While I was growing up in Tokyo, there used to be a cherry blossom tree outside my apartment window, a ‘sakura’ tree. It bloomed, but just for one week during spring every year. The branches would fill with riotous pink blossoms, heaving in the breeze like big sticks of cotton candy. They would wave about gaily like they were saying hello to whoever was beneath them.
It was common to see people sitting and making merry under these blossoms. New loves being found, hearts being broken, friendships being forged and life decisions being taken. But within a few days, the gossamer pink petals would curl onto each other and gently fall to the ground. Their lives would be done, the sole purpose of their existence being to lend happiness to people and beauty to nature.
There is a Japanese word to describe this transience of beauty. Wabi-sabi they call it – a complicated feeling which describes a loveliness which is all the more precious because of the realization that nothing lasts. Every time I would see these blossoms fall, a kind of melancholy would grip my soul. A kind of yearning to capture that moment, that one luxurious week. Hold onto the vision of the tree decorated with beautiful pink blossoms and make that my reality for years to come. Make time stand still so that I can stand alongside it, safe in knowing that the blossoms would never disappear from before my eyes.
When we moved to India a few years later, I was transported to a world far away from my beloved cherry blossom tree. There were no cherry blossoms here, no trains which ran perfectly on time, no Seven Elevens, no automatic vending machines at the corner of every street, no subways and trains stations every 500 meters, no glistening clean roads, no blessed silence. Instead, I would look outside my window and be greeted by the sounds of traffic, of street hawkers yelling and of prayer calls from the temples and mosques. There were cows and stray dogs everywhere, autos which traveled open to all the dust and pollution outside.
The world I had grown up in, its rules did not work here. I couldn’t expect to just walk outside, catch a train and go to school. I couldn’t zip alone to a convenience store at night. I couldn’t hail a taxi with a uniformed, hatted driver and a door opening on its own with a pneumatic hiss. I couldn’t expect that politeness would be met by politeness. And most heartbreaking of all, I couldn’t expect that a girl walking alone in public would not be met by lewd stares. I had never lived in a world where my mother was scared to let me walk outside even in broad daylight.
There were new rules, different clothes, a new way of life. This lack of freedom stifled me, these new surroundings frightened me.
My schoolmates laughed at my way of speaking, laughed when I didn’t know who Shah Rukh Khan was or how to play games like Kabaddi and Kho Kho. They marveled at my brightly colored lunch-boxes with Hello Kitty on them and at the chopsticks I brought one day. I told them once about how people in Japan bow when meeting someone for the first time and they kept bowing to each other the whole day, giggling and cracking jokes. They made fun of me saying that I was ‘chinki’. To be honest, I never got offended. All this simply mystified me. I knew that my nationality was Indian, I looked like everyone in this world, even my skin was the same brown. But why was my mind so different?
I wanted to blend in so I tried hard to talk like them, to slowly discard the mannerisms and philosophies I had grown up with. But one question never left my mind, growing more pressing as the days went by. Which one was my true self?
Not long after we moved, I noticed a huge gulmohar tree right behind my house, crowned with flame-red flowers. My friends would come over and we used to press the sticky unopened petals onto our nails, calling it ‘witchy nails’. The petals would smell musky and raw, completely different to the fresh, delicate scent of the cherry blossoms. Even today I remember this stark contrast of smells as something very integral to my confusion around identity. The musky red flowers or the delicate pink blossoms?
As I entered high school and college, this question became something which troubled me on a different level. Inwardly, I blamed my parents. Who asked them to bring me up in Tokyo and suddenly uproot me to shift back to India? Displace me from all that I loved? Of course, during this rebellious stage, I did not have the maturity to consider that they must have had their own reasons to make such an important decision. They must have struggled to relocate, even if it was in the country both of them had grown up in. But for me, my concerns were my own. I felt an overpowering need to pick one of the two cultures to identify with. I felt that my future depended on it.
But how could I? Picking the Japanese side would give me more conflict since my life was clearly in India and I couldn’t go on living here with that kind of mindset. Picking the Indian side would mean rejection of the philosophies and sentiments I had imbibed while growing up, the treasured memories I had guarded so zealously.
