I love those parts that seem incompatible but that, in a person, come together.
During my first week of college, I met a guy who, like me, had a long, four-part name. When I told him mine, he said, “Mine are better because they all match.”
This guy wasn’t exactly representative of my classmates at this New England liberal arts college. He was pretty obnoxious, and our friendship ended right along with freshman orientation. But he had a point. His name did match. It was a nice, genteel name, the kind you could transplant out of the 21st century and into a Jane Austen novel without anyone noticing the difference.
My name, on the other hand, is mixed and messy, alternately Japanese and French but, all together, a completely American whole: Mia Gabrielle Nakaji Monnier. In a 19th century novel, I might sound like an invading alien. But I love that. My name is a constant reminder that I’m mixed, on a borderline between worlds.
Being mixed, I always have my eye out for combinations of things—like the disparate parts of my name—that seem unlikely together: a French press beside a samovar, The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe next to the Bible, an old Japanese restaurant in a now-black neighborhood. I love those parts that seem incompatible but that, in a person, come together.
I don’t mean to say that being mixed is all about love, all positive analogies of musical harmonies or fusion food. Even being mixed geographically, moving back and forth between New England and Southern California, meant constant culture shock. Was the socially acceptable answer to “How are you?” “Good” or “Well”? Would my roommate complain about the smell of my miso soup? Did my white friends think I was obsessed with my race?
A friend—not mixed at all—once confessed to me how uneasy it made him feel that he belonged to two different worlds at home and on campus. The code-switching made him nervous. Would his different circles of friends be compatible if they were ever to meet? What would it mean if they weren’t?
Loosely speaking, these all come from the same universal anxiety. Is it OK to belong to two or more worlds, to call yourself Asian in some settings and white or mixed in others, to have sex on Saturday and visit your grandma on Sunday, to be gay and also Christian, to call both El Salvador and America home? Though an immediate, embracing “yes” seems like the right answer, in practice, this kind of negotiation is never so simple.
Toward the end of college, a roommate told me—apropos of what, I don’t remember—“It must be hard for you, being two different things and not really either one.”
At the time, I thought he was teasing me (he was the roommate who sometimes called me a whale “because you’re not fat”), so I told him to shut up. But he took a seat across from me at our kitchen table and said, “I’m serious. I’m the same way.” From Hong Kong via Canada, going to an American college before doing grad school in Australia, he was mixed too—not racially, maybe, but he knew just as much about code-switching as I did.
“We’re not one thing or the other,” he said, “but our own third thing.”
Sometimes, I commute to work by bus. I put on my noise-cancelling headphones and try to lose track of time until I’ve arrived in L.A.’s Little Tokyo, letting myself fall asleep if I can. The other day, I woke up on the express bus to a song from a mix CD that one of my college friends made me. She’s from Vermont—she likes jam bands, folk singers, music that doesn’t age—and hearing James Taylor’s sweet, slow voice, I felt myself be transported back to her family’s house at Thanksgiving time: the yellow labs, the hardwood floors, and the unlocked cars parked in the snowy driveway.
When I looked out the bus window, we were heading north on Figueroa, passing Wilshire, high-rises lit by the dim morning sun. This moment, I thought—one snapshot of downtown Los Angeles and a short piece of melody—could sum up my mixed experience. Not one thing or the other but our own third thing—somewhere between Hong Kong and Canada, goodnight and ohayo, or Figueroa and James Taylor.
Photo provided by the author.
Mia Nakaji Monnier is based in Los Angeles, where she works for a Japanese American community newspaper in Little Tokyo. Her writing has also appeared on The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Mental Floss, Hello Giggles, and more.