On Being Mistaken for the Other Japanese-American Writer in Town: Not the Rant You’re Expecting

The other day I ran into an acquaintance in town. We don’t know each other well and hadn’t seen each other in several months, so I reminded her of my name.

“Yes, of course!” she said. “Didn’t your book just come out?”

I laughed. “No, not yet.” And then it clicked. “You’re thinking of Brenda Nakamoto,” I said.

“Oh, you’re right!” she said. We both laughed, then shared a few pleasantries before going our separate ways.

I know people who would have been offended by this encounter. There goes another white person thinking all Asians look alike and are interchangeable, etc. But I just couldn’t muster up any indignation over it. In fact, I was amused and even a little pleased.

"Peach Farmer's Daughter" "Brenda Nakamoto"For one thing, Brenda’s book, Peach Farmer’s Daughter, just out from Roan Press, is a beautiful memoir of growing up on a peach farm in northern California. (You can watch Brenda reading an excerpt from the book here.) I did not resent an accidental association with the book or its author.

Second, I can see how someone who knows both of us only casually might confuse us: We’re both petite and Asian and spectacled and around the same age, and we both write and hang out with the same writerly folks in our not-so-big town.

And anyway, I’ve made this mistake myself.

I used to run a once-a-week after-school creative writing program at my sons’ elementary school. One year I had nearly 50 students, and at the end of the school year I was still confused about who was who.

There was a group of five or six Asian girls who always sat together and were mostly named Anna or Amanda, and damned if I could keep them straight. I did the same thing with the white girls in ponytails, many of whom were called Emma or Hannah.

In my community college classes, I often spend the first two or three weeks of class trying to distinguish among the three Latino guys in baseball caps, the two overweight white guys, or the two women who look completely different from each other except for their shared penchant for wearing pink.

I also have trouble with same-sex couples if I meet both people at the same time and they bear some physical resemblance to each other (as so many couples, both gay and straight, are wont to do). Ditto for straight couples with gender-neutral names. (Is she Kelly and he Drew, or the other way around?)

I guess my point is that when we’re becoming acquainted with people, we have little to go on besides superficial physical characteristics, many of which end up falling along broad racial or ethnic (or gender) lines, and maybe we should just give ourselves and everyone else a break when we goof.

The woman who mistook me for Brenda wasn’t being racially insensitive. She just didn’t know either of us very well. What she did remember was that a local Japanese writer had published a book.

Likewise, when I was struggling to distinguish the Annas from the Amandas and the Emmas from the Hannahs, it wasn’t out of some racial blindness. The problem was that there were too many kids in the class and I only saw them once a week for an hour. I never got past a superficial familiarity with many of them.

Don’t get me wrong. The leniency I’m advocating here only applies to new or casual acquaintance. The boss who confuses her African-American employees with each other even after working with them for years is just an asshole. Ditto the professor who confuses his two Indian advisees right up through graduation. And don’t even get me started on people who cannot—or will not—learn to pronounce the non-Anglo names of the people around them.

I’ve heard people complain about the being-mistaken-for-someone-else thing as if it were something only white people do. It’s not. When I lived in Japan, I found that many Japanese had trouble telling apart white people who I thought looked completely different from each other.

My husband and me in Kyoto, January 1988

In fact, when my husband and I lived there right after we got married, we were frequently mistaken for brother and sister. “But you look so much alike!” people would say when they learned we were a couple. This was very strange to us, especially as I am half-Japanese and he’s a blue-eyed gaijin. But it happened so often that I had to accept that this was, in fact, how many people perceived us. (You can make your own judgment based on this photo from that time.)

Brenda and I happened to have dinner together a week or so after I’d run into our mutual acquaintance, and I got to tell her I’d had the pleasure of being mistaken for her. We laughed about this, and she told me that since her book came out, she’s often asked if she knows David “Mas” Masumoto, the well-known author of Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm.

“Well, that’s not surprising,” I said, “seeing as he’s also Japanese and writes about peach farming in California.”

“They want to know if I’m his daughter,” Brenda said.

“What?!”

“Yeah.”

