In a strip mall off Virginia Beach Boulevard in Virginia Beach, Virginia, nestled between a smoke shop and a laundromat, you can find J Mart Japanese Grocery. The entire store is only about the size of an average suburban kitchen. At the front of the store are two standard refrigerators, with the ’90s-style grainy white doors and a top-loading freezer with a glass cover. Shelves stocked with dry goods, like soy sauce and rice vinegar, line the back walls. To the left, behind the single cashier, is a display of beckoning lucky cats, sake sets, magazines, and English-subtitled anime DVDs.
For a long time, my mother and I have come here together. In the frozen and refrigerated section, we pick up pickled umeboshi plums, fermented natto, and oden fishcakes. From the dry goods shelving, we collect rice topping furikake, crunchy kakinotane, and sweet and thick Bull-Dog sauce.
When I go to J Mart with my mother, I prefer that she speak to me in Japanese. Speaking English feels like shouting in a cathedral or interrupting a sermon. J Mart is a temple of Japanese identity, a sacred shrine where expatriate mothers like mine come to seek out their homeland. But it’s not really the English language that makes me feel like an outsider: It’s the other clientele. The matriarch and owner of the store is often there, and she knows all her customers, mostly other Japanese women, by name. She talks to them about their families: about their children, and their (often white, Navy officer) husbands. She talks to my mother too, about me, while I stand to the side awkwardly.
I am not Japanese enough to belong here—this idea follows me through the store. I was born in the United States, raised speaking English. I walk like an American woman, I gesture like one. My body takes up too much space, my chin is lifted too high, my stride is too assertive. I feel a sense of shame of this when I’m here, although nobody explicitly treats me as though I don’t belong.
Growing up, I felt tenuously connected to my Japanese heritage through my mother. I belonged at J Mart only because she was with me. Without her, I had no context, no justification for my presence there. Even with her, I only barely belonged. In this small space, wandering between the fridges and freezer, picking a snack for myself and sneaking it into my mother’s basket, I always felt foreign.
Even now, four years after I moved away from Virginia Beach, J Mart remains a place of apprehension. Last time I went, during winter break, it was to buy a few last-minute ingredients for New Year’s Eve dinner. I picked up cooking sake, a jar of red spices for soup broth, and a lacquer sake serving set. I didn’t want to be there alone, so I brought my younger brother.
A year into living in Reims, Champagne, France, I am taking my typical route home from university. I walk along Rue du Barbâtre, which takes me from the outskirts of town (the Jesuit college where my classes are held) to the very center (my four-bedroom apartment on the same block as City Hall). It is a narrow, one-way road lined on both sides by bleak three-story residential apartments, built out of gray concrete with little windows. It is bleak compared to the Parisian vision of French life, with its grand windows, commanding ornate balconies, and sweeping boulevards.
The fault lines between this imagined and real life in France aren’t disappointing as much as disorienting. Being 18 years old, moving across an ocean, required an open-mindedness that defies disappointment. Many things were disorienting.
For instance—being Japanese. For years, that had seemed so far from my central identity that I was self-conscious about not being Japanese enough. In France, though, my Japanese identity was emphasized. I was used to people asking me about my heritage: At home in Virginia, everyone from the Wawa cashier to swim-team moms were curious about my ethnicity. In France, that questioning acquired a different meaning. People saw me as Asian, but not American. To them, the two were mutually exclusive. Nobody asked me how I identified; they all just presumed. I wasn’t offended by this (the microaggressions were only as plentiful as in any other time in my life), but I was mostly confused. Maybe I wasn’t American. Maybe I was Japanese.
Today, on Rue du Barbâtre, a new vinyl sign catches my eye. Dashi, boutique japanoise. It is accompanied by a cartoon sketch of a girl in a kimono and geta, flashing a peace sign near her eyes.
Dashi opens a few weeks later. It is a small store, probably the size of one of my college classrooms. From the front door, I can see straight back past the cashier into the tea garden out back. The store has three lines of stock, shelving on the left and right wall, and a table down the center that splits the space in two. It also has one small freezer next to the cashier, tightly packed against the wall.
Most of the store caters to French people with an interest in Japan. There are little snacks like browned rice cakes, popular drinks like Ramune and Calpis, boxed matcha cookies and fruit jellies—items that were just foreign enough to remain both appetizing and alluring to the French consumer. I was never satisfied by Dashi’s selection. I usually only found little cookies or rice crackers, not real substance, never the food I missed and craved from my mother’s cooking. Besides, I felt awkward while shopping there. The woman who owned the store was constantly manning the register and always acted so intrigued to see me, a real Japanese person living in her town, shopping at her store. I suppose I would be too, if I were her.
Choosing to step into Dashi some days on my way home from school was a careful, undeclared exploration of myself. In shopping there, I was trying to create my own context for my identity and existence, in a country that often felt unwelcoming to someone who visibly didn’t belong. Dashi was a place where I could go to reclaim some semblance of a Japanese identity—an identity which I didn’t ask to have emphasized, but suddenly did. It was a place that allowed me to be proud of what so obviously marked me as an outsider.
After leaving, I often wondered if a place like Dashi could survive in a city like Reims. The very specific demographic of French japanophiles seemed to me a limited audience. I investigated the store’s Facebook page: according to a post several months ago, it seems that Dashi has closed for good.
It took me some time to find Sunrise Mart, but once I did, it made sense. I am wandering SoHo one spring afternoon with a friend during my second semester at Columbia, spring 2017. From the outside, it looks like any other SoHo walkup storefront: tall glossy windows and a striped green awning structured in rectangles and tall windows. Outside are two orange and blue vertical flags with large kanji characters flapping in harsh wind.
Of all the Japanese groceries in my life, Sunrise Mart is the most convincing as a grocery store. It has cases of frozen food in industrial freezers in the back. The refrigerated goods are on shelves that are meant to be reached into. There is more than one cash register.
It’s not an intimate place—most New York groceries aren’t. It always seems to be crowded with all kinds of people, mostly shoppers grabbing an odd item—soy sauce, napa cabbage, a bag of rice. They are not all Japanese; in fact, most of them are not. That’s not important here. I always grab a yellow grocery basket and fill it up with far more than the $10 credit card minimum.
My favorite part about Sunrise Mart is bringing my friends there. I convince them to come in with me by promising them matcha Kit Kats or bread with adzuki bean filling. Then I show them what I feel is now a part of me. I scoop natto and umeboshi and oden into my yellow basket, and they peer into it to investigate. It is only fitting that they accompany me—it’s thanks to these friends that I have found peace and pride in my identity.
In New York, at Columbia, at this tiny grocery in SoHo, nobody has ever questioned whether I am Japanese enough. And nobody has labelled me as an outsider because I look Asian. I have made an incredible and diverse set of friends, and I feel confident and strong when I talk to them about who I am. They understand how I feel because many of them have taken similar journeys to mine. They are supportive and patient. I feel no external pressure related to how I identify, and that’s how I have finally become comfortable.
The thing about all of this is that, to outsiders, it seems like I’m overthinking all of this. The French people in Dashi had no qualms about whether they belonged. Even non-Asian people who occasionally wandered into J Mart were unaware of their trespass. I think, then, that it’s because I’m half that I see doubly what I lack. Or maybe being half has made me doubly appreciate who I am.