There are so many attributes that individualize us as our own person, whether it’s our shape, size, race, gender, nationality, and so on. America is special, because in most cases, you can’t look around and see one particular fashion, hear only one language, or even taste one type of food. Growing up in California especially, I could go out in leggings, a shirt and some shoes and it was perfectly acceptable. However, living in the urban area of Japan, whether it’s fashion, food and definitely language, it’s easier to pinpoint an outsider.
I am an African American female with rows of tiny braided hair and a very defined body shape. Everywhere I go, it’s a fishbowl experience. Kids will stare for minutes watching me, whisper something to their moms and stare back. If I walk behind a couple, often one will notice me, whisper something to other and try to “slyly” take a peek at me. At convenience stores or really any restaurant, I have to repeat my order three times, not for the lack of Japanese, but because the first time the waiter is just shocked I can speak Japanese. I’m not joking, one lady apologized because she understood me the first time but she wasn’t listening because she didn’t know I could speak Japanese.
It’s all good fun until I have a bad day. Sometimes I miss my family, the weather is extremely hot or extremely cold, I didn’t do so well on a test, or I’m just uncomfortable with how my clothes fit; and then the staring of -what feels like every Japanese person in Japan- becomes a little too much. I get frustrated, try to turn away and sometimes I grumble. I know, I know, the Japanese population doesn’t see too many African Americans, let along African American females. I used to be very annoyed at this fact until one of my classmates from Taiwan came to me about how hard it was to live up to Japanese social expectations. She explained since she looked Asian, there were certain expectations she had to follow and if she didn’t she would be reprimanded or at the very least, people would grunt at her.
I was taken back because I never really think about social expectations. I come and go, and that’s all, right? Then I realized, I had certain privileges by being a non-Asian foreigner in Japan. And the biggest privilege I have with being a non-Asian foreigner is: I can get away with not knowing Japanese social norms.
For example, I can wear whatever I want in Japan. Since I’m not obviously Japanese, wearing just jeans and a T-shirt, which I often do, isn’t going to make me stand out any less. Most girls wear fancy blouses, heels and have some touch of makeup on. I can get away with that because no matter what, I’m already this foreign, semi-exotic person walking around and no matter what I do, that won’t change because I’m black. For my friend, who looks Japanese, she has to be very particular about what she wears or she’ll get stared at, and it’s easier to blend in if she dresses as Japanese girls do.
I can also get away with not knowing Japanese. Actually, typically Japanese people will attempt to talk to me in English first even though my Japanese is far better than their English. That being said, when I respond in Japanese, the Japanese will be surprised as if I’ve done a magic trick. It excites them to see a foreigner learning their language. For my friend, she told me of incidents when Japanese natives would come up to her for directions but she wouldn’t understand what they were saying. She said she felt a bit defeated and she was letting the Japanese down because they assumed she knew Japanese. It does take a toll when you’re not able to communicate the way you want.
I think it’s important to know one’s privileges no matter where one lives or any time in one’s life. It allows a person to realize where they can lend a hand or help empathize with those who don’t share the same privilege. At the very lease, it helped me see where I can turn my privilege into a positive interaction with Japanese people. Since Japanese people already know I know English, I started doing this thing at my school where I go up to native Japanese college students and ask them (in Japanese) if I can teach them a small English lesson; a kid rhythm, tongue twister or hand game for example. And in return, they always teach me something in Japanese. I know Japanese tongue twister, a really cool Japanese hand game for kids and made a few friends along the way. Being a foreigner allows me to break social rules in Japan, like approaching Japanese natives even though I don’t know them, which Japanese people never do. I’m able to open the door so me and those around me can learn something new about each other, whether it’s a child’s hand game or anything else. It allows for global interaction, and that can change so many things.