“I’m Irish!”— Liberating a Surrendered Multiethnic Identity
Reflections of a Japanese Irishman on St. Patrick's Day
Posted March 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
“You’re Irish, and don’t let anyone tell you, you’re not!” My Irish aunt Johanna, who welcomed us with open arms when we came from Japan, was trying to help me understand who I was and where I fit in this strange new world of America. Her words encouraged me to think that I wasn’t Japanese, I was Irish.
But others didn’t see me in that way. On the first day of school the teacher called out my name, “Stephen Murphy.” When I raised my hand she stared at me with a quizzical expression and said, “You don’t look like a ‘Stephen Murphy.’” The other children giggled and I was embarrassed and confused.
Kids and their parents let me know that I was Japanese, and some of them were okay with that, while others were not. Either way, it was what defined me—I was the Asian kid. When I was saddled with the nickname “Ping,” my fate was sealed. I was labeled as Asian, and not Irish, and I sensed that it was easier to accept their way of classifying me rather than fight it.
My life followed a path toward wholeness and integrity that led me back to Japan, my birthplace, my grandparents, the place of my ancestors, and I lived the life of a Japanese for many years. I was Japanese, and in the U.S., I became Japanese American, or Asian American. I became the person I was born to be. Or did I?
My life changed in March 2015 when I was invited to talk at the Irish-American Crossroads Festival in San Francisco. Our session was called: “You don’t look Irish!’ A Reading and Conversation with Multiracial Writers of Irish Heritage.” It was the first time I was publicly Irish.
I’m realizing that the definition of Irishness is expanding, with more media representations of mixed-heritage Irish people. Celebrities such as TV star Baz Ashmawy are showing that there is more than one way to be Irish. The face of Ireland is changing, as can be strikingly seen in places like the All Ireland Dancing Championships, where the top dancers have had Filipino, Cuban, and Japanese ancestries.
Every year on St. Patrick’s Day I reflect on being Irish. I know that many others celebrate their heritage with mixed emotions, because our physical appearance and names make being Irish an invisible part of our identity. But we are reminders that every Irish person doesn’t look like a stereotypical Irishman—we come in all colors.
Many of the growing population of young Americans who claim a multiethnic heritage have Irish roots, but the joys of embracing them are complicated. Our identity assertions are often met with incredulity and challenged, with self-proclaimed Irishmen in the United States who tell us that we are not Irish. We deal with the complexity of being Irish but not White, as socially defined, and embracing our wholeness by claiming all of our heritage.
Challenges may be especially common among those labeled as Black, even though Irish and African Americans have much in common. They were once both stigmatized by other Americans and worked and lived in close proximity, but as the Irish “became White,” antagonisms grew over labor rights, housing, and public school desegregation, expressing themselves as racism. But some Black Irish are mending this rift by telling their stories. Alex Haley, the famed author of the classic African American identity novel Roots, wrote Queen about his Irish roots, and President Obama nearly became O’Bama after visiting Ireland and proclaiming his Irish ancestry.
On St. Patrick’s Day I realize that the difficulty in being Irish is created not only by racial divisions, but within my own heart. My inability to know that I am Irish is exacerbated by never having met my grandparents and being two generations removed from Ireland. I was raised amidst the first generation of Irish Americans trying to escape from the chains of their colonial mindset.
I know that the road to wholeness liberates a surrendered identity—one relinquished in the face of violent and threatening social and psychological forces. We can empower ourselves and our children by exploring and knowing our family roots, language, and history.
I’ve imagined myself as the Celtic Samurai, because I feel deep familiarity with the Celtic soul that embraces Nature, divinity, and human world as one. The dualism that separates the visible from the invisible, time from eternity, the human from the divine, is totally alien. I feel that the Celtic worldview of mystery and otherness is a balm for our tormented sense of separation.
The possibility of this imaginative and unifying friendship resonates deep inside me, stirring long slumbering awareness, as if I was coming home. What I had long thought of as Eastern, coming to me naturally through my Japanese heritage, is now felt in a new light. Even the Samurai way of viewing death is echoed in the Celtic sentiment that friendship with death enables us to celebrate the eternity of the soul, which death cannot touch.
I never met my grandmother Mary, but I know that she died in March 1918 from the Spanish flu. My grandfather too passed away before I was born. Both were born and raised in the west of Ireland where the Celtic imagination is imbued in the landscape that is alive in stillness, solitude, and silence.
I sense that knowing my grandparents, connecting to the place of ancestors through Celtic wisdom could help me to connect with my forgotten or neglected inner treasures. A surrendered identity, a hidden wholeness, will be liberated. Half will become whole—the person I was born to be, coming home to myself and learning to rest within."
Murphy-Shigematsu, S. When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities (2012). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press