When it came to matters of race and us, my father was undeniably a rookie. He was a white baby boomer raised in the shadow of the Ozarks. My sister and I were two half-Japanese kids born in the internet age. I’m not sure if he understood why holiday visits to his family were difficult for us or why we felt embarrassed to be seen with him at Japanese restaurants. He lacked any kind of innate lived experience that could help us navigate the complexities of a mixed-race identity. When my father gifted me Allen Say’s Tea with Milk, I can only guess that he had sensed our need for guidance and commiseration. My dad had decided to seek help in the form of a book.
Mixed people are tasked with developing a racial and cultural identity in a way that most single-race people do not. My mother knew she was Japanese because both of her parents were Japanese. I however, wasn’t exactly sure how Japanese I could claim to be, or how American I could call myself. While the heroine of Tea with Milk isn’t half-Japanese, her story explores an all-too familiar identity crisis for those of us with complicated cultural roots.
Masako grows up in America, but when her parents move back.to Japan, she is forced to adjust to life in Japan. She struggles to find a sense of belonging as she attends a Japanese high school, dons uncomfy kimono, and lives in a drafty traditional house. In her own words, she doesn’t want to be a “proper Japanese lady.”
As a child, Tea with Milk resonated with me; this was the first book I’d ever seen where the main character looked anything like me! She even had a similar hair style. It was marvelous to see both of my cultures represented together in a medium meant for kids. I felt a connection to Masako that I now know originated in our shared battles as multicultural humans.
This Children’s Day, I suggest you go out and get a copy of Tea with Milk for your favorite kid. Whether or not they’re mixed race or mixed culture, it is a meaningful and resonating story of creating your own sense of home and coming to terms with being different. An Allen Say book is always a special present. Consider this an enthusiastic endorsement that as a 23 year old woman I still love my first Allen Say book enough to sing its praises online.
(Illustration used with permission from artist. From Tea With Milk by Allen Say 1999)