An #importedAsians POV: Rick Kiesewetter
The Universal Asian had the privilege of speaking with Rick Kiesewetter, a Japanese American adoptee now living and working in the U.K. as a stand-up comic and actor. You can connect with Rick on Instagram and follow him on Twitter or checkout his Facebook.
Rick Kiesewetter was born in Okayama, Japan as Tokihiko Kawate and adopted when he was 3 in 1967 by a U.S. military family stationed there. At the age of 5, the family moved back stateside, where Kiesewetter eventually grew up in a small town near New Jersey during the '70s. He comments on how the times were different, “I was one of few Asians, if not the only Asian. This was at a time during the '70s where it’s not like it is now… There’s been a lot of progress in role models, in entertainment, in films, in politics and in sports, generally.”
Still, as it was a period when international and interracial adoptions were not common, Kiesewetter reflects that with a German-American father from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and an Italian-American mother from Columbus, Ohio, his family just accepted him as one of their own and treated him without any thought toward the issue of race at home. He emphasizes the difference in the times where there weren’t books, social media, or accessible information on issues or concerns that might arise from raising a child from another country and culture.
In high school, he recalls trying to fit into a predominantly white school with around 4,000 kids. He recalls learning about Pearl Harbor and having to face the halls of kids when they studied about the Japanese surprise attack, “there was no woke sort of element of saying Japanese people died too and war is horrible.” Kiesewetter also knew that he wasn’t like other Asian American kids who had their culture at home. However, he points out that “anybody who is, whether you’re adopted interracially or not, young like that, you’re trying to figure out who you are and where you fit in society and how you can contribute.” So, he just felt that he was a normal kid from New Jersey.
After high school, at the age of 17, Kiesewetter didn’t know what to do, so his options were to join the military or go to university. Following his father’s footsteps, he decided to join the army. Being stationed in Germany, he was able to meet a number of people who were highly trained or well-educated in various areas like linguistics or special operations. After serving his time and saving up money, he completed his four years and used the GI Bill to eventually attend Rutgers University. Kiesewetter says he decided to do political science because of his interest in history and stories. He says he might have been influenced by his learning about Pearl Harbor in high school and the national interests of countries to do the things they do.
Upon finishing his degree, Kiesewetter decided to move to the U.K. thanks to meeting an English woman during his time in Germany and finding an interest in graphic design. “When I discovered graphic design, I thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is great because it draws together both the things that I like—telling stories and drawing,’ which has a bit of practicality and also creativity.” So, he attended the University of Leicester, fell in love, and got married.
When comparing his time in Leicester doing a number of jobs with studying and growing up in New Jersey, Kiesewetter says that the U.S. is a bit more advanced or mature, in the sense of being more developed around issues of racism because the U.S. has been having this kind of discussion much longer. Still, through his experiences, he found that he would try to find ways to extend details so that people would find them funny and relate to him on a human-to-human connection rather than based on his race or identity.
In 2015, after spending about 25 years in a creative agency, Kiesewetter moved into the stand-up comic scene full-time with the aim of really wanting to show that he, like all Asians, are human beings and there is more than one way to be Asian. Even though he knows different Asian groups, he still finds that the majority of their stories aren’t like his, so he tries to focus on sharing the feelings and sentiments of all types of Asians, whether adoptees or not.
It’s not a matter of talking about race per se, but rather to share that he has these experiences that can be humorous. In 2013, he created an event titled “Yellow Christmas” highlighting emerging U.K. Asian comedians.
“I thought about it being a bit like Monet’s studies of haystacks, there’s hundreds of studies of the haystack. [Instead,] you could concentrate on the light of each of them, not on the details of the subject itself. So, when you have a lineup who are all Asians, you think, oh, my God, we’re all different because we all have different experiences. It’s so beautiful to see. I’ve been into these shows where I’ve had Asians come up to me, and one young Asian man, in particular, said, ‘thank you very much. I’ve never seen anything like that. Just somebody standing up and speaking and being intelligent.’ I’m telling you, there’s so much value in that. There’s value in people knowing that there are other people out there like them.”
The event continues to draw attention to Asians from all walks of life, but the main message is that we are all human beings.
About ten years ago, Kiesewetter started to search for his biological mother. Though he says it was mostly for his kids, due to needing information for their birth certificates in France, he admits to his own curiosity in finding his origins. Upon looking up his family registry at the Japanese embassy, he was able to get in touch with a man who married his birth mother, Kasue Kawate, but hadn’t known anything about him. Kawate’s last husband, Mr. Matsushita, sent him photos of his birth mother which gave him a sense of connection in seeing someone who looked like him. It also resonated with Kieswetter that his children now have an understanding of where his family history is and he feels a sense of responsibility, as an adoptee, to be able to get as much information as he can for his own family. While his birth mother has passed away ending any ability to connect with her, Kiesewetter admits that he may decide to connect with other relatives later, or if his own kids decide they want to explore that side of their heritage.
While he feels there’s a lot more work to do because there’s still very few Asians who are in entertainment that are just people who are talking and telling their stories, he’s happy there is a lot more education available now on parenting, interracial/intercultural adoption, birth family searches, etc.
Ultimately, though, Kiesewetter focuses on the fact that ”when you appreciate the strength that you can find from whatever people are going through, you can find that a lot of people are stronger than they think. So, when you’re undergoing challenging times, it’s a storm—and like all storms, it will pass.”