The New York Times Magazine does an in-depth profile of author Chang-rae Lee, which was fascinating for me on a number of levels.
Lee is able to live a very normal life in suburban New Jersey, but can create such incredible art within his mind to share with us. Working in Bergen County, NJ for 2 years (2001-3) I was really overwhelmed by the lack of culture, the chain stores, the strip malls, and the homogeneity of the landscape. One does have to admit that Princeton, though, is not typical NJ.
“…I mean, if you had said to me at home, ‘Are you a happy kid?’ I would have said yes, but going to that camp was like discovering another gear you didn’t know you had. And I think that’s also the first time where I could kind of see myself. The funny thing about growing up in a town where you’re one of a few Asian kids or minorities is you don’t really see yourself. Everyone else sees you, and you get a kind of vibe, but you never actually see yourself.”
That part resonated with me, even though I grew up in NYC, surrounded by other Asians in general, but not too many other Asians specifically (i.e. within my educational experience.) I also attended, for one summer, a Japanese-American summer camp in the Catskills, Camp Furusato, something akin to what Lee was speaking about. Camp Furusato was a great experience for me, and I have foggy but fond memories of the place.
Because I never went to Saturday Japanese school in America, and because my parents are Japanese nationals, I never really understood what it meant to be “Japanese-American.” I knew what it meant to be a New Yorker, and I knew what it meant to be Japanese (when I travelled back to Japan on vacation to visit family.) But the Japenese-American experience eluded me. I had a brief taste of it one summer at that camp, but I really didn’t get it until I moved to Los Angeles in 1996, for my first job out of college. That’s when I understood what it meant to be Japanese-American.
While I can certainly be classified as Japanese-American, I feel a lot more comfortable with the classification of Japanese AND American. It seems like a small distinction, but to someone who did not grow up with any kind of Japanese-American culture, it is a crucial difference.
Deep in Suburbia [nytimes.com]