( I originally posted this May 26th, 2013)
A few weeks ago when I was wandering through the bookstore prowling (I like to take my time. So much time my kids dread going into bookstores with me.) for a good book and I found myself in the biography section.
I came across one titled Yokohama Yankee by Leslie Helm. Intrigued with the title I picked it up and read the back. “What’s this?”, I asked myself as my interest was piqued. Mixed race heritage? Foreign family history linked with Japan? Inner struggle of identity and social acceptance? Sense of rejection because of being mixed blood (German and Japanese) by both the Japanese and America culture? And, whoa, what’s this, adoption? That hooked me for sure. How did all of these factors play out in Leslie Helm’s life? Initially curious with the adoption part I looked for that first. Information about Japan’s adoption history and process is scant, hardly any foreign adoptions are approved for Japanese “orphans”. I was so caught up with Helm’s adoption process for his daughter, Mariko, I didn’t realize I had sat down on the floor in the aisle.(*) I skipped to the beginning and read a little of how the Helms came to Japan, and started to learn of their impact upon the country and indirectly with world history.
Helm reveals very personal insight and perceptions of his relationship with his family members, focusing mainly on his father since it was his death that sparked Helm curiosity about his family history. Helm did not have a relationship with his father and held Japan at an ambivalent distance. He drew me in with his quest for identity, because of his mixed heritage he felt no acceptance from Japanese or American society. There was the struggle of appreciating the positive aspects of Japanese culture when the negative parts amplified how he was different from Japan’s long held belief of being a pure race.
Helm questioned the rational of adopting Japanese children (they adopted a girl and a boy), and how that would work with the jumbled messiness of a multicultural family structure (Helm’s wife is White). Although there’s strong ties with Japan for the children to stay connected with their country (the family lived in Japan while they were little, made frequent visits to and from Japan through the years, strong awareness of Japanese culture, and Japanese was spoken by every family member) they did not claim Helm’s heritage as their own. As He so wisely acknowledged, each of his kids would have their own searching and story to develop as they live their lives. Their stories would be an extension of the Helm legacy, but the Helm legacy would not be a replacement of the kids’ family histories.
I found myself being a bit envious of Helm’s ease and freedom of communicating in Japanese and traveling to and fro from Japan and Seattle because of his job. This is rarely the case for most international adoptees. Language, lack of cultural awareness, and funds hinder an in-depth family search. His kids have the advantage of having had their original language an integral part of their lives. In fact the extra effort on Helm’s part as an adoptive parent to keep the kids in-touch with their country is commendable. This effort will ease some of the difficulties involved with the kids original family searches.
Leslie Helm wrote his family history with emotion and honesty, keeping my attention through the book until the last page. This was a person’s personal story I could relate to and learned quite a bit from, such as the lesser known social workings of Japan. Helm’s great grandfather, Julius Helm, immigrated from Germany to start a life for himself. He was a restless soul traveling often, unable to set root in one spot for long but Yokohama always held a special place in his heart and he’d always return after traversing the world. World events would play their parts influencing the legacy of the Helm family, but they managed to maintain a relationship with Japan, even when it was dangerous to do so, such as when Germany, and eventually Japan, declared war. Family members who were mixed blood would withhold whichever ethnic identity that would cause them trouble depending on the political tensions. It seemed that it was easier to “blend in” being White than Asian, even if there’d be a hint of exotic-ness.
As Helm did his research and discovered who was connected with whom, or rubbing shoulders with well-known people, and bringing back mementos from various locations (visual reminders of his travels and connection to his family history), he was unearthing his family’s story. I was thinking it must be an empowering feeling to have a map of ones rich family background. Doing genealogy or ancestral research is a popular “hobby” for many people. People want to discover their family’s history; why things turned out the way they did, learn of the hardships ones ancestors overcame, seeing how the family history intersects with world history, and creates a sense of pride of their background. However, there’s a large populace of people who can not do this, and coming across commercials, TV shows, magazines, and websites to help and encourage these searches is a painful reminder to an adoptee of their inner black hole. Especially for an international adoptee. Non-adoptees can not comprehend how insulting and hypocritical it is to insist that adoptees shouldn’t get hung up on the past but to “move on”,”get over it”, and yet they go passing down family traditions to their children and grand kids, retelling with pride of their ancestors’ adventures or achievements. They go so far as to track their heritage in “family trees” and search for far flung unknown relatives. Why? Why is their family history more important than an adoptees? They’re not. Every individual has their own story, their own family story. And each individual has a right to question, seek, and discovery their own history.
*I vacillated to buy the book or not; would it be worth my dough or just another poorly depiction of identity/family drama/adoption issues? I ended up borrowing from the library and read the book in a couple of days. It has left a lasting positive impression. I’ll be looking into purchasing a copy and making room for it on my shelf.