Melissa Yamamoto was 5 years old when she turned Japanese. Genetically, she was a pinch of German, Scandinavian and French, but when her mother married a Japanese American farmer in Washington, Yamamoto’s life and self-identity were poured into a popcorn popper.
The only child of a single mother, Yamamoto, coordinator for student leadership programs at OSU, suddenly had a new father, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. She became a Yamamoto, or, as members of the local Japanese American community knew her—Harry’s kid.
It turns out the sages, were wrong. Blood isn’t necessarily thicker than water, and many families have come to define themselves not by pedigree but by acceptance, relationships and another adage, “Love conquers all.”
She was introduced to unfamiliar food, customs, holidays and perspectives. Her new playground was measured in acres, and her new family embraced her. She learned the importance of hard work on the farm and its relationship to hope and success.
Looking back, Yamamoto sees how moving beyond the familiar was a crucial form of exploration and self-discovery; and that is her intent at OSU: to help students broaden their lives and, through leadership skills, help others do the same.
“What we’re really trying to do is get students involved in things that will help them to improve personally and also to contribute to their communities, whatever that means for them,” Yamamoto says. “There is a myth that you have to be the charismatic, outgoing person to be a leader, and I don’t think that’s true. There are a lot of leaders who don’t attract attention to themselves but lead through example.”
As proof, she describes her great aunt.
“I was watching TV with her—she’s in her 80s—and there was something about leadership on, and she said, ‘Oh, I would never want to be a leader.’ I asked her why, and she said, ‘I would never want to be the person telling people what to do and being in control.’ I told her, ‘Auntie, you’re the leader of our family. You’re the one who taught us how to treat each other in a caring way, how to deal with difficult situations. You’re the one who taught us how to take care of each other.’ To me, that’s leading.”
Yamamoto has been at OSU for more than 21 years, first as a graduate student. She worked in University Housing and Dining Services before moving into student leadership, where she pulled out her own popcorn popper to thrust students into the wind, where they might encounter situations facilitating an understanding of group dynamics and leadership.
“Many of the people I talk to consider themselves involved in the community but wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as leaders. I tell them, ‘That’s being a leader. It’s not a title; it’s an act, a process.’”
As Yamamoto grew up, she heard relatives speak of their imprisonment during World War II, when those of Japanese ancestry, most of them United States citizens, were considered a threat.
Up to 200,000 people in Oregon, Washington and California were ordered into camps located farther inland in desolate areas. Yamamoto’s father was too young to remember, but her older relatives recounted stories about unbroken wind and will, relentless snow and dust in a camp ironically known as Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
“Hearing stories and witnessing the pain and hurt of my family members due to discrimination has led me to want to be a part of creating positive change, Yamamoto says. “I take responsibility to seek out ways to increase my own understanding of varying identities, perspectives and experiences, and use that awareness to better meet the needs of our diverse student population at OSU.”
Yamamoto is co-founder and facilitator for the Exploring White Identity in a Multicultural World retreat. While working in Housing and Dining Services, she led conversations around how to create more welcoming and respectful communities on campus.
She also was a facilitator for the Managing Difficult and Courageous Conversations series intended to increase intercultural competency and awareness of the Housing and Dining staff.
In her current position with the Center for Leadership Development, she encourages students to honor cultural perspectives and approaches to leadership.
When Yamamoto was 17, there was more change when her parents divorced. She says it was one of the most difficult periods in her life. She stayed with her father, who remarried a Japanese American woman, and they had two children.
“My brother told me once, ‘You have a different mom. You’re white, so you’re not really my sister.’ I had to explain it all to him. Even though there’s a huge age difference and we don’t have the same genetics, we’re very much brother and sisters.’”
Yamamoto’s life has been a tangle of ethnicity, race, color, nationality and heritage. Through it all, she has come to understand the importance of respect and change, a slow process in a world in which life isn’t fair.
“I was in line at a store with my aunt, and there were two little boys in front of us with their parents, and the little boys started making slanted eyes and saying, ‘I’m Chinese.’ After we left the store, I asked my aunt: ‘did you see those two little racist kids? Why didn’t their parents say something to them?’ My aunt said, ‘I hear that kind of stuff every day.”
Photo and story by Duane Noriyuki