Even when I’m wearing a mask, you might guess I’m not from around here.

I grew up in the deep south. I left when I was twenty-one, bound to find new adventures across a continent and an ocean. I finished my associate’s degree and could have finished up my bachelor’s at a college close by, but I opted to travel as far away as I could, to the University of Hawaii at Hilo. It was an insane idea, but as I closely considered my circumstances, it became clear that it was really the best choice.

Racism was so casual in my town that I didn’t even recognize it until much later in life. From about my sophomore year of high school, I knew I was never going to be able to date who I wanted—that it would be unacceptable to date some of the people I found attractive, and merely to socialize with people of color was occasionally frowned upon.

Moving to Hawaii changed everything about my existence. I realized that my parents, as well-intentioned as they might have been, did not necessarily instill the best values in me. As I navigated life in such a culturally diverse place, I also realized that my views were going to be at odds with theirs.

I found myself in an interracial relationship, desperate to keep it a secret from them. I had been dating my now-husband for nearly a year when a visiting family friend showed my parents a photo of me and my boyfriend. My dad was not pleased, but when he met my boyfriend, he came to accept and even admire him.

Visiting my old home after I had been in Hawaii for a few years was a revelation. Nothing about my old town made sense to me. It felt like another planet, truly alien and strange. My biracial children got curious glances and for the first time I felt like an outsider. While in Hawaii, I had been steeped in a culture of aloha: tolerance, kindness, and generosity.  Being in that small town again, I didn’t feel that.

Whenever my family goes to a bon dance or to the beach, I am grateful my children got to grow up in such a great place. I try to imagine life in the deep South for me or for the children I’d have had there, and I know we all have so much to learn from people in far away places.

For years, I felt guilty about moving so far away from my family. I was torn.  Had I made the right choice? I truly struggled with it, sometimes convinced I’d caused my parents heartache and grief.

Just before she died, I asked my mother if she’d ever felt I’d abandoned her. She said my family was living proof that I did what I needed to do, adding, “When you left, you became my hero.”

Jennifer Ozawa

behindthemask mask