reject or discard some cherished traditional practices.  We have already done that with female genital mutilation, which is to some traditionalists as sacred as circumcision of male infant child.  A fierce debate is raging in France about the outward manifestation of religious beliefs in public schools, because secularism is an important value based principle is France since Revolution.  Canada is moving towards opposite direction.  I like the Canadian way better so long as it allows flexibility for me to be whatever I want to be and do.  But my question is: Do we not need more if Canadians have to be united to undertake a common project together as a nation?

Two wars in Iraq raised important challenges on the question of the uniquely Canadian values and multi-culturalism.  Many Canadians of Arab and Muslim background became victim of racism and stereotyping.  It is possible to be both a devoted Muslim and a patriotic Canadian, who would take up arms against an Islamic country for Canada.  Japanese Canadians faced that challenge during the second world war.  Some Japanese Canadians, at last towards the end of the war, were permitted to enlist and went to war from the internment camps to fight the Japanese Army in Burma.  But, for a good reason, many Japanese Canadians did not trust fellow Canadians’ ability to distinguish culture and country and hid their chopsticks when there was a knock on the door during the dinner.  Many Jewish compatriots fall victim of anti-Semitism because of what Israel government does to the Palestinians.  Those are stupid mistakes but with seriously negative consequences.  Such a mistake does grave injustice and hurt people badly.  This is why I believe that we must keep working on the distinct Canadian values in the age of multi-culturalism.  Multi-culturalism alone is not enough.   Religion or British tradition does not work any more as the national standard.

This is why I believe that it is important for me to insist on being seen as what I am, not just as a Japanese Canadian who knows a good sushi restaurant.

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