Step One: Fill the Kettle
Gently flowing upwards, with no sense of direction, toward the light of the world above, I slowly search. A whistle sings. The seeping steam prevents me from seeing myself and the passage ahead, but I persist. Bursting out of the pressure-filled kettle, I strive to control my identity. Boiling in societal definitions, I have hidden my true colors. I have made multiple mistakes and miscalculations but every day, while brewing a cup of tea, I find peace.
Step Two: Choose the Tea
To you, I may look completely Japanese. It’s not entirely your fault; my dark hair and eyes, courteous mannerisms, and fashion can be deceptive. And you’re not alone. To my fellow high-schoolers, I’m a full-blooded Asian: good at math, bad at driving, and an aspiring biology major. Stereotypes have shaped me into an example. It doesn’t matter that I grew up in the United States and that my dad is from a cattle ranch in rural North Dakota. Children understand the shades of our skin and are spoon-fed the social cues created by our society. The books I read did not include people like me. It was difficult to find Asian books and characters, let alone mixed ones. What character am I in the story of life? All these years, I’ve struggled with my identity as a crossbreed child and my relationship with both cultures. I’m not a sphinx, centaur, or minotaur—I’m a real human too.
Step Three: Boil the Water
I sit down at the tight small desk, setting my bulky freshman backpack to the side. I am intimidated by a huge world map to my right with sharp black lines between borders. Today is the second day of high school and as an ice-breaker for my history class, we are told to discuss our family heritage. The kid next to me says his family is simply American. I tell him my mom immigrated from Tokyo. He, a total stranger, leans over and places a hand on my ear and jarringly whispers, “Do you know what hentai is?” On the bus ride home, I wonder how this “pure” American student knows a Japanese word I don’t.
Step Four: Choose the Number of Tea Leaves
The menu only has tonkatsu. My legs are courteously positioned on the tatami mat, hurt under the pressure of my body as I observe the overwhelming options. I reach for the soothing hojicha and gracefully place the blue porcelain cup back onto the low wooden table. I’m not used to seiza. I break formality as I shift my legs out when the server arrives. She quietly observes my broad nose, my unconventional criss-cross apple sauced legs, and American thrift clothes. She asks my mother what I’ll be having.
Step Five: Watch the Temperature
When I was a junior, I decided it was best to pretend. I studied what my friends considered Japanese culture: anime, food, and J-pop. I gave them the facade of a Japanese boy who only watched the anime “One Piece” and danced to the obnoxious voices of the girl group AKB48 blasting over the speakers at the talent show. This persona let me bond with others and fulfill my friends’ expectations. I just wanted to be accepted and if I had to act out a small lie, so be it. I built friendships by adopting what Americans considered Japanese culture. I was Japanese, but did not know what that meant. If I had to watch this boring anime about a boy who stretches, so be it.
Step Six: Select the Tea Set
I gently pour the tea into two simple clay yunomis. The fragrance brings memories of the Japanese park where I used to play, my grandmother’s cooking, and the late-night games of Go with my grandpa. My golden reflection stares back at me. In the tea, the shimmering features of my face waver. I still don’t know who I am. The rising steam vanishes into the air making it hard to tell where it ends or begins. Is there a name for that gaseous gradient? The steam whispers in my ears but I don’t understand. I’ve watched anime, eaten food, and listened to AKB48, but I don’t feel connected to my heritage. Is it possible for a half-Japanese boy to be a weeb?
I feel the cup hugging my hands. The warmth flows through me and I think about drinking tea with my grandma during summer break. I miss Japan. I was an outsider, a foreigner, but also a teenager living experiences with his family that would later help define him. Through my grandparents, I encountered authentic Japanese culture. The bubbles are all gone and the tea is now at peace. The leaves have fully blended with the hot water in an irreversible reaction. I take a sip. I help my mother bring the other yunomi upstairs. To respect our deceased relatives, we offer tea, rice, and burned incense at the butsudan. The tea is always sencha. My mother brought this generations-old tradition from Japan with her. The custom is the only connection I have to Japan on a daily basis. The sencha I make is the item that reminds me of my ancestors, my mom, and my culture.
Step Seven: Pour the Water
The cold tray clunks on the plastic table as I slide down to join my Asian friends for lunch. I’ve forgotten what I ate back then, but it was the same as everyone else—something mushy. They’re talking about “One Piece.” As the Japanese representative of the group, they ask for my opinion. At the time, I hadn’t watched it yet. They joke about how every real Japanese person has watched at least one episode and I laugh. Yet, I feel ashamed that I have lost a part of my Japanese identity growing up in the United States. Even my peers are more culturally aware than I am. At home, I watch a full season. I wish I could get back the hours I wasted.
Step Eight: Steep the Tea
Acceptance was gradual. At the end of my junior year, while holding a warm cup of tea, I reflected on the fake character I was enacting. The whispers of the steam, my golden reflection, and the bursting bubbles reminded me of authentic Japanese culture. The moments where I prepared tea for the butsudan, learned Japanese, and talked with my grandparents. Orienting my life around perceived Japanese culture has taught me what I am not. It is not that anime, food, and AKB48 aren’t a part of Japanese culture—many Japanese people love anime. Rather, these topics do not define it. I do not have to read hentai, watch “One Piece,” or love AKB48 to be Japanese. Boiling tea for my ancestors is a stronger bond for me.
I am not fifty-fifty; growing up in America has detached me from Japan. Even though I am swimming in American culture at Tufts, I will not forget my ancestors. I understand that my values of being courteous and individualistic are not a contradiction. I am a human who has a complex flavor, full of memories and experiences which can not fit on a single label. Mixed. Not a leaf or water, but rather a carefully crafted combination of the two. I do not fit into American or Japanese society. Yet, both cultures have changed the flavor of my thoughts, the smell of my personality, and the tint of my values.
Step Nine: Enjoy
I make the tea in the new kettle we ordered off Amazon. Today the bubbles move up the walls with purpose. On the black tray, I carefully carry the rice and tea upstairs. The ornamented butsudan watches my brown eyes look up at the images safely stored in its heart. As I seiza on the hard wooden floor, the fragrance of the tea blends with the incense. I am still striving to solidify my sense of self, but a simple and complex fusion provides guidance. Sencha contains my ancestors, my memories, and merges them with the present.
The blend reminds me of who I am.