The smell of the charred red meat grilling on the parrilla permeates through the humid air as my family streams into my house with Sopa Paraguaya, Mbeju, and a bowl of fresh salad in their arms. My grandmother walks into the house, delicately taking her shoes off before she enters. Her purse falls between her arms; she waits hesitantly before approaching me. As our eyes meet, she smiles at me and advances with a subtle elegance. She gently places her hands upon my shoulders to give me a light kiss on each cheek. She grins as she says, “Hola Mei. Tanto tiempo, メイちゃん、大きくなりましたね.” I smile and nod in agreement, responding back, “¡Sí! Tanto tiempo,” completely ignoring the second part of her statement I did not understand. As I finish my sentence, my mom pulls me away to help place the food on the table, and my grandmother is left standing there, grinning. As I leave the conversation, her stance stays strong, but her grin turns into sadness. A sad understanding, realization, and acceptance that we will never be able to communicate. We will never be able to understand each other. We are pulled apart by cultural differences that have shaped us.
I am a sansei: a third-generation Japanese who was born in Asunción, Paraguay. By blood, I am fully Japanese, yet in the eyes of those in Japan, I am a foreigner. My grandparents on both sides immigrated to Paraguay in the mid-1900s. My parents, my brothers, and I were born and raised in Paraguay. Optically, my nuclear family is representative of the Japanese lineage that goes back through centuries of Japanese history. Nevertheless, the language we speak and the culture we express tells a different story. The language of our ancestors is lost in translation. My family and I represent the generations of Japanese people who immigrated to Paraguay and other parts of South American decades ago.
However, my identity became more complicated as my sense of home splintered. Like my parents, I was born in the humid Paraguayan landscape on the rich, red, sunbaked soil. However, the kidnappings and violence that terrorized the small country pushed us to move towards safety, towards a haven up north. I moved to a suburban Canadian neighborhood when I was five. I was a small, Japanese-Paraguayan girl who spoke little to no English, forced to coexist with little kids who had lived there their whole lives. I quickly made Canada my home, and I lived there for eight years before my grandfather passed away unexpectedly due to an untreated illness. I was only 12 at the time. During this period, my father needed to return to Paraguay to take care of the farm my grandfather had left behind. I was forced to make a choice between staying in Canada with my mother for the next four years of high school or return to Paraguay alongside my father. I made the choice to move to Paraguay, a country I had slowly become dissociated from.
During those four years back in Paraguay, I quickly became more interested in my family’s history, but my new life as a college student in the US has brought up questions about my identity I hadn’t thought to ask. As an Asian, I seem to be breaking society’s boxes of where Asians are supposed to be from, when in fact I’m one of thousands of other Asians in South America. I am an Asian Latina who re-envisions what Latinos are “supposed” to look like. As my identity began to mold into the racial system upon which the United States was founded, my idea of who I am began to shift. I never had the urge to seek out my family history until I left for the United States. I wanted to validate my identity as a Japanese Latina, hoping that the stories my family had withheld would provide context to my self-perception.
Finding the right questions to ask was difficult, but the right questions led to the right stories. I learned my grandfather on my father’s side was born in Yamaguchi, Japan in 1936. At the age of 20, he became an orphan. His mother passed away feeding her children while malnutrition ate at her until her dying breath. His father passed away shortly after due to illness. At 21 years old, he sought passage out of Japan, the dilapidated, post-war society he had previously called “home” for his entire life. In order to have a better chance of moving to Paraguay through the Japanese emigration program, he and his best friend decided to marry each other’s sisters in order to seem like more desirable candidates, since Japan wanted the West to perceive Japanese people as respectful, dignified, and family-oriented. By 1957 he was off to Paraguay in search of opportunity. My grandmother, on the other hand, moved to Paraguay with her whole family in 1959 when she was 13 years old. Her family cultivated the rich, red land with soy. A few years later, she met my grandfather and they got married. Both my grandmother and my grandfather on my father’s side came to Paraguay during the second wave of immigrants and were immigrated through the Japanese government program.
While these stories belong to my family, they are not singular experiences. They are part of a past that is not often acknowledged. The Japanese migration to Paraguay is hidden between the cracks of history. When my grandfather passed away and I made the choice to move back to Paraguay, I had a deep-seated regret that still continues today. Every day, I regret not saying goodbye. I regret not asking him what it was like to move to a completely new country. I regret not hearing his funny anecdotes. I regret not being able to embrace him one last time before his passing. I regret not seeing him throughout the last few years of his life. I have held this heavy burden of regret since his death. But I have come to terms with the fact I will never be able to speak to him or hold him ever again. I have come to terms with the fact that there are parts of his stories that are now forgotten, whisked away with his life. And with this understanding came a determination. I do not want to have this similar burden with my other grandparents and with my parents. I do not want their stories to be forgotten as my grandfather’s stories are. I want their legacy to live beyond them. They are the roots that make me who I am. Their stories make up the identity of an ethnic group that is still extremely present in Paraguay. As I look at my grandfather’s life told through my father, I have come to realize these are the stories that matter. Their stories must not be forgotten.