Caught between cultures, professor feels marginalized

By Linus Yamane
Professor of Economics and Asian American Studies

I often feel marginalized in our society. I like to think of myself as a New Yorker. I like the Mets, going to Carnegie Hall, and eating in Little Italy and Chinatown. But I grew up about 30 minutes from lower Manhattan in New Jersey. And no one from New York thinks of anyone from New Jersey as a New Yorker. Real New Yorkers are from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Queens. Staten Island is suspect, along with eastern Long Island and Westchester County. And anyone from New Jersey is just from the armpit of America.

When I was older, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for six years. Boston is perhaps my favorite city in the world, and I can never get enough New England clam chowder. I like to think of myself as a New Englander. But real New Englanders are from Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont. People from Massachusetts are suspect, especially if they are from the People’s Republic of Cambridge. I can drop my r’s like the best of them, but I can never really pass as a New Englander.

I also think of myself as an American. But when I first arrived at Pitzer College, several people commented that I spoke English very well. They asked me where I was from. Even when I told them I was born in California, they asked me where I was “really” from. Since I am Asian, I obviously cannot be from the United States. I am a perpetual foreigner.

Most of my family actually lives in Brazil, and I like to think of myself as a Brazilian. I actually carry a Brazilian passport and have Brazilian military papers. I really love the Brazilian people, but no one from Brazil thinks of me as a Brazilian. I don’t drink coffee, am a terrible soccer player, and can hardly speak Portuguese. It is one big case of unrequited love.

I like to think of myself as Latino. Since I am a Brazilian, and Brazil is part of Latin America, I am naturally Latino (though not Hispanic). I was even born in East Los Angeles way before Cheech and Chong had their hit song. But while I love hanging with Latinos, I never get the sense that Latinos think of me as one of them. Perhaps it is because I can’t eat a burrito without having it all fall apart, and most Latinos are from Mexico. Again I feel marginalized.

I also like to think of myself as Japanese. All of my grandparents were born in Japan, and I grew up in a Japanese-speaking household. And while I have some fairly traditional Japanese values, no one from Japan thinks of me as Japanese. Since I am basically illiterate, they are just impressed that I can use chopsticks.

I actually grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey, and always wanted to be Jewish. My Jewish friends invited me over for Passover Seders, and even asked me to play my violin at their temple once. But when I told them I wanted to be Jewish, they just laughed. “You want to be persecuted,” they would say.

I studied Tae Kwon Do for many years. I have a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, was state featherweight champion, and even tried out for the 1988 United States Olympic Tae Kwon Do team. But Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art. Since my Asian roots are from Japan, and there are serious historical conflicts between Japan and Korea, I never felt completely accepted in the world of Tae Kwon Do. I have never felt as uncomfortable as the time someone started speaking Japanese to me in the locker room of a Tae Kwon Do studio.

I like to think of myself as an Asian American. But living here in California, I don’t completely fit in with other Asian Americans because I am from the east coast. There are actually some significant cultural differences between east coast Asian Americans and west coast Asian Americans. And in the world of Asian American Studies, I don’t always fit in because I have a Ph.D. from one of those Ivy League universities, and not from University of California, Berkeley. I will be at a loss in conversation because I don’t know where to eat on Shattuck Avenue.

I have now lived in Claremont longer than any other city in the world. But I still feel like a tourist here in LA. I get really excited every time I see the Hollywood sign or a movie star in a restaurant. And my wife and son make it very clear that I am not from here every time I wear socks with my sandals.

So I clearly feel marginalized by our society in many ways. I think sociologists define a “marginal man” as someone who participates only slightly in the life of multiple cultural groups without feeling identified with any of the groups. In the book Marginal Man, Everett Stonequist first called attention to the problems experienced by people making transitions between different cultures, and specifically to pressures felt by minority and ethnic group members in American society. But while I do not have complete access to any cultural group, I actually do have partial entre into many different cultural groups. And this certainly makes my life rather rich, rewarding, and interesting. So the New Yorker in me says, “Just fuh-gedda-boud-dit. Assawayigoze.”

One thought

  1. Thank you Professor, as a student here at Pitzer I often feel the same weird struggle with my identity. I’m a mixed-race student who got told I was Asian so many times that I started taking Asian-American studies classes to find out what that meant. The list goes on. It’s nice to know somebody is dealing with some of the same questions and has seem to come up with a positive solution. I hope I get to take a class with you or have a conversation soon, your honesty is very inspiring and appreciated.

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