Being Japanese-American

Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS, Styling and Creative Direction CJ Mitchell

I’m Japanese. 

Most people can’t see it. That’s O.K. 

Some are surprised when they hear it. Again, I can understand. 

But once people know, the reactions are quite different. Some say, “Hey, that’s awesome!” 

Others go, “No way. You can’t be.”

Yeah. It’s a weird feeling when people refuse to believe who you are.

Sometimes I’ll go through the whole spiel. My dad was born in Japan and lived there until he was 10. My grandma is full Japanese. My stepdad, who I consider my grandpa, he’s Mexican — hence Acosta. There’s some Irish blood in there as well, so it’s kinda crazy. A lot of people think I’m Mexican or Spanish or Colombian but, you know, I’m American. Japanese-American. 

But even after I have said this, some people continue to insist that I’m not. Sometimes I have resorted to showing pictures of my family. Hard proof, right? Case closed.

They still won’t believe me. 

Naaaaaaaaah. No chance.”

Some people have told me I’m adopted. For real. 

Thankfully I’m at a point in my life where I’m embracing my identity, which is why I’m writing this for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. It’s been a long journey to get here though, which is why I want to tell my story. Not just for all the Asian-Americans out there, but also for anyone who’s been made to feel like they’re somehow different

You see, when I was a kid, I was heckled for standing out. I grew up in Plano, in Texas, which is predominantly white. I’m not just Asian — I’m Black as well. 

Double minority. Double whammy, right?

I was a complete outcast. Even my education was different. My dad is a hard-nosed engineer, very strict, so at home I got the stereotypical Asian upbringing. Straight A’s. When my parents divorced, I spent a lot of time with my grandma, who I called Mimi. She would speak Japanese on the phone, watch Japanese news and eat food from the Asian market. In Asian culture a full stomach means a happy heart, so no matter how full I was when I got there, I had to eat. I’d wolf down rice bowls and sushi with wooden chopsticks. 

Sometimes I’d tell her that I wanted to become a soccer player. She just said that she didn’t care what I became, as long as I had a good heart.

Kellyn Acosta | Los Angeles FC | Being Japanese-American | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Kellyn Acosta

But it was hard. Plano is Cowboys Country. The average boy there will play American football, aim for college and dream about the NFL. Fewer than .10% actually make it, but if you don’t try it’s like, “So what do you do?” Which is shorthand for, You must be a loser

Soccer? That was for girls. Some days I’d wear my soccer tracksuit at school, and I’d get all these comments. 

“Hey, why are your pants so tight?”

“Why are you wearing skinny jeans?”

“What are you doing?”

If my parents worked late I would be in this after-school program, and my grandma would pick me up. People would see the Black soccer kid in the tracksuit walking over to this Asian lady, and then they would go, “What’s going on here? This guy’s a mess.”

They would ask me, “Is she your nanny?” 

I’d say that she was my grandma.

“But you’re not Asian.”

“You don’t look like her.”

“You’re adopted.”

I heard it all. I heard it all. 

So eventually I tried to kind of hide my grandma away. I would ask her to call the school and let them know she was there so that she didn’t have to get out of the car. I wasn’t embarrassed. I was just tired of people making fun of me. But sometimes she would come in anyway. She’s my grandma, right? She didn’t care. So yeah, it took a toll. My family would tell me that the other kids were jealous, but when you’re a kid it’s hard to understand. 

One day, when I was about eight or nine years old, I snapped. I’m a pretty reserved person, but it just boiled over. This girl kept making fun of me. She just wouldn’t stop. So I grabbed a pair of scissors and threw them at her. 

They flew through the air. SWOOOOSSSSH

And they just missed her. Got stuck in a door right behind her. 

Everyone in the room gasped like, What just happened?

I wasn’t trying to hit her. I had decent aim, so it was more to make a point. But I was shocked too. I didn’t know that I was capable of doing that, you know? 

The teachers called my parents and said they had to come get me immediately. They even kept me away from the other kids, as if I was a dangerous lunatic. I began to cry. I was like, This isn’t me. This isn’t who I am.

My head was so cloudy. Being an outcast was eating me up. So I ended up trying to fit in. I’d ask for certain clothes so that I didn’t stand out. I had been in love with soccer since I was about five, and I had also been playing basketball and running track and field, but in seventh grade I began playing American football. It wasn’t me at all. I just wanted to make friends and be part of the group. 

I was trying to create a new identity. 

Luckily, I had a friend who showed me how to be me.

This guy was a real legend. His name was Zequinha, a Brazilian former professional soccer player, and in the ’60s and ’70s he had been a striker for some of the biggest clubs in Brazil: Flamengo, Botafogo, Grêmio, São Paulo. The guy was legit — he even played with Pelé. Toward the end of his career he had moved to Dallas, where he had started to coach and, when I was seven years old, that’s how I met him. 

