I’ve been working on the project called IDENTITIES. IDENTITIES is a photography (Portraits + Interview) project started with my family, a blend of Japanese and Haitian, and portraying other biracial/multiracial subjects (teenagers). I seek to envision deep roots and explore issues of mixed-race identities as they manifest in neighborhoods in New York, other cities, that contain diverse racial intersections.
Recently I photographed and interviewed “Mikua” who is Japanese, African American and Puerto Rican, 18 years old girl, born and raised in Brooklyn.
(Picture: Mikua from IDENTITIES 2022 Digital C-Print)
Me (Hidemi): How do you identify yourself since both of your parents came from different ethnic backgrounds?
Mikua: I identify as half African American and half Japanese.
Me: I heard that your dad has Puerto Rican roots. And do you know anything about that side? Have you ever visited PR? Do you feel like you have a connection with PR?
Mikua: I know my grandfather was Puerto Rican, and my grandmother was from the South. When she was really young, she moved up north and, and my grandfather came to New York. I’m not sure why. And he’s from Loiza in Puerto Rico. I remember one summer we went to Puerto Rico trying to find my dad’s family and retrace the roots. But we couldn’t find anyone. The only thing that I really feel connected to is the fact that my grandfather was from there. I remember he spoke Spanish; his Spanish was obviously way better than his English, but my grandmother didn’t really want him to speak Spanish around the house. I don’t know why. So, none of them learned fluent Spanish, even the culture…. My dad and I are not familiar with it. But he likes Spanish music, and the food too. I also love Puerto Rican food especially “Mofongo”. I eat that a lot (laugh) But I definitely want to learn more about their culture.
Me: You have visited Japan for many times, right?
Mikua: I used to go there every summer when I was in elementary school. Because my summer break was longer. And there, school was still going. So, every summer my mom would send me to my grandparents’ house, and they would enroll me in local elementary school.
Me: You speak fluent Japanese, right? How do you feel about your connection to Japan?
Mikua: Yeah, I’m fluent. But I’m starting to lose it because I guess, I need to use it more. And I still want to learn more, I want to learn how to write, and more words. I’m very proud about being half Japanese. I’m very proud of the culture. It’s so beautiful there. I love being Japanese!!
Me: You are growing up in diverse New York City, how do you feel when you visit Japan?
Mikua: Very different. Because obviously, in Japan, everybody looks pretty similar. I mean, there aren’t a lot of different races and cultures. In New York City, so many different cultures and different types of people from everywhere. But here…, I think it’s really interesting because even though it is very diverse, I noticed that when I went to school, it wasn’t very diverse. I always went to a majority African American / Caribbean school, from an elementary school to high school. So, College is the first time where I’m really exposed to a very diverse group of people. Even though I grew up in New York City, and it is more diverse than Japan, my experiences regarding to my schools, all friends I made were usually they came from similar backgrounds. I was the only Japanese person there. So, I still stood out, in a sense, but also going to Japan and going to school there, seeing how everyone looked the same, and even at a young age, I was still conscious about that. I just noticed that I was really different. Like when I would go into supermarket with my grandma and she would explain “This is my granddaughter!”, everybody was like, “Really?” It was really funny, not in a bad way just like very surprised. In Hiroshima where my mom came from, it’s obviously very countryside, so people are not really seeing a lot of foreigners in general. So, seeing me and even when my dad comes, we get a lot of stares, people are really amazed. But I remember, being in elementary school in Hiroshima and kind of feeling like everybody was very welcoming and very nice. But I was still self-conscious because everyone looked so different from me. But I definitely always had positive experience there. But I think it just depends on the person because I have some friends similar background, but they had more negative experiences in Japan. Some of them are living in Japan and they are in the society so, it might be different if I lived there.
Me: Do you feel like you got influence from your parents’ cultures?
Mikua: My Japanese side is pretty easy to connect because my mom is Japanese and grew up in Japan, she knows her culture very well. We always go to Japan, but my African American side is a bit different. Even though, I’m here in America and my grandmother’s from the south. I think that’s a big issue for a lot of African Americans. Because you don’t really know the connection, like what specific country in Africa you came from because of history. I think Dance…. Dance for sure! Because I was always a part of dance Africa, which is the festival performance that they have at BAM every year. And you get to meet African dancers that come from Africa, and they have their companies. So, I think that really connects with doing African dance. Dancing in general, that really connected me to my African American culture, or potential African culture that I don’t really know about. So, dance was a big part of it and music.
Me: So, how do you feel about being multiracial person?
Mikua: I feel very proud. And I think it’s such a beautiful thing. Like, even to see my parents, they’re so different, they come from two totally different places, but to see that they can still like connect, be together, that’s so amazing, because I know, there was a time when people of two different races, they couldn’t get married. Two people come from different cultures, they can be friends, be in love and married, whatever! I think it’s really beautiful. And they share cultures with each other, like my dad was learning Japanese on his own. And then marrying a woman that’s Japanese and being immersed in the culture.
Me: Do you feel like you take advantage as being multiracial?
Mikua: The best advantage being in New York and being half Japanese is that I feel like I get a lot of opportunities. Regarding when I was applying to school, a big mission statement for the school was finding students who want to be doctors that are also people of color of different ethnicities, and they were giving people those opportunities. So, I think in that sense, it is an advantage, but overall having connection with two different cultures, I think that that’s already an advantage, itself. Because you have certain experiences that other people wouldn’t have.
Me: Have you ever had “I don’t know who I am” moment?
Mikua: I’ve always been pretty secure and knowing that I’m half Japanese and half Black. My parents always remind me and make sure that I’m confident with both cultures. But if you ask my brother the same question, he will probably say something else, even though we were raised by same parents. My brother doesn’t speak Japanese. I don’t know why. He didn’t go to Japan as much as I did. So he definitely feels more connected to his African American culture than Japanese culture. From my experience, I’ve always felt connected to both.
Me: Do you have any comments about the history of tensions and solidarity between Black and Asian American communities? Especially in the recent years, you have been witnessing the movement of Black Lives Matter during pandemic, and then Asia hate.
Mikua: Overall as people of color, in general, we all have a lot of tensions, especially being in America, you would think we are in a place that’s so diverse, this is something that we wouldn’t experience with. This is ironic that, both Black people, and Asian people have to deal with such discrimination. It’s really sad looking at both because I remember, during the Black Lives Matter movement, this is obviously a problem that has been going on for such a long time. But during quarantine, it really got a lot of attention from a lot of people and just seeing it, even me, I knew it was happening. But I didn’t see the degree, because you learn in school like history, and you learn all these things. So during the Black Lives Matter movement, I learned so much more and witnessing those events, the protests on social media, it was amazing to see. And, Asian hate. That also was sad to see as well. Even seeing my mom. My mom is obviously Asian, she was scared to be on the train and just to live life. Seeing both of my parents had to deal with that, made me sad.
Me: What’s your dream or a goal?
Mikua: Well, short term is short term slash long term. So midterm goal right now is getting my degree. I’m in school, finished up my freshman year in college. And I go to Sophie Davis, which is a school in Harlem, that’s the program basically offering a bachelor’s and medical degree so that’s my base goal, right now to just graduate and get my degree. Lifewise I want to travel more, and spend more time with my family, just be happy and yeah, that’s it!