Jesse Makowski

Jesse Makowski is the international partnership coordinator at Wright State University in Dayton. He currently lives in Dayton, and was born in Germany to a mother from Okinawa and a father from Michigan. Jesse also served in the United States Air Force.

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Jesse and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 23, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.

Ruth Chang (RC): Jessie, how do you self-identify?

Jessie Makowski (JM): I identify as Asian American, more in line with Okinawan — Okinawa, Japan — and half white.

RC: So, tell me about that — half Okinawan. Where are your parents from?

JM: So my mom is from Okinawa [Japan] and my dad is from Michigan, so that’s where my half Polish side comes out. My mom is actually half Okinawan and half Filipino. So, I’m quarter Japanese, quarter Filipino. But for the longest time growing up, I said, “Yes, I’m half Japanese.”

RC: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

JM: I was born in Germany because my dad was in the Air Force, and then lived there for about two years, and then moved here to Fairborn and lived in Ohio ever since then.

RC: So your dad met your mom how?

JM: So, my dad was in the Air Force like I said, and he was stationed in Okinawa, and they met there. It was funny because they’d met through their friends. My mom was very involved with American people and culture. So she had a lot of American friends, a lot of GI friends. And that’s how she met my dad at a club. And the rest is history.

RC: Okay. So what was it like growing up here?

JM: So growing up here in Ohio, I moved out of Fairborn my second-grade year. And then we moved up to St. Paris, Ohio, which is very rural — 40 minutes north of here. It was a big difference because if I recall, from kindergarten to second grade, there were all different types of cultures because [of] the military base here — Black, Asian, everybody — and I didn’t feel different or alone. But as soon as I got to St. Paris — it didn’t really hit until about middle school, high school, when kids started getting personalities. For the longest time, I felt different, like, I am not white enough. Everybody looks the same except for me. I did have Asian friends. There are like two or three Asian families connected with them. But for the longest time, I looked different. I was called all kinds of names. I was really into the Japanese fashion — the long hair, looking like a Final Fantasy character. And people [would] call me slurs, and it was difficult. But I was trying to just be myself. But deep inside, I kept thinking, I guess I have to be more white.

RC: So St. Paris — can you describe a little bit about what kind of community that was in Ohio?

JM: So St. Paris, Ohio, growing up there. I know a lot of rural high schools, they had a “Drive Your Tractor to School Day.” The FFA, Future Farmers of America, was a big thing. And again, trying to fit in and be more white, I actually was trying to get into FFA, but my family, we’re not farmers. There’s a really heavy farming community — soybeans, corn. What else? Oh, and then the KTH plant. It’s a factory that makes parts for Honda. So very working class.

RC: And at home, your parents — did they raise you in a Japanese way?

JM: Yeah. So growing up at home, it was mostly my mom. She would speak Japanese at home. But they were very open to just letting me explore. I know my father. He’s a very soft-spoken guy. He’d just go to work, come home and repeat. But my mom always spoke Japanese in the house. Before we moved, when I was going to preschool in Germany, I guess the preschool teachers went up to my mom and said, “I think there’s something wrong with your kid.” She’s like “What are you talking about?” “He’s speaking weird.” They thought I had some mental illness or something. She said, “No, he’s speaking Japanese. That’s what we speak at home.” They said, “Well you need to change that.” But growing up, my parents were very, just open to letting me do my thing. And my mom is — how should I say this — strict, in terms of: if you got a problem, you need to deal with it. And it’s up to you to fix it. Don’t come to me crying. I’m an only child, too. So, I didn’t really have any siblings to talk to.

RC: So, your mom, what did she do when she was here?

JM: So, my mom, when we first moved here, she was working for Panasonic and then they closed down and currently right now, she works for Honda. She is like a — how should I say this? — family services. She translates for the Japanese families that come here. She’ll go to doctor’s appointments, and be the liaison between the doctor and the family and help translate. Then she’ll translate official documents and all that stuff.

RC: Has that always been the case for you growing up, that there’s this Japanese-related industry that’s always in the background?

JM: Yeah. I think it’s developed more. But growing up, it’s because where the Honda plant — it was a little bit more north to where we were living. But my mom and her friends in the Buddhist community that we connected to, they’ve always worked for Honda.

RC: Did you meet any friends? Did your mom ever say, I want to introduce you to friends?

JM: It’s funny, I actually talked to my mom about that. I was like, “Mom, why didn’t you do this? I’m well into my 30s now, and now just finding out, your friends and their kids. Like, what happened?” She’s like, “Yeah, we’re just busy, you know. And where we were living, it was just the distance, and just driving back and forth.” And she just couldn’t handle it.

