I burst through the door of a low, light-green stucco cottage and scream, “They have taken my mother! The Communists have kidnapped her and are brainwashing her!”
This nightmare began to interrupt my childhood sleep after my family moved from Okinawa to Kansas. I was 6 at the time. In the dream, I had struggled up a thick, jungle-covered hillside to a cottage. My mother was captive behind the locked doors of the hut, hidden in a pine forest. To find her, I had stolen quietly between neighborhood houses into the woods, weakly lit by the late afternoon sun. I could see my mother through a dirty window, tied to a chair. I shouted through the murky glass, “Mother, do you know me? Ayako, it’s Rita!” Her blank stare left me feeling as if the ground had dissolved under me and a whirlpool of despair sucked me under.
I was bereft of my mother in Kansas. My family had been relocated there by my white American stepfather, and she had ceased to speak to me in Japanese, forcing me to switch from our common mother tongue into a language alien to us both. We spoke without mutual fluency; and although I understood her silences, I did not know I understood them. Our primary connections were actually sustained by food.
Every December, a large cardboard box arrived from Fukuoka, Japan. On Christmas morning, our family opened it, knowing that my mother would be delighted with the nori, aji-no-moto, dried tuna, and somen and udon noodles that would sustain us for the year. Until I stayed at school all day, my mother based my lunches around treasures from that box. When our family sat down to dinner, she often cooked two meals. She put greens or black-eyed peas, pork chops, and cornbread before my father. My mother, younger sister, and I ate rice, sliced vegetables she pickled herself, and meat fried until it was crispy.
I sometimes watched her prepare dinner. She mixed the bread batter and poured it into a hot cast iron frying pan before putting it in the oven. We all loved the crunchy dark brown crust that formed from the hot pan. She rinsed the rice, measured the final water with her fingers, put a piece of kombu in it, and let it steam on the stove. Sometimes she experimented, frying rice with leftover roast beef or peas, or she tempura-fried asparagus and broccoli. My father avoided the Japanese dishes, while we three women sometimes shared his southern food. We all had salad and pie. Unbeknownst to my father, who loved my mother’s cooking, she spiced his food with soy sauce and aji-no-moto. Although she owned several American cookbooks, she rarely used them, and her Japanese and fusion dishes were always improvised. This experimentation and indifference to recipes characterize not only my own cooking style but also the way I have lived my life.
My identity resembles my mother’s eclectic meals, a fusion of ingredients annealed by the fires of growing up on three continents as a Japanese mixed-race woman and a liberal Protestant educated in the second half of the 20th century in U.S. schools. This cross-cultural process has resulted in a consciousness I call interstitial integrity. Integration brings many diverse parts together, the way a collection of ingredients finally makes a dish. Integrity is how we know ourselves and make choices that sustain our values in relationship with others. It is a complex, evolving process over time, captured in moments of self-awareness and self-acceptance — brief interludes of consciousness that appear within the tossing turbulence of many people and places.
The word interstitial comes from interstitium, and it is used in biology to describe tissue situated in vital organs. The tissue is not organ tissue, but rather, it connects the organs to one another. Interstitial tissue lives inside things, distinct but inseparable from what would otherwise be disconnected. It is a channel of life in and out of things separated and different. It makes a living, pulsating unity, both many and one. Without interstitiality, parts of my life would wither and die, unnourished by the connective tissues of memory that constantly flow in and out of my consciousness. Interstitial integrity is how I improvise a self, recognizing the diverse cultures and experiences that have made me who I am. It is how I mix a life together from many ingredients.
The Creation of Asian America
Asian America is a palimpsest. The traces of Asia’s many races, cultures, and religions are written a myriad times over its single surface. The first and oldest layers of immigrant texts are from China and Japan, with smaller groups from India, the Philippines, and Korea. None used the term “Asian American”. After the 1965 Immigration Act, the numbers of Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Hmong, Pakistanis, Indians, Thais, and Pacific Islanders grew significantly. The use of “Asian American” emerged to identify a political movement. It also became a racial designation, however inadequate. At the beginning of the 21st century and in the wake of 9/11, the movement began to pay better attention to Muslims and those from West or South Asia.(1)
The politics of Asia and the United States are continually rewritten on the Asian American palimpsest, obliterating parts of old faded script on the parchment with fresh ink. On the one hand, tensions among Asian countries arrive with new immigrants to North America. For example, the Japanese colonization of Korea and China is sometimes relived in the suspicions of Korean and Chinese immigrants against Japanese Americans. These antagonisms erupted in the 1990s with new evidence of Japan’s forced sexual slavery of Asian women before and during World War II.(2) On the other hand, in the Asian American movement, whatever transpired in Asia is often overwritten by the racial politics of the United States. Our histories and cultural traditions, layered into an ad hoc pan-Asian story, are inscribed in English, our one common language. We engage a common struggle against racism, create friendships across old national boundaries, and enact forms of hospitality organized around eclectic potlucks.