I discussed it once with a close friend. She laughed and said, “What’s wrong with you, you’re Indian through and through. It’s obvious how you should be. Plus, didn’t you leave Japan when you were a child? Why this drama now. Don’t you think you’re making this a big deal?”
I was shocked though I remained calm outside. Never was my intent to create drama or seek attention. To have my innermost conflict so casually brushed away by someone I thought was my best friend sufficiently disheartened me to never speak of it again. Probably it didn’t seem like a big deal but only I knew this curdling of emotion inside me, this constant uncertainty of what and who and where I identify with.
My temporary fix was a defense mechanism. Whenever I was wracked with feelings of anxiety or self-doubt, I would shut my eyes tight and imagine my cherry blossom tree. That was what rooted me, calmed me, reminded me of my childhood home. But it was a short respite as the anxiety always came back. It was like something eternally stuck in my throat. It couldn’t be washed down or lifted out.
Regardless of all this, I still kept living. I got good grades, I made good friends, I had great times. I was a happy person in general if you didn’t count the constant doubt inside. Over the years, I did visit Japan a few times and each time, on the day of my flight back to India, I would be seized with a longing so deep to stay back that tears would slip down my cheeks the whole ride to the airport.
Once, I came across a poem by Ijeoma Umebinyuo called ‘Diaspora Blues’ –
“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
It left a deep impact on me. I finally felt that there was one person who put my complicated emotions into words. When I looked into it more, I found that many others shared my battle with identity. First generation kids in America, Indian kids who had grown up in Africa or in the Middle East, even someone who had grown up in North India and shifted to the South. This realization gave me a measure of relief. I was not the only one.
On some scale, anyone who moved away from where they grew up faced this battle.
When we graduated college, all my friends sent applications to the best universities in America and the UK for their Masters. I alone sent one to a University in Japan. I just could not drag myself away from that country. But in spite of all this attachment, I spent two years doing my higher education there, decided the work culture was not for me and finally came back to India for good. My parents were surprised that I had given up on a career in Japan, the place I loved so much.
Why did I? Simply put, I grew up. I learnt not to see everything with rose-tinted glasses. I learnt to put everything in balance and see what worked for me and what didn’t, regardless of the conditions around me. The Japan which I had seen through child eyes and the one seen through adult eyes were two different lands and I was finally rational enough to separate emotion from reality.
Those two years were not only some of the best times of my life but also what helped me come close to resolving the long-held battle inside me. It struck me one day, like a bolt of lightning.
My identity was not something to be boxed. Inevitably, there will always be a significant part of my childhood and my time in Japan which can neither be forgotten nor banished. Similarly, the experiences I have had in India, my connection to it as a homeland is something that will tether me to it forever. Both worlds have shaped me and made me what I am today. My memories and experiences speak to who I have become. More than choose, it was up to me to pick what I wanted from both cultures, both traditions and both philosophies. So then, out of that dualism, I could create my own identity.
Red flowers could never be the same as pink blossoms. Both are lovely, both are bright and both have their good and bad points. The transient beauty of the latter is my association to my Japanese identity. Short, sweet but filled with deep meaning, never to completely disappear. And the flowering lushness of the former is my association to my Indian identity. Strong, raw, and long-lasting.
If you were to ask me what exactly is my identity now, I still could not give you a proper answer. I still think in Japanese, my body language is more like the people there, right up to the way I nod or say thank you with a quick bow of my head. I relate more with the ideals of Confucianism.
On the other hand, I am equally comfortable moving around in my native country, relating to the people here, accepting the Indian way of life. My love for all things Japanese is still all-pervading, my greatest identifier to people around me. But my traditional Indian-ness is also something I hold close to my heart, the unspoken dialogue that connects me to my family and my motherland. I fluidly move between both identities, never coveting nor releasing either. I embrace both in a version of myself which is created by me, for me, and which I will carry throughout my life.
Someday, when my children come to a similar point in their lives, I want to help them realize that the resolution of one’s identity comes not from choosing one over the other, but from creating one that is unique only to you.
Swathi is a content writer, who lives and works in the city of Bangalore, India. Having grown up in Japan and India, she uses writing as an outlet for her Asian multiculturalism, primarily fiction pieces, poetry and personal essays.
She is also a great lover of books and theatre. On her off days, you can find her browsing a dusty bookstore or typing away at her laptop in a quiet coffee shop.