by Susan Kitazawa
It felt quite unlucky to be born in a body of 100 percent Japanese DNA in upstate New York. Or at least the timing seemed bad. The Japanese military had bombed and killed our fellow Americans onboard U.S. ships in Hawaii. Coming into the world as an American with pure Japanese DNA was a lot like living as a Muslim American in the years after 9/11.
The threat of violence hung in the tight air. Elementary schoolmates muttered racial slurs while assaulting me. My father trained me to put my hands atop the steering wheel and freeze if the police stopped me. We Asian Americans were not alone in knowing of this constant, malicious undercurrent. I knew black American parents taught this to their kids, too. At 16, I knew well that some people might not see us as fellow humans, let alone fellow Americans.
Living in this body, I learned firsthand about housing and job discrimination along with that guardedness so familiar to many others living outside the safety of acceptance.
So, decades later, how is this cultural experience interwoven with my fraying, remaining 15 percent visual field?
I learned very early that life is not set up to embrace each of us equally. I learned that, until we can change the world, I needed to give up self-pity, make the extra effort, and look for allies, even in the least likely places.
In an interview with famed tennis player Arthur Ashe, he surprised the interviewer when he said it was much, much harder living his life as a Black American man than it was to live, as he was doing, with an HIV infection and AIDS, back when this diagnosis was usually a certain death sentence. The interviewer was surprised to hear this; I was not.
We don’t know which of life’s difficulties are the hardest for one another. The timing, the presence or lack of support, our own resources, and much more shape the landscape in which each of us lives.
Most of us can look back on times when the going was rough and remember what lifted us up. We can remember what worked and what didn’t work. Vividly remembering how tough it was to have zero fellow people of color except at home, I went out looking for fellow blind people as soon as I began to lose my eyesight. I started a blind and low vision support group with a fellow blind volunteer when we learned that the Lighthouse didn’t have such a group.
Living as an American, both as a person of color and as a blind person, I’ve come to cherish and embrace the richness of my life outside of the default, standard, more usual experience. I’ve come to treasure this despite, or perhaps even because of, it being somewhat of a steep, bumpy path. I learned early that having allies, alike or different from oneself, makes all the difference.