“My mother is Japanese and my father is American. I only just recently reconciled these identities. In middle school, my Asian-ness was a quirky thing about me. I made Asian jokes about myself so my white peers would accept me, making a caricature of myself as the ‘Asian person’. At the time it was really important for me to connect with people who had the same cultural characteristics as myself, but I couldn’t find anybody. So, I tokenized my Asian identity.
     “Later, I realized that making my Asian-ness a central part of my identity was harmful—there were so many other facets of myself that didn’t have to do with that. It affected how people interacted with me: when I earned a good grade, people would say, ‘Of course, you’re Asian.’
     “I then decided to go to the opposite end and shun my Japanese heritage by pretending I was white. That was my strategy for a few years. Without even realizing it, I internalized certain racisms against Asian people. I saw them as inferior, which made me want to identify with my ‘white’ self even more.
     “Finally, last semester I went to a giant cultural celebration for people of color. I saw a Japanese Taiko performance, which made me think of when I was a kid going to Japanese festivals—I would be so excited about everything Japanese. I almost cried and realized that I love a lot of Japanese culture, and that it was a part of who I am. I needed to revisit how I thought about my racial and cultural identity: what it was that I felt, why I felt it, and how I wanted to identify myself from that point on. I went back to Japan for a month and fell in love with the culture again. That was very important, because I shunned it for so long.
     “So after a lot of processing this summer, I realize that I am in peculiar place between being a person of color and being white: I have too many privileges to identify as a person of color, yet I’m not white because of the way people label me as Asian and the shame I experienced as being Asian and Japanese. It’s a unique experience, being Japanese-American, and it’s important to know that this is who I am—no matter how people label me.” 

Oberlin, OH

     “I’ve only been in the United States for 10 days. I find that people here are very friendly—they’ve helped me a lot—but I haven’t made many friends. The semester has not begun yet, so I hope to make friends here because in China I am very popular.”

Ann Arbor, MI 

     “I’ve been in more than 30 accidents in my life: automobile, work-related, fires—all kinds. One time, I was in a burning vehicle and didn’t think I was gonna make it out. I was ready to go to my final home, but I was embraced by an angel. At other times, I broke my leg, my ribs stuck into my lungs, I lost about a third of my blood, my stomach got punctured—every accident was worse.”
     “Do you live dangerously?”
     “No, I’ve never been the cause of any of these accidents. I’ve simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time—every time. Several times, I took people out of burning cars and buildings. One time, I went by a house and saw a funny-looking light at the top of the building. I called the firemen and started walking towards the house and the woman thought I looked like a hippy and yelled, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t want to say it, but your house is on fire.’ She said, ‘Oh my God, I’m watching my grandkids!’ So I went up and got them, and I suffered from smoke inhalation—that kind of stuff. But somebody saves me every time, and I think it’s God. He must have some reason for me to live, but what it is? I have no idea. Every time I come close to being something—an actor, singer, artist, writer—something stops me.”

Monroe, MI

 

     “You know that shirt that says ‘Detroit hustles harder’? The city of Detroit has a dilapidated, broken down image, and, culturally, ‘hustling’ is affiliated with the gangster lifestyle. But living in proximity to the city, I’ve gained a more profound understanding of the word and what it means that Detroit hustles harder: hustling is about the willingness to sustain the struggle of life, the determination to continue.”

Ypsilanti, MI

     “I come here to seek solitude. I like to be alone. People exhaust me: everybody needs something.”

Ypsilanti, MI

     “Ever since I was a kid, my best friends—all girls—have been abused: my best friends when I was little, in middle school, in college, and then in graduate school. Different phases, different places. One of them was later murdered by her boyfriend. The whole time, I felt as if I was in this glass house and I couldn’t do anything about it: I was just a powerless witness to their suffering.
     “Eventually, this all led to my current interest in linking hormones and stress with reproductive outcomes among black women who’ve experienced the same things as children. I want to understand how their experiences lead them to make certain decisions. I’m a deep believer in God, and I feel that He was showing me these things at different stages in my life so I can better understand them and be able to help young girls so they don’t get into bad relationships.”

Ann Arbor, MI

     “My maiden name was Burger and his last name is Berger, so I went one letter from Burger to Berger. It gets better: His brother’s name is Bob and he was our best man. My dad’s name is also Bob, so we had two Bobs, Berger and Burger, at the wedding. Bob, his brother, was married to Linda. My name is also Linda, so we had two Linda Bergers. Everyone was confused.
     “Then I go to the Secretary of State to change my name. ‘What’s your maiden name?’ Burger. ‘Now, what’s your married name?’ Berger. ‘No, no, we need your last name.’ I just gave it to you—Burger.”

Livonia, MI

     ”I’ve been hopping trains for six months. I sleep in a tent, and take it wherever I go. It works better for me, honestly—I know so many people who work minimum wage and spend all their money on rent.”
     “Have you experienced any unexpectedly kind gestures?”
     “Recently, a lady gave me $180 and a ride here all the way from Toledo.”

Ann Arbor, MI

     “I have to say this 10 times a day: I’m not a part of “Duck Dynasty”. I have a long beard because I’m lazy and I don’t like to shave. In fact, I like it even more because people want me to shave it. They say, ‘Why do you have it? Why don’t you shave it?’ Well, why can’t I have it?”

Northville, MI

“I noticed that you all look similar in style….”
“Yeah, we’re all nerds.”

An Arbor, MI

     “When I was growing up, my mom constantly reminded me, ‘Be humble. Never rest on your laurels.’ I used to be very arrogant in my early teenage years: I thought I was the greatest person ever, I came from a well-to-do family and I didn’t think there was anything that could stop me—until I visited India. We went to an adult orphanage, and I saw people living in simply disastrous conditions. I thought, Wow, this is a different walk of life. Look at me, I have everything and I need to be grateful. That’s what brought me down to earth.”

Ann Arbor, MI 

“Americans—as businesses, individuals, or the government—are not nearly as generous as they think they are”

Monroe, MI

     “I’m 49 years old and I was in prison for 22 years. Now I’m struggling to take care of my children. It’s rough. I’ve applied to every job and every agency. You serve your time, you get out, but they hold your past against you—your time is never considered ‘served’. I’ll be serving it for the rest of my life. I’m free, but I ain’t free.
     “I have hope, though. I don’t give up. I know something good’s gonna happen for me. I know it. And if it doesn’t, I’m not gonna do nothing that’s gonna send me back to prison. The only thing prison does is teach you how to do wrong—how to be a better criminal.”

Toledo, OH

 

     “They’re both from shelters. The one on the left is Freeway, who was found running on the side of the highway. The one on the right is Cooper—he apparently ate a sofa and ended up in a shelter.”

Ann Arbor, MI