I’ve bowed over ten thousand times in my life.
At the start of every class period, you stand and bow together at the teacher.
“Kiritsu. Kiyotsuke. Rei.” Stand. Attention. Bow.
If you goofed off and didn’t bow, you got spanked.
Bowing can mean many things. A traditional greeting. A sign of respect. A casual hello. A deep apology. Goodbye.
I grew up in Japan, and when my family moved to California, I went to Japanese school for eight hours every Saturday until 6th grade.
I’m proud to be half Japanese. Japan smells and feels like home to me. It’s my beloved childhood. It has shaped me in more ways than I can fully understand.
There’s nothing like the Japanese culture – its deep tradition, attention to detail, warmth of the people beneath their polite surface, artistic food, and mind-boggling trends. I adore my sweet mom and grandparents.
To me, Japan is comfort. At the same time, I don’t belong. I don’t fit in at all.
A Growing Rebellion
I was a big nerd growing up. I loved school, and I admit I loved homework. But I despised going to Japanese school.
It got worse as I got older. Even though I had great friends there, I viscerally hated 4th and 5th grade. I begged my mom to let me quit before graduating (which happens in 6th grade). I felt physically suffocated.
I hated bowing at the start of every class for the sake of bowing. The act of bowing, when thoughtful and intentional, is powerful. But when it’s demanded and automatic – it loses some value.
You got rewarded for obedience and conformity. If you answered a test question insightfully but didn’t nail the exact answer, you’d get a big red X.
But I didn’t quit.
Today, I’m glad that I completed Japanese school. It helped me stay fluent, which gives me a new perspective and language for understanding the world.
Despite some bad memories, I had many joyful moments – Sports Day (an annual competition involving obstacle courses, relay races, and tug-of-wars), playing with friends, and fun science experiments with solar panels and plants.
I’m now realizing what I really hated was the blind, unquestioning adherence to authority. The stifling rituals. The lack of encouragement to think outside the box.
It’s a strange dichotomy. Japan is a place of unique self-expression in fashion and pop-culture, innovation in technology, and yet extreme social conformity and hierarchy.
Moving to America at the age of 5 gave me opportunity. And the freedom to grow into a fuller version of myself. I thrived by embracing American values – independence, creativity, individuality, and entrepreneurship.
I have no idea who I’d be today if I’d stayed in Japan, and that scares me. I don’t think I’d have been able to express my fullest, authentic self.
If I stayed in Japan, I would have been a misfit. Possibly restless. Or worse, suppressed and submissive.
My Japanese grandparents say I’m “boyish” for being a leader at work and traveling the world solo.
I’m not boyish. I’m a strong woman.
I grew up rebelling against the status quo, questioning social norms, and wondering what kind of life is outside the box.
Changing Your Surroundings
I learned you can change your identity and personality by changing your surroundings. You can unlock another level of your fullest potential if you expand your mindset.
The people you spend time with, the social norms, and your culture’s values can influence what you believe is most important in life. They influence how you measure success. What if you’re using the wrong ruler to measure success? Your culture shapes you and continue to shape you more than you realize.
Change your surroundings, and you may change your life.
You don’t have to travel to another country to do this. Look at what you read, the people you spend time with, your work, and your community. Is anything holding you back?
Take a hard look at your ingrained fixed beliefs. Question the social norms around you.
Gently discard what doesn’t resonate anymore. And then, take what’s beautiful about your culture and values – and keep that close to heart.