Posted in ABOUT ME, family

Hyphenated: Who Do I Identify As?

The Right Trousers

A bit of a change of pace for this post, while I put on my ‘serious’ trousers. You know, the ones with the knife-edge crease and the sober belt loops. They chafe a little so I may remove them at intervals. I want to thank Anne of the delightful Middle aged Momma blog for inspiring me to write at length on my childhood experiences.

Those of you looking for the usual cartoon and silliness? Normal service will be resumed – I just thought I’d share my personal (I dislike that term ‘journey’) experiences with you. Perhaps you may even find it silly . . .

Some cute Earthling children.


Where Are you From – a Dialogue

I am always happy to answer that question, in spite of the fact that it seems to lead to followup questions, as if my answer were somehow not satisfactory, or dancing around a much more juicy and warty truth.

ME: Winnipeg. (in answer to preceding question)


Random Stranger (RS): Uh huh. But where are you REALLY from?

ME: (stifling urge to push my eyeballs into my skull with my thumbs) Yup, still Winnipeg. Heh! Heh! Cough.

RS: Okay, but where are your folks from?

ME: Oh. (funny you did not ask me that in the first place, is that an interrogation technique?). Well, my mother is originally from England, and my father was born in Vancouver.


ME: (to put RS out of their self-imposed perplexity) My father’s parents were from Japan and came to Canada in the early 1920’s. My father met my mother, and hey, Bob’s Your Uncle, ta DA! Behold! The miracle that you see standing before you  . . .

RS (penny dropping, lights go on): Ooooh! (scurries away)

I have been through many such iterations of that conversation. As a (holding nose as I say this) visible minority, they have been unavoidable. My favourite is: WHAT are you? Gets right to the point, and is typically a question asked by kids, and a few adults, sadly. (what BREED are you, were you a rescue?) For my sister, the questions take on a different tone: My, you’re exotic looking. Like a tropical plant I saw in a conservatory once. 

3 Guesses, the First Two Don’t Count

Depending on my mood, my answer will vary. If I am feeling playful, I might say, Well, look at my face. What do YOU think? 3 guesses. (Very few have EVER guessed)

WILT 2.png
My mother and sister are the accomplished pianists – I am still stuck at the level you see here.


I grew up in a predominantly White neighbourhood, German, Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish. There was one Japanese girl in my school (Wokako was her name, though perhaps that was her pejorative name) and I never spoke to her. That was the extent of other non-White ethnic groups. I did not even meet a Black person until I was in grade 8.

The Métis and Canada’s Strained Racial Relations

In any case, Winnipeg (which had, and still does, have a poor reputation in North America as a particularly racist city) was a never a favoured settling place for Asian peoples given its landlocked position smack dab in the middle of North America. Winnipeg has one of the largest indigenous populations (Métis, among others) in Canada, and perhaps this is the key to the racism problem.

Some lovely Métis people from my province, BC.

Métis comes from an old French word meaning ‘mixed’. According to Wikipedia, the Métis are members of ethnic groups native to Canada and parts of the U.S. that trace their descent to indigenous North Americans and European settlers..

White people (some not all), at the time I was growing up there, had a very combative and hostile relationship with First Peoples. I remember vividly at age 10 being asked to leave a public pool; not by staff, but by a patron, who stated, ‘I don’t like Indians.‘ What was I going to do with that information? I promptly left, and something told me not to mention this to my parents, especially my father, who worked a federal job in Indian Affairs, as it was called back then. I eventually did return, (loved swimming, the sting of chlorine in the eyes) though the incident shook me a bit.

This was what I looked like to that pool patron. An accurate depiction of Native Peoples.