Zequinha was a bit like my grandma: Strict, but sweet and soft-spoken. When you got to know him, he would tell all these crazy stories, like how he’d had to walk miles to training in Brazil, or how they used to tie grocery bags together to make a ball. Stuff that changes your outlook on life. We got so close that I’d stay at his house, ride with him in the car to games and hang out with his son, João, who was about my age. My life became even more multicultural. One night I could be eating a good old American burger. The next I’d be at Mimi’s slurping noodle soup, and then I’d be at Zee’s having feijoada.

It was amazing. And you know, Brazilians, they’re different, right? They love creativity and freedom. They are who they are. So when I told Zee about being heckled at school, he told me to stop caring what people said. Stop tiptoeing around others. Stop trying to fit in. Stand out. Be who you are. 

Kellyn Acosta | Los Angeles FC | Being Japanese-American | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Kellyn Acosta

This guy was my hero. I even dressed up like him once for Halloween, which was supposed to be scary but it didn’t matter, hahaha. (And yes, he had that hair.) But it took some time before I fully embraced what he’d said. It was only once I reached my teens that everything changed. 

I stopped hiding who I was. I didn’t care about trying to fit in. I told my grandma to come out of her car to get me. 

I quit American football. 

I did whatever felt right for me.

And guess what? I performed a lot better.

I was drawing on all these cultures for inspiration. My dad always told me to give it 110%, because 100% wasn’t good enough. His buzzword was intensity. Zequinha told me to express myself. Suddenly I was thriving on this mix of Asian discipline and Brazilian creativity. By the time I was 13, people could see that I would turn into a special player, and they gravitated toward me. I was no longer an outcast. I came out of my shell. 

As I got older and more independent, nobody could really tell that I was Asian, so I didn’t really show it as much as I could have. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t proud. It was more like I was proud in silence. 

It’s only in these last few years that I have fully embraced my complete identity. Once I did that, it was like the clouds made way for the sunshine. I’m 26 now, and I love being different. I love that I understand so many cultures and that I can relate to so many people, like a social chameleon. 

I also feel proud that I may have the opportunity to become the first Japanese-American to play in a World Cup. I really hope that I can help inspire others with a similar background. 

Kellyn Acosta | Los Angeles FC | Being Japanese-American | The Players’ Tribune
Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

But I wish it hadn’t taken so long. I wish that I had accepted who I was at a younger age.

Unfortunately, I still know what it’s like to suffer discrimination and racism. Like walking down the street and seeing people cross the road to avoid me, as if I’m about to rob them. Or going into stores and getting asked, “Are you lost? You know how much that costs?”

It’s crazy, it really is. And those are just the ones that pop into my head.

Then you have the discrimination against Asian-Americans. There is a national coalition called Stop AAPI Hate that reported more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents in the 15 months after the pandemic began in March 2020. I didn’t experience any racism like that personally, but I know that my grandma did. 

We have to keep speaking up about this, so that people realize it’s not O.K. In some ways, things are getting better. A big part of that is social media, and the fact that people are filming racist behavior. Before, it was always a matter of “he said, she said.” Now we have proof. 

We have to fight to keep that trend going. I also hope that we can celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month more, and educate people about the culture and history of Asian-Americans. It’s amazing how history can teach you things about yourself. A few weeks ago, I went to visit the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, here in L.A., with my dad and my grandma. My dad has become very Americanized since moving here, but in that museum he remembered things like, “Oh, this is what we had in school. This is what my teacher used to tell me.” 

My grandma hasn’t been to Japan in half a century, so to see her wind back time was really special, too. Apparently they would take refuge in a cave during the war. She’d have to grab a pail, go to a lake and get water for her brothers and sisters. When they moved to the U.S., they had to stuff everything they had in a bento box, which is like a picnic basket. They turned up here with nothing but a blanket, one change of clothes and a pair of bamboo sandals. 

I just remember going, This is nuts. Think about it. You wouldn’t even go on a three-day trip with that. My grandma was packing stuff for a new life. 

In six hours I felt more connected to her than I ever had in my whole life.

After that I looked at her and dad with awe. Even though they had been strict with me, I thanked them for the upbringing they had given me. I’m Japanese-American. How could I hear those stories and not be proud of who I am?

Whoever you are, I hope you embrace your identity too. It doesn’t have to be about being Asian-American — it can be about your sexual orientation, or some interest that you’re afraid to share, or a fashion style that nobody’s into. It can be whatever. Once you embrace that, you’ll have a better understanding of yourself. 

Then you will realize that there are many people just like you. You’ll find people who support you and love you for who you are. 

And then you’ll be a lot happier. 

I’ll leave you with the words that Zequinha gave to me. Whatever you do in life, play with freedom. Be brave. Don’t hide. Forget what the others think.

Only you decide who you are.