The U.S. military community is pretty diverse. It’s especially true in the Asia-Pacific region where East meets West to create a cornucopia of cultural combinations.
Often (but not always) the offspring of an American military member or civilian and a host-nation citizen, many so-called military brats in or from this region grow up straddling two cultures. Many understand, or even speak, two languages.
They may share the same multiple permanent changes of station, on-base schooling and deployed-parent experiences as their counterparts. But these “brats” come of age with challenges, advantages and perspectives that are unique to their bicultural backgrounds.
For many, it usually begins with identity.
“Hapa,” is a Hawaiian word that literally means “mixed” or “part.” In recent years, it has caught on in some parts of the U.S. as the term for identifying someone with more than one ethnicity. It succeeds generations of others such as creole, mixed, half and even “both.”
Any term, however, can have negative or positive connotations depending on how someone self-identifies – or is identified by others. This is particularly true in Japan where the most common term for biracial and bicultural people is “hafu,” or half.
“The only thing I don’t like, is saying it’s half of something,” says Megan Green, 21. Born to a Japanese mother and American father, the Sophia University student has lived most of her life in Japan, much of it on Yokota Air Base. “Saying ‘half Japanese’ is only half; but, no, I am full Japanese – and full American. We should say ‘double’ instead.”
Green says that there have been plenty of benefits to being equally exposed to both American and Japanese cultures while growing up. But it’s also had its challenges.
“The con is that it’s hard to find out your identity, and also where you fit in the most. Because I don’t think I can fit in completely with pure Japanese people or Americans sometimes,” she says. “When I went to school on Yokota a lot people called me Asian, but when I go to Sophia (in Tokyo), now people see me as an American.”
Laurence Miner, 18, knows all too well that identity is not always in the eyes of the beholder. The son of a native New Yorker and Chamorro mother from Guam, he’s lived on several U.S. bases including Camp Zama, Japan, where he’s been for the past 11 years. He notes with a lighthearted shrug that people usually assume he’s Mexican.
Thanks to his mom and at least one trip back to his birthplace every year to visit family, he has no doubts about who is.
“I think of myself as Chamorro because I love my Chamorro culture,” Miner says. “I have my Guam flag hanging up in my room. I love Guam. Every time I visited there I was always happy. I hang out with cousins, friends and family and enjoy barbeque.”
That kind of support from family, and even sports teams, clubs or other groups, can foster a sense of belonging when adolescents are trying to figure out who they are, according to Naho Kikuchi. The American School in Japan counselor has worked with many bicultural youth over the years, and also has one parent who’s Chinese and another who’s Japanese.
“I would encourage those youth to feel OK about having the struggle of not feeling like they fit in either parents’ culture,” Kikuchi says. “Don’t fight it. Tell yourself that it’s also OK not to have everything figured out. Self-acceptance is really important here, and finding mentors and others who might feel similar to you will be vital.”
One way to foster self-acceptance might be to focus on the benefits of being bicultural. And both green and Carlito Ancheta Jr., 15, agree that one of the biggest can be a second language.
“I would say that the benefit of having two cultural backgrounds is that I am able to learn two languages which helps me communicate with my families on both sides – and the Korean people,” says Ancheta, who lives with his Korean Mother and Filipino-American father in Daegu, South Korea. “Being bilingual is beneficial for me in the future for such things as traveling to foreign countries on business trips.”
That’s not to say that growing up bilingual or bicultural doesn’t have its demands. Ancheta admits that in addition to the challenge that comes with learning two languages, he sometimes mixes up cultural courtesies like bowing to an American or trying to shake hands with a Korean. And Green remembers the difficulty she had communicating with her Japanese grandparents as a child. But that didn’t keep her from persevering.
“I went to (school on) Yokota for education and it was always in English,” says Green. “So, English was easier growing up, but as I grew older I learned Japanese from my mother and by going to Kumon (Japanese Learning Program). I usually speak English to my dad and Japanese to mom.
“Now, when I try to talk to Japanese people, when I think in my head before I say something, I think in Japanese,” she explains. “When I talk to American people I think in English. So now I separate it completely.”
It is not only language but also food that can be the hallmark of a bicultural home. And in many cases, international families get to choose from two different delicious homemade cuisines. Ancheta says that as a child it was one of the first ways he noticed that his parents had two diff erent cultural backgrounds.
“My dad, raised in the U.S.A., usually prepares main course dishes, however my mother, a Korean, prepares her meals with small sub dishes,” he says. “I love when my dad cooks Filipino food, but my sister and mom prefer Korean and American food. My dad always gets irritated because we eat different meal selections every time.”
Miner says he’s grown up with Guam’s signature condiment, spicy “finadene” sauce, on the dining table. He also has a penchant for the U.S. territory’s signature cuisine.
“I love my Chamorro culture – and also Guam’s barbeque,” he says.
The American School in Japan’s Kikuchi, however, points out that the most valuable benefit of a bicultural upbringing is food for thought. The school counselor says that some of the most common traits she’s seen in people raised in two cultures is, “an ability to navigate multiple perspectives and an ability to adapt to new environments quickly.”
“I think there are lots of pros, but one of them is definitely that you have two cultures,” she says. “So, naturally my vision is little bit wider.”
While very proud of his Chamorro heritage, Miner points out that in the end it’s the culture you create that matters most.
“I am still my own person. I have my own traditions,” he says. “I do my best not because Chamorro people do this and American people do that. It is just my own choice.”
From Kansas and Korea
Editor’s note: Erin Wallace, 10, is 5th-grader at Daegu American School whose mother is from Korea and her father is from Kansas. She has lived in Korea for the past three years; it’s her second tour. Before that she lived in Kansas and Virginia. We asked Erin to share her insights about growing up in a bicultural family.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in well … Kansas, Virginia, Seoul and Daegu. I’ve been moving my whole life basically.
Q: How do you identify yourself?
A: I identify myself 60 percent American and 40 percent Korean because I speak English and some Korean, and I can read and write Korean, too.
Q: When and how did you first notice your parents had different cultural backgrounds; how much of each do you think you’ve inherited?
A: I noticed when I was about 6 years old when I saw my relatives were speaking one language and my dad speaking another. And I think I inherited my athletic ability from my dad and my ‘double jointed fingers’ are from my mom.
Q: What do you think is the biggest similarity and the biggest difference between these two cultures?
A: Well, I think they are different because in America, we don’t recycle that much, but in Korea everybody recycles. But they are the same because they both have good food.
Q: What are some of the benefits and challenges of having two cultural backgrounds? How do you think it affects your personality or a way of thinking?
A: Some benefits are that Asians are very smart and I am smart. Some challenges are that I don’t fit in with Koreans but I still make friends.
Q: How do you think being a “military brat” helps or challenges it?
A: Well I used to be a military brat and think it is a challenge to move away from my family.
Q: What are your plans/hopes for the future? Where would you like to live?
A: I want to go to college and get a doctor’s degree and become a teacher for military kids, and I’d like to live in Paris or America or Korea.
Q: How do you think how these two different cultural influences will help you in the future?
A: I think if I speak a little bit of Korean and English, I can settle in both places so I have experience in America and Korea.
Q: Is there anything you think it’s important for people to know or understand about people with two cultural backgrounds?
A: I think that people with two cultural back grounds are like having two lives or two different ancestries.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add on this topic?
A: Well maybe that if you have two cultural backgrounds then you have to keep track of what one parent is saying to another.