This system of layers, of identities claimed and denied, of old conflicts sublimated and transplanted, and of hybrid forms integrated interstitially characterizes the development of an American identity from Asians and their descendants. It is the story of race and immigration on North American soil. Whiteness is itself also a construct of racialized identity related to the history of Europeans in Europe and transplanted into an identity constructed by colonization and contact with Native Americans, enslaved Africans, Latinx, and Asian Americans. In the 19th century, non-British immigrants, such as the poor from Ireland, had to prove their whiteness in court to gain naturalized citizenship.(3)
Interstitial integrity more accurately describes how human beings construct a self in any culture. We draw life from every relationship in our lives. We are imprinted with the voices that give us language, the emotional inflections and words by which we identify feelings, the body rhythms we enact, the ways we examine the world and interact with it, and the knowledge that we come to make our own. We do not choose the others who live in us, but nonetheless, they are how we become who we are. We are constituted by these complex relationships to the world as we internalize them. Korean Americans refer to nun chi (literally, eye measure). Nun chi is the ability to observe, assess, and make judgments based on a self-possessed awareness of living in multiple worlds while maintaining an attitude of concern and compassion. It is exercised by the practice of memory and reflection on values in context. It is being present while being aware of being present and examining what we hold together as we weave it.(4)
My self is a constant conversation, sometimes even a conflicted, cacophonous argument. I am as much the traces of Japanese grammar, which shaped my first fluency in language, and the cultural sensibilities of my first caregivers as I am my education in U.S. military schools and liberal higher education. My Japanese family practiced Shinto rituals for weddings and Buddhist funerals, finding value in both traditions. My mother handed me an idealized version of my early life in Japan, so I can only infer what courage and skill it took for her to survive in the aftermath of war with a mixed-race child in a xenophobic culture. She worked as a nurse at a U.S. military hospital, married one of the American medics, and erased my birth father by never speaking of him.
From my stepfather, I learned an enlisted man’s suspicion of authority and from my mother, a respect for teachers and doctors. My father, a white southerner who grew up on a farm, was direct and blunt, while my mother was indirect and emotionally reserved. My mother felt superior to Koreans and Chinese, as my father did to African Americans; but I grew up on integrated U.S. military bases, where my best friends were as likely to be Latinx or Black or white. The only racial group I tended to avoid was Asian Americans, who made me uncomfortable because they reminded me of what I was trying to overcome in becoming American.
Growing up in Asia, North America, and Europe, I struggled to understand the experiences and relationships of my life, to harmonize their dissonances so that I would be less of a mystery to myself. I studied Japanese in college and graduate school, which helped me understand my thinking patterns and values. I did not, however, regain fluency. I fought conflicting impulses to know and not to know a language my mother had worked so hard to help me forget. In my study, I learned that nouns and verbs are fluid and changeable, but verbs are of greater importance. The more artful and less direct a communication, the more it shows appreciation for the intelligence of the listener and the more it gives breathing space for negotiation between people. In addition, the choice of words differs according to the relationship of speaker to listener, which requires social knowledge and sophistication. Men and women speak different forms of Japanese. Women speak in longer, more diplomatic ways than men, even to each other. Children also use a distinctive discourse, and when speaking in front of or to children, adults adopt their language. Everyone avoids, whenever possible, the use of the singular, first person personal pronoun “I”, although men use it more often. The avoidance of “I” orients the listener to the action taking place in a nexus of relationships because this nexus is more important than a single actor. The actor is only one part of the whole meaning of what happens. Frequent use of “I” and direct, blunt speech are regarded as egotistical and socially stupid.
This sense of fluidity of forms, of larger wholes, indirect speech, and the limits of “I” thinking inform my commitment to interstitial integrity and the improvisational mix by which I have made a life. In understanding the complexities of American myths of restoration and purity, I seek to undermine their colonial structures of race and gender and their obsessions with purity and victims. I do so as one who chooses not to avoid the ambiguities of being a woman of color in the United States. At the same time, I believe that the history of U.S. politics and its current imperialist actions compel me, as a liberal Christian and feminist committed to justice, to refuse to limit my sensibilities to national politics or an Asian American framework. I have a responsibility to claim forms of power and agency handed to me by citizenship and education and to deepen my attunement to historical and material realities in order to understand how to use power wisely, for life.(5)
Living with Interstitial Integrity
Since our arrival to North American shores in large numbers in the late 19th century, Asian and Pacific Islander women have worked for justice, not only for ourselves and our compatriots but also for people in other countries. Refusing to split ourselves into Asian or American, many of us have worked on both frontiers at once. As the Asian American feminist theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha notes, “The struggle is always multiple and transversal — specific but not confined to one side of any border war.” The 20-year existence of Pacific, Asian, North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) is a current example of such multiple and transversal work among women. It has provided many of us a place to explore interstitial integrity. And it is a community of strong eaters.
Interstitial integrity helps us be attuned to the fullness of life, to appreciate its many pleasures, and to participate in its ever-changing rhythms and patterns, rather than to be starved by unrealized hopes or a thin nostalgic past. While we remember the poisons of racism, sexism, and colonialism, we do not choose to make harm the only lens by which we relate to the present or to let past traumas determine our choices now. Instead, we seek to understand the complex relationships of our lives, sifting through the toxins and retrieving the rich morsels of life, nourishment that can sustain a lifetime of work for justice and for peace.
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Interstitial integrity is the spirit and our struggle to hold the many in the one. We endeavor to make sense and meaning out of the multiple social locations, the hybrid cultures, and the many powers of death and life that are placed before us. Interstitial integrity is our ability to lay down, spread-eagled, reaching to all the many worlds we have known, all the memories we have been given, tempered in the cauldrons of history and geography in our one body. We find our value in taking our small place in long legacies of life incarnating spirit in bodies. Through such legacies, we participate in shaping our many worlds, and we receive them into ourselves as we grow in wisdom and beauty and live on in the traces we leave in others, the one in the many.