Community Insights: Thoughts from a Multiethnic Japanese American

This article is part of a series of insights and op-eds from members in our community. If you would like to be featured in an article, please click here.

Insights from USJC Associate Dana Baba (ELP ’19 and Dental Officer with the United States Navy).

Dana Baba, who has both Mexican and Japanese heritage, shares her experience and perspective as a multiethnic American, a topic that was examined at the 2020 Members Forum and further explored through the 2020 Signature Series and other USJC events. 

Growing up, in what ways did your Mexican and Japanese heritage impact your identity? 

My Japanese American grandparents were incarcerated in World War II and the experience left them ashamed of their heritage and with a desire to integrate into society as modest American citizens. After their release, they settled in Los Angeles and chose not to teach my father the Japanese language or customs. His reduced exposure led to my own diminished Japanese identity growing up as a Yonsei. Although I am biracial, I never felt quite Japanese enough to understand or appreciate my Japanese heritage. I remember going to Nisei Week celebrations in LA’s Japantown and attending a church that had a Japanese American presence in the congregation, but we did not celebrate any traditional Japanese holidays or make many Japanese foods at home. My paternal grandfather passed away when I was an infant but I remember my grandma did not like to talk about the camps or her life and culture before them. As a result of this buried culture, I always felt really sheepish when I called myself Japanese because I did not think I had earned or deserved the right to be considered Japanese. On the other hand, my mother immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. when she was 17 and brought a lot of customs and traditions with her. I grew up eating homemade tamales and tortillas de harina for Christmas, performing ballet folklórico (traditional Mexican dance) with my sister, and my siblings and I feasted on delicious homemade Mexican dishes from my mom. I am not fluent in Spanish but I learned some basics in childhood and enthusiastically studied it in school so that I could understand the language well enough to hold conversations. My family also observed all the usual American holidays. The USJC Emerging Leaders Program was my first and truest attempt to connect with my Japanese roots and I am very thankful to be part of the 2019 class.

(L-R, back row): Irene, Byron Jr., Joey, Dana; (L-R, front row) Byron Sr. and Martha Baba

As an adult, has anything changed about your identity, regarding your heritage or other factors? Did the Emerging Leaders Program give you a chance to think about identity in new ways? 

I struggled to find a cultural niche in my predominately White hometown and could not really articulate that I was two races; almost everyone I met would ask about my ethnicity because I have ambiguously Asian features and when they learned my background, the follow-up question was always something to the effect of “Wow, I have never met someone who is Japanese and Mexican. Are you more Mexican or more Japanese?” Up until college I would say that I wasn’t really Japanese or that I felt more Mexican. When I got to UC Berkeley I coined the term “Japexican” to describe myself and attempted to reclaim both halves.

As an adult, I now realize that the loss of my culture because of Japanese American internment is actually a significant piece of my family’s history and a part of my identity; these lingering impacts shape me today. My experience with ELP was the first time I really processed the idea that I was definitely allowed to call myself Japanese American despite not living according to a predetermined set of standards. We had conversations that completely debunked the arbitrary standards and obstacles I had created for myself. I am Japanese American, whether or not I participate in Japanese traditions and whether or not I connect with Japanese culture. I am still learning to embrace both halves equally and that despite not “feeling” Japanese, I now know that I can still stake my claim in the Japanese American community. The wonderful discussions we had in our ELP programming directly eased my feelings of impostor syndrome and I am relieved to find a community that readily celebrates both of my identities. I now feel emboldened to learn more about Japanese culture without fear of negative judgment for not trying sooner or for not knowing basic Japanese traditions; USJC has given me a safe space to grow and explore.

Dana and her sister doing ballet folklórico

You serve the United States as a Naval officer. What motivated you to serve, and what does it mean to be American to you?

My brother joined the Naval Reserves at the time I was applying to dental school and encouraged me to apply for a full ride scholarship through the Navy. I was not sure what to expect but once I was selected for the scholarship I knew I had to follow through and see where the path would lead. I joined because I thought the Navy would allow me to see the world and it has! I deployed on a warship and while the accommodations were not glamorous, I was able to visit Singapore, Malaysia, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Guam. The pressures and demands of an operational tour molded me into a more confident leader and gave me an opportunity to hone my clinical skills. I have made personal sacrifices for the Navy but I am proud to serve the country that has given me and others so many opportunities to thrive and find success. Simply put, I think being an American is someone who lives here or has a presence here. Existing on American land or being born here is a piece of it, but what do you do with the gift of American citizenship? We should engage with our communities, be present members of society, and give back when possible. We may grumble about the state of affairs in the country but the bottom line is citizens can love the country while acknowledging areas that need to improve. The real heart of America is the melting pot of people who make up the country and I think the most basic American thing we can do is take care of our fellow human beings. 

Dana with her siblings

Are there any ways you would like to see USJC connect with multi-cultural Japanese Americans?

I was an early participant in what is now USJC’s Outreach and Allyship Committee and just within the last few months I have watched Suzanne Basalla take the helm of the organization and wholeheartedly dive into every facet of inclusivity. I was included in conversations about Hispanic/Japanese mixed heritage and other Japanese/non-Japanese blends; there was also a discussion where she wanted to learn more about the veteran community and how we could connect military service to USJC. I am excited to see the direction USJC will go if the organization can keep up a multi-cultural approach. It’s great to not have to keep part of me in the shadows and only focus on the (newly appreciated) Japanese side. Globally, bicultural and mixed race experiences are becoming more common, and USJC represents the frontier of this changing demography. My hope is that the organization can sustain this momentum past the point of it being a national trend and continue to incorporate principles of diversity, equity and inclusion into USJC programming. 

Do you have any parting words about what it means to you to be Mexican/Japanese American?

It took me almost 30 years to conclude that I am not “more Mexican” or “more Japanese”. I am proud to be equally of two heritages and I have finally found my place in multiple spheres. I also warmly encourage people of all backgrounds to be gracious with themselves and to embrace all parts of their identity. Our nuances are what make humankind so fascinating and wonderful.