Is there some odd transitive property of ethnicity at work here, whereby, since Masumoto’s a Japanese-American peach farmer and Brenda is also Japanese and the daughter of a peach farmer, therefore she must be his daughter? Maybe this is more a matter of general cluelessness (and evidence of not having read the authors in question) than of cultural insensitivity, but I’m not sure. I’m guessing Loretta Lynn doesn’t get asked at gigs if she’s the daughter of George Davis the Singing Miner.

But if she were to show up in my class along with some other big-haired brunettes, it might take me a few weeks to fix the right names to the right faces, and I hope she’d be patient with me while I figured it out.

13 thoughts on “On Being Mistaken for the Other Japanese-American Writer in Town: Not the Rant You’re Expecting

  1. When I first got to the part about Brenda’s book, I gotta admit my first thought was, “Oh, I wonder if she’s related to David Masumoto?” So shoot me. Are literary Japanese-American peach farmers all that common?

  2. This was a refreshing post! I used to have a Chinese friend in Oakland, and she took great offense when some old geezer in a drug store tried to make conversation and told her how much he liked tempura. Well, of course Chinese and Japanese really are quite different in appearance once an outsider comes to realize this by familiarity and contact. But older folks of a different, more clueless generation who have had little or no acquaintance can be pretty ignorant. I thought the guy was just trying to be friendly. He was one of those folks who come to a corner drug store daily (or did in those days) and have coffee and talk to the waitresses and any other customers around. I thought she missed an opportunity to enlighten him nicely instead of getting quite huffy about it. And, when I reflected on it, I felt, Sheesh, I’m white and I get white people mixed up. And at the Greek Festival, Greeks have taken me for Greek (I’m half Italian); in Spain, it’s been assumed by some Spaniards that I’m Spanish (until they hear me in converasation, of course.) So, I agree with your post in that it would be better to give people of any group the benefit — and I would add, use that as an opportunity to help them get unconfused.

  3. Paul: Bang! You’re dead! 🙂

    Elizabeth: I love your story about your friend. I relate to every person in it — the incensed friend, the garrulous old guy, and you, the uncomfortable onlooker. You’re right that there’s a nice way to enlighten people. On the other hand, when you’re Chinese & have been mistaken for Japanese your whole life (or the other way around), sometimes your patience wears thin! Thanks for reading!

  4. Naomi:

    This is hilarious – and thank you so much for saying the un-sayable.

    I have a terrible time recognizing people – any people. I’ve never been able to follow the Godfather movies because all that mob guys look alike – they’re either young mob guys or old mob guys. It isn’t just that all Asians or blacks look alike to me – all blondes look alike to me, too, as do brunettes and everything in between. If a friend, even a pretty good friend, loses weight, starts wearing glasses, or gets her hair cut, I might walk right past her with only a polite nod.

    I once had a temp job at a large bank – one of those “answer the phones even though you don’t know who’s who” nightmares – and I pegged one guy as Greg. He was extremely tall, thin, black, and bald. I handed him a message for Greg and he said, rather coldly, “But I’m not Greg. He’s over there.” And I discovered there were TWO extremely tall, thin, black, bald men in that particular department – and they were the only black men. And of course they both wore dark business suits and white shirts. I didn’t even bother to explain!

    So if I ever ask you if you’re Amy Tan, I’m glad to know you’ll understand. 😉

    p.s. You don’t know me from a hole in the wall – I read “Snow Men” in One Story, one of my absolute favorite litmags, and found your blog, and thought, wow, how cool, a real author I can follow – so that’s where I came from. It’s ok, I’m harmless, and usually sit quietly in the corner, but this struck me so close to home I had to respond!

    Karen

  5. Wow. This post is funny. I happened to run across this article while I was waiting for my next class. I remember on the last day of your English-Writing 100 class, you asked me if I was half-Asian, because I guess I kind of looked like it, and had a more American last name. People would be surprised at how much American Indian people bare striking resemblances to Asian peoples. When I lived in the bay area, I was the only Native American in my high school, with a great deal of Latinos, Arabs, Asians, and Indians, and I was frequently mistaken for any one of them.