Cue the Violins . . . and Kazoo

I did not suffer many other such incidents and, in fact, enjoyed a great childhood, and had a pretty big circle of (yes, White) friends. However, in school, a Mrs. Miller seemed to single me out for wrongdoings and, such was her ignorance, thought I was Chinese, in spite of my clearly Japanese surname. She dubbed me the ‘Chinese Chatterbox’ given my reputation for loquaciousness and need for attention through ‘comedy’. (one day I came to school wearing my mum’s sunglasses and rode that schtick for a week or so) The name, of course, stuck, and I was known as that for the entire year! It is so hard to be on all the time, I can tell you. I did and made it look good.

Later that year, Mrs Miller cobbled up some imaginary infraction that excluded me from the eagerly anticipated Winter Carnival, which hurt like hell then, and still resonates to this day. I still remember crying quietly, knowing I couldn’t go, the entire class silently regarding me. I could not say positively that Mrs Miller had it in for me because I was ‘other’. It certainly felt like it.

This is not me, though my face wore a similar woebegone expression.The lower lip starts to quiver, as the tears well up. Music swells.

This is not a ‘poor me’ diatribe, by any means. I am trying hard not to drift into that territory. I thought that it might be of interest to some, who are not familiar with life here in Canada, and our strained relations with the First Peoples, and other non-White races.

To High School, and Beyond

In high school, for the most part, I did not encounter such racism. Certainly not from staff, although there was some invective hurled at a few Asian groups, from other students. I had moved to Vancouver by then, which, of course, completely changed the playing field in terms of race and racism. Any fracas that I became involved in was a result of not my not being able to shut my mouth, rather than anything race-based. Thanks a lot, mother, for my flapping tongue.

I did have some mild incidences when my perfectly enunciated speech, and ability to use multi-syllabic words came as a surprise to some other kids. They probably expected some form of Mickey Rooney-esque pidgin English. I would have done that 100% if I had had the foresight!

You can always count on the Sixties to give us honest, sensitive portraits of ethnic groups.

AM I Hyphenated?

In conclusion, let us return to the title of this post. Who do you identify as, Wilt, you ask?(Which is strange, why do you talk to a white screen?) Are you a hyphenated Canadian? That is, do you identify as Japanese-Canadian, or as a Canadian with Japanese heritage? A Japanese with maple syrup in their veins? Some are more militant than I am in their own stance, possibly owing to negative experiences. Myself, I have no problem with identifying as Japanese-Canadian. Since I am the third generation of our people to reside in Canada, I am sansei. My father is nisei, my grandfather issei. My children are yonsei. (I’ll spring it on them one day)

I did not eat a lot of this growing up. Mainly at Xmas parties, or my grandparents house. My father made sukiyaki. He’s still around – these days he likes sapporo ichiban ramen. You know, the instant noodles that you crave like crack cocaine.

Hope you enjoyed this post. If you made it this far, bravo. Go have a well-earned lie down. I am delighted (and proud) to tell you about my background, and often will, to captive audiences at the bank, or at the grocery store. They say the Japanese are a quiet, introverted lot and that is true, by and large. However, those who follow this blog (you know who the two of you are) will know that my mum is English, that is, from England. As Eric Idle says, ‘Say no more.’

Comments will be given the red carpet treatment they deserve, though ‘likes’ are never not appreciated.

I ate a lot of English cuisine, like this, thanks to mum. On a few memorable occasions, I brought a yakisoba sandwich (I cringe as I type that) to school for lunch. The bread soaked up the soy sauce like a sponge, so that it was uniformly black by lunchtime. For some reason, I could find no takers for ‘tradesies’.




I am a Sansei, with two teens, and a hamster. This blog is a repository for ideas and observations, expressed in cartoon form, by and large. A bit of a journal too. Feel free to follow me on INSTAGRAM @ WILTOONS, (the Twitter for people who like to go out) where I post a journal comic. Thanks for dropping by! The pic is of me and my boy Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits. (not really a fan but he wanted his pic with me) © Wilton Sugiyama and Wiltoons, 2009 to 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Wilton Sugiyama and Wiltoons with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. So there.

