Is your culture getting in the way of your wellness? (3 min read)

Tamara, left, with her cousin waiting to dance in a parade in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles c. 1980

Being Japanese American has always been an important part of my identity. Despite being a fourth-generation American and speaking more Spanish than Japanese, I try to keep some traditions and cultural aspects in my life and pass them down to my children. But as with many other cultures, some of the beliefs and traditions are just not great for whole-being wellness.

One of those beliefs is that I needed to be modest, demure and very concerned about what others thought of me. My dad would often praise the behavior of Japanese people because they were so quiet and conscientious and at the same time worry that “someone would see” whatever I was doing wrong, like coming home after curfew. Even as a child I could be very loud, out-spoken, and rebellious, but there’s often this critical feeling inside that judges my behavior as not appropriate or acceptable because it doesn’t fit into the picture of what a nice Japanese girl is supposed to be like. This tends to result in my not speaking my truth because I don’t want to offend anyone or seem conceited or boastful. 

I caught myself doing just this one night with a new group of friends. They were openly sharing about their mental and physical health struggles. As for me, I didn’t feel like I should say much because I’m physically and mentally fit. Would I be considered insensitive and bragging if I talked about how years of yoga, meditation, and a nutritious diet have worked for me? This ingrained belief to be humble prevented me from sharing my own wellness wins.

My culture doesn’t just influence my mindset, it also influences my food choices. While Japanese foods can be great for health (vegetables, fermented foods, seafood, tofu, tea) and Japan has the highest number of centenarians per capita, many of the cultural foods I ate were high in salt (soy sauce), sugar, and MSG. One of my favorite snacks was mochi (pounded rice flour) that I would microwave until it got really stretchy and then dip it in soy sauce and sugar (but mostly sugar). My second favorite was rice tossed with sugar and vinegar and stuffed into sweetened tofu pouches called inari. Sugar and refined grains are very common in Japanese American cuisine and it seems like everything is fried in tempura batter now. Definitely the opposite of what I would consider a healthy meal.

I want my children to know what being Asian American is but don’t want them to be stuck with traditions that could be harmful or unhealthy. So what am I doing about it? 

I try to find people who express themselves in many ways so they can see that being Japanese American isn’t just a cookie-cutter, model minority way of being. I ask them to be honest and express themselves, even when it’s hard because their truth is real and valid. 

I want them to know foods of their culture but cut out a lot of the sugar in recipes and use a lower sodium soy sauce or an alternative like coconut aminos. We eat brown rice with our white rice and snack on things like unsalted nori. When we do eat the “unhealthy things” we discuss the choices and keep the serving sizes small rather than making those regular parts of our diet. 

Together we play and practice activities that are great for whole-being health like jiu jitsu, karate, gardening, origami, and meditation and I let them know that these are based in Japanese culture, too. It’s not just sumo wrestlers and anime.

Do you have a similar experience? What are you doing to stay true to your culture but honor your wellness? 

Small changes like cutting out some of the fat in your food by using avocado oil instead of lard, skipping the cheese, or using a gluten free or whole wheat tortillas and noodles might make huge differences in your health so that you have the energy and motivation to celebrate the awesome, spirit lifting parts of your culture. Or, maybe going even more traditional is your thing. Skip the processed, commercialized, modern versions of your culture and get back to the true roots by making everything from scratch with whole ingredients or practice a “primitive” craft and display your art in your home.

I’d love to hear about how you’re using your culture to promote your wellness!

Author: Tamara Kino, Wellness Coach & Trainer