    When I went to a prom with a blind date, my date just by hearing my voice over the phone assumed that I was white, and when our mutual friend told her I was Native American, she assumed I had long hair and had 30 different ways of saying the word “snow.” Still, living in California for most of my life, I had never really given this much thought. But whenever I go back home, I see that my accent is very different from most of my family members, and while I talk about school, NPR, and my dreams of going to law school, they just look at me like I’m crazy.

  6. Happy to read that Brenda’s had a book published. She was in Don’s class, too, although maybe not when you were there. I admire her work very much. On the subject discussed here, I find people confuse me often with the other two women in our public affairs office, calling me Mary or Linda. We are not the same age and don’t resemble each other at all, but to them we are interchangeable as we are female and we have approximately the same function. Maybe we could each pay a little more attention to the people we interact with. But, as a teacher, seeing LOTS of students all at once for a short period of time, and then seldom or never again, you have my empathy. Keeping each one’s identity straight is a challenge. It’s not about race or gender, or ethnicity, I don’t think, it’s just overwhelming numbers of people and a limited amount of time to get to recognize them as individuals.

  7. Very pleasant piece, Naomi.
    When we first moved up North, my wife, who as you know is Japanese was experiencing what she perceived as racially biased (or at least culturally insensitive) treatment and behavior by the locals. It really bothered her, so I figured it might be helpful to talk with a therapist about how to deal with it. Not surprisingly, she refused to go, but I went anyway. I explained to the therapist how we had met years back in China where my wife was teaching Japapese and I was a teaching English. The response of the therapist was “Oh, why would they need to study Japanese in China?” I was very glad my wife wasn’t there at that moment. But like you I think ignorance is a forgivable sin.

  8. Susan, I like your call to just pay more attention to the people around us. Hear, hear.

    Ed! So nice to reconnect. What a story about the therapist! I’m not sure I’d say that kind of ignorance is entirely forgivable. It’s more just garden-variety *confusion* for which I think we could all give each other some slack. Hope things are more comfortable for your wife these days.

  9. Oops. When I saw the cover of Brenda’s book, I instantly wondered if she was daughter to that author (ummm, wha’ts his name, oh yes, David “Mas” Masumoto) who wrote Epitaph for a Peach. Nakamoto. Masumoto. The names rhyme. That’s it! And both authors write about peaches. Plus the Farmer’s daughter in the title. I read David’s book twice. Loved it. But, you know what? I forgot his name. Being a writer myself, I’m prepared that if I ever get published, people will forget my name, too. Hopefully the title will stick in their mind. And the story, of course. Great post, Naomi.

  10. Hi Naomi, I enjoy reading your postings and the many comments. In the past I have asked you about, Kawabata,, Yasunari and Tanizaki, Junichiro. I am sure you are familiar with O’e, Kenzaburo, do you know the book “Kozui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (The floodwaters come in?) I have been unable to find an english translation but I understand that there are some references to a nuclear disaster and then a wave that will rise. Do you know of any connection with the Fukushima disaster? I recently read in the London Review of Books, “Ghosts of the tsunami” by Richard Lloyd Parry and that gave me an idea for a story. A middle aged man who is a survivor of Fukushima is deeply depressed over losing so many family and friends and is considering suicide. In a dream he is visited by a 700 year old spirit that is a ancestor of his. She was a survivor of a similar disaster and due to her heroic efforts the family lived on to the present day and to him. Her name survives and in every century since then a female infant is given her name in respect to her. The spirit tells the man that his daughter will give birth to a girl who shall pass on that name. The man tells the spirit that his daughter is still a young girl, He is told that is why he must continue to live so he can pass on the story. I intend to tell the history of Japan in the last 700 years and chronicle the lives of the many different women who bore that name. Some are outstanding, many are ordinary, but what they have in common is many offspring and long life. The name I was thinking of using is Chiyoko which means “Thousand generation child”. I am just starting on the research, My first writing effort about my father;s three day experience in 1923 is in its final polishing stage. I have joined a local writers group who are really excited about that story. I will need to find an agent who likes it. Anyhow I have gone from 3 days to 700 years, Good luck to me. Any comments will be much appreciated. Arthur Murata

    1. Hi, Arthur. Good luck polishing up your story about the Kanto earthquake. I just saw Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” in the theater, and was struck by the moving earthquake scenes in that film. Your new idea sounds epic in size & scope! Best of luck to you!

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