10 thoughts on “Hyphenated: Who Do I Identify As?

  1. This was a really interesting post. Thanks for sharing your “back story”. Some day I may be able to share my story. Hint: I was adopted and have just recently found a sibling I didn’t know existed.

  2. On the evidence of the food pictures, I should stick to the Japanese side for eating if I were you.
    Enjoyed your history although I’m not enamoured of a need for any human to describe their ‘origin’ like it explains anything about who you are.
    I’m Devon hyphen Cornwall. This explains nothing apart from my utter confusion when presented with a scone, jam and cream.

    1. Dear Bryntin

      Happy that you enjoyed my little story. Like Australia, the Philippines, the US, we treated our indigenous people badly in our thirst for colonization. This attitude still persists to this day and it is fucking appalling, excuse my Quebecois.

      Obviously we were brought up in different environs, a Canadian upbringing brings one’s heritage into sharp focus, given that we are this hyper-multicultural nation. I certainly agree that it should, by no means, serve as some sort of barometer as to the measure of the man. (the size of his willy should be the true barometer, but that’s just between us girls)

      About the food, you are so right about that. I don’t consume enough Japanese food – but, I have become addicted to Poke (pronounced Po – KAY) which is diced raw fish served as either an appetizer or as a main course and is one of the main dishes of Native Hawaiian cuisine. It was first big in LA. Say no more. They’d eat a turd wrapped in tin foil if some celeb did.

      Thx for your comment!

  3. I always love it when you treat us loyal followers to a story. (I appreciate the honourable mention, but have to say you are a much better writer and more gifted writer and you have a much broader vocabulary and command of the English language than your truly.) please keep writing!

    I am also stunned and really quite pissed off by how you were treated. At our house we have an expression when someone is cruel to any of us “do you want to go drive by their house?” As if we will somehow sneer out the window as we drive by their house and intimidate whoever we are talking about. I want to drive by your teacher’s house right now! I also want to drive by that idiot’s house who kicked you out of the pool. I want to have my husband make them dog food sandwiches (I will have to write that true story up). I am angry at all of them. But obviously you have risen above the prejudice and have become the better person. Hugs, Anne

  4. Anne

    Certain words and phrases have a power, which knocks the banal ’sticks and stones’ proverb into a cocked hat. They DO hurt. Sadly, this persists to the present day, amped up to a massive scale with cyberspace and the cloak of anonymity. I, for one, am happy not to be young in this current climate – I really feel for today’s youth, in spite of a greater awareness of difference, mental health, et al.

    I was surrounded by intelligent and accepting people as I was growing up, which helped a great deal. My father struggled to obtain a degree, as many Canadian universities would not accept a Japanese during WW2 and even into the post-war era. He was finally accepted by U of M, and moved to Manitoba from Vancouver. It was a state of affairs that did not get a lot of press. However, the government, as they are wont, gave all Japanese-Canadians effected by internment (another story) a monetary redress. Horse bolting, barn door, padlock, all come to mind with this and the Reconciliation efforts taking place today.

    Thx for the kudos. It makes up for the times when one feels like writing into what seems like a void. I find the community here warm and supportive, and you are certainly no exception. My thanks again Anne.

    Heheh dog food sandwiches – shades of the memorable scene in Prince of Tides, when the abused wife serves her husband some fresh dog food from the skillet.

  5. This was a really cool post.

    I’m Australian and we have a similar situation with our First Nations peoples (also racism generally). It sucks. (Huge understatement, I know).

    1. I am keenly aware of racism, but not to the degree of some, who want to (and do) see it everywhere. It’s a confirmation bias thing. (my father is an example, given his experiences, but that does not give him a free pass IMO, one of our impasses)

      But hey thx Lucy for your comment! I am doing more long-form prose posts, mixed in with the usual cartoon madness which will always be my first love. I appreciate the feedback. I really dig your take on things too.

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