RC: Can you walk me through after high school, how you came to reclaim certain aspects of your identity?

JM: So after high school, of course, I went to college. And then after college, I joined the Air Force. That’s when I started to see all kinds of cultures, all kinds of people and all different types of religions. And it opened my eyes, I’m like, “Wow, there are different people, too, in rural small town, Ohio.” 

And then even when I was stationed in Nebraska — again, I give credit to my faith organization — I connected immediately as soon as I got to Nebraska because I knew there’s got to be a family, an Asian family, the Japanese mom, auntie. And sure enough, Asian mothers always helped me out, and always made food. And then it wasn’t until after I left the Air Force, and I came back home here in Dayton — just through that whole timeline, I’ve just seen an influence of K-Pop Korean music, anime, Japanese culture and food. When I got back home, I started seeing that boom, going to the mall and seeing my friends like, “Oh, you’re back home,” and then all of a sudden, they’re like, “Oh, do you watch anime?” I’m like, “Yeah.” The friends that I grew up with, that I was hiding from, trying to hide my culture or my things that I really liked, are now embracing it. So, now being back home and in my 30s, I’m really embracing and sharing with all my friends. Because I guess being a nerd now is cool.

RC: And I think that also is something similar with food, as well. What was your experience with growing up and now?

JM: Oh my goodness. So growing up in St. Paris, trying to find Asian food and Japanese food — there was actually a small Japanese grocery store in Piqua, which is about a 15-20 minute drive. That was really the only closest thing. But again, every time we would go to Dayton for our Buddhist meetings or churches, some people call it, we’d always stop by the Far East Center here. There’s a few other Asian grocery stores. But yeah, it was really rough going into Kroger. And you’re like, “Where’s the rice? Oh, this is not the rice that I am used to. Where’s the sticky rice?” But now, being here in Dayton, it’s definitely grown. And it’s surprising because back in high school, going 10 years back, I don’t remember this being here. I don’t remember a bunch of these people talking about this restaurant. Like, I’ve been going there since I was a kid. And it’s good, because a lot of those restaurants are now getting bigger.

RC: You mentioned you have a favorite dish or something that your mom made.

JM: Oh, yeah. My favorite dish that my mom made growing up — it’s called inari sushi, which is like soybean pockets filled with rice. My mom would just make a ton of them and give it to me for lunch. And I gave it to my friend, Alan, growing up, and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, what is this? It’s weird.” And then every time he came over, he would ask my mom, “Mrs. Makowski, can you make inari sushi? Can you make some more?” She’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course.” And so he would always come over and then his brother. To this day. He would send me pictures of inari sushi.

RC: So there’s cultural activities that you also take part in. Can you share a little bit about these activities and how maybe they reflect on the greater Dayton area’s openness to different cultures?

JM: So the activities that I participate in, I am doing drumming, or eisa in the Okinawan language. It’s a taiko drum, but in the Okinawan version, we carry the drum and hit it. So I do eisa, and I also played the sanshin, as well. We always have either or both a spring and fall picnic, and that usually takes place in Columbus. That’s where a lot of the older Okinawan people live.

RC: What is specific about Okinawa and Okinawan culture?

JM: In general, I like to tell people that Okinawa is kind of like Hawaii is to the USA. It is its own island chain, south of Japan. And if you go back in history, it was its own kingdom, had its own government and their trading with China and all the islands. There’s just an all-mixed-in. There’s an Okinawa word called chanpurū, which means, literally, “mix.” And that’s, I guess, the culture of Okinawa. Okinawa is a very welcoming culture. A lot of the songs are upbeat, and it’s like a party, you know? 

RC: The island life. 

JM: Yeah, the island life. Yeah, exactly. And that’s what we try to portray in our performances of peace, music and wellness.

RC: I asked one of my last questions, what makes you the proudest of your heritage that you wish people to know?

JM: So, I think what I’m so proud about with my Okinawan background, again, is just that welcoming attitude. And of course, my Buddhist background, just being very open-minded. It breaks my heart to see people so narrow-minded and saying this is the way it should be, this is how it is and they’re not open to change. They’re not open to discussion or experiencing other things outside their five-mile radius comfort zone.

RC: Yeah, I think that speaks to the landscape of the Midwest being very sparse, you don’t really have to change if you don’t want to, there’s room for you. You don’t have to be a bother or be bothered.

JM: Right.