Half and ハーフ

Describing children of mixed nationality and race in Japan rubs a lot of people the wrong way. There just doesn’t seem to be a socially accepted term. And for foreigners and Japanese who find themselves now bound by DNA, the quandary about what to call their children often boils over into a slew of other questions about how to raise a child. After all, we are talking about the most fundamental question every person faces as they grow: identity. Who am I?

Just like interracial dating and interracial marriages, everyone does it differently. But the same old rules apply. Time and again the same kinds of compromises must be made, they just come in new situations and in degrees of disagreement. She dealt with your Gaijin hygiene. You learned to live with her Audrey Hepburn fetish. You made it through breaking the news that you were dating to their (and your) parents and lived to tell. You announced you were getting married and the worse that you got was rolling of eyes. You made a commitment to live in a country not of your own. Done. Thought you had been through it all? Guess again.

Put aside the basic facts of childbirth and petty disagreements like how long the gestation period is (Japanese say that a typical pregnancy lasts ten months – or from the last time the woman menstruated). Try as you may to explain away the purple blotch on their bottom to your parents as being quite natural – they simply never seem to get it. The Moko-han, or “Mongolian Spot” goes away after 5 years, but they will keep asking you about it until it does. Debate with your spouse, their family, your family about everything from spanking, sleeping, diaper changing, TV, toys and food, but one thing will always nag at your back. Is my kid “half”? If so, what does that mean?

The term half (actually halfu in the Japanese vernacular) has achieved fairly common acceptance. For all of the hullaballoo that irate gaijin make of the term as demeaning or in some way diminishing of their child, it is far and away great progress from words that are just one foot out of the rice paddy. One term we really shouldn’t print here is ai no ko. By the way that doesn’t mean “love child”, as you could be forgiven for thinking. No, it roughly translates as “mixed meat”, kinda like the mixed mince pork and beef you get at the Japanese supermarket. Get the gist? It is a term that some elderly Japanese people still use with surprising regularity. Needless to say it doesn’t wear well these days.

Naturally, depending on the race of the parents and their nationality, you get variants in other countries, too. You can find a number of terms in other countries that are equally offensive, and occasionally even a bit humorous. Wikipedia has a great list if you are interested. Americans mostly solve this with hyphenation. Japanese-American, African-American, and so on and so on. Surprisingly, terms like Canadian-American, or the more exotic Newfie-American, seem to have less traction. Go figure.

But peel back your eyes in Japan and be ever watchful. Why? The fact of the matter is that if you consider “Half” an accepted term for your kid or anyone else’s, sooner or later you will run into someone who will take deep offense. These are the people who prefer the term “double”. I call them “Double Trouble”, or “Doublers”. It is my opinion (and by the way, not the opinion of this magazine) that the term “double” is an insecure overreaction to the feeling that your child is only half of something. Instead, these people prefer to see their kid as double the sum of his or her parts. Their child is twice the fun. Kinda like the chewing gum. Many of the same people still insist upon being called gaikokujin and frown when they are identified simply as gaijin.

And what they say is not without merit. Words have meaning. Half does seem to indicate that your kid is never Japanese enough, American enough, French enough, etc, etc. But I’m not so sure that that is the intention of the term in Japanese. Is this what they mean? Maybe, but maybe not. Culturally, there is a halfu boom on TV, in films and in the media. This interest in halfus is almost as patronizing as it is fawning. More and more halfus get credit for being smarter, cuter and more talented than they really deserve. In other words, double what any other regular kid is.

Of course the downside of being half is considerable in a country that is pretty much made up of one race. Stories of bullying and discrimination at school are legion. The complexity of learning to speak and read when your home is a polyglot melange of loan words, mixed up phrases and grammar employed by a couple that sometimes barely speak using the same language is tough enough.

So is it half or double? Is it a “Venti” cappuccino or a “Supersize” Coke? Does it matter? Half of me says it does. The other half just wants someone to come over and please help change diapers.

Call the little guy whatever you want.

Doug Breath recently became the All-Japan diaper changing champion. His better half was sleeping at the time. He no longer hangs out drinking martini’s in expensive bars and now prefers warm happo-shu during nap time.

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