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AAPI Heritage Month: In Essay, Mako Yoshikawa Reckons with Memory, Racism

Mako Yoshikawa head shot
Associate Profsesor Mako Yoshikawa

This May, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Emerson Today asked some of our faculty to talk about their work and experiences as people who identify as AAPI.

Mako Yoshikawa, an associate professor in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department as well as a novelist (One Hundred and One Ways, Once Removed) and literary critic, shared an essay, published by Longreads in Summer 2019, about the impact of anti-Asian racism on her parents’ lives and her own.

Read: AAPI Heritage Month: You’ll Want to Follow These Alumnae on Instagram

In “Jersey Girl,” Yoshikawa writes about her parents’ experience as Japanese immigrants to the U.S. less than 15 years after the end of World War II, and her own quest to discover how her father’s career as a scientist and academic was affected by racism. In the process, Yoshikawa reckons with the insidious ways racism has seeped into her own life.

Below is an excerpt; the full essay is available on Longreads:  

The story I told myself for years was that my father’s desire to return to Japan wasn’t about America. It was because he wanted to live in a country where he was revered, his every word awaited and hung on; he wasn’t being treated badly in America so much as missing the deference he was accorded as a professor and, even more importantly, as a man in Japan. Fixated on his own comfort, he was willfully ignoring the kind of life that my mother, sisters, and I would have in Japan — the limited opportunities, the brick load of expectations around husbands, children, and housework. In this narrative, he was the selfish patriarch and my mother, sisters and I were the victims, and because of it, I never gave serious thought to what he lost and endured for our sake.

Still, even now, I can’t quite let the story go. Because after my mother, sisters and I decamped from his house — even after he retired from the University, when he had no reason, financial, personal, or legal, not to head for the hills — our father stayed in America. Why not leave, if it was so awful? Maybe the racism he’d experienced hadn’t been that bad.

And yet. In high school I’d witnessed strangers and even my classmates mocking him, pretending not to understand his accent for the pleasure of seeing how, in his frustration, he’d talk louder and faster, his face reddening and eyes bulging, spittle flying from his mouth, and how, afterward, his old habit would resurrect itself and he’d bow, his head jerking down and up as if yanked by string, despite his best efforts to control himself. While I, standing beside him, would flush, too, his shame and humiliation somehow my own, and long to sidle away. No, I don’t know that man.

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