Myself as Other and the Beauty of Internationalism
I sway with the rhythm of the train traveling the forty-five minutes from Chikushi Station to Tenjin Station. I am crammed between business men all holding identical black suitcases and young women in high-heeled boots and short skirts text-messaging to unknown recipients on their cell phones. All around me, men and women sleep in seemingly the most uncomfortable positions, and yet I wonder at their collective ability to wake up right as their stop comes up. “Gojyosha arigatou gosaimashita,” the cool feminine voice rises above the familiar clackaclackaclacka of the train, “Kono denshya wa Fukuoka Tenjin-eki kyuuko desu.” As the polite recording goes on to explain that the next stop is Futsukaichi, I finger the flash cards attached by a ring to my purse, feeling flustered and yet never more at home. As I savor every moment—my third morning, my fourth morning—I feel the disconcerting prickle on my skin that tells me that at least one person is staring at me. I look up, and a businessman turns away. I look around and two more women pretend to be looking at something incredibly interesting just to my right and left. I am unsuccessful in fighting the urge to roll my eyes, and then wonder guiltily if Japanese also know of this American expression. Here I am, all of my American-Woman-Jewish-Latina-White-Bisexual self, and yet to those around me, I am only known as one thing: gaijin, foreigner—other.
For my senior project, I traveled to Fukuoka, a city on the northern tip of Kyushu, South Japan. I stayed with a host family and took classes at Genki Japanese and Culture School for foreigners in Tenjin, the heart of Fukuoka, for four to six hours a day. As soon as I arrived, I felt the strong sensation of being at home, of being whole, more so than I had ever felt in any place other than my hometown in Colorado, and even then Fukuoka was a strong rival. I loved everything about Japan; I loved fat, chewy udon soup noodles and the pleasure of being able to slurp them into my mouth without being reproached, the heaven of my futon with its layer after layer of silky, thick blankets, so many that the first night I felt like a bear hibernating under the snow. I marveled at how polite people were, always willing to go out of their way to lead me to a zenzai restaurant or help me look for a dictionary in a bookstore. Everything was so clean, so quiet, and yet, so full of life.
My ‘otherness’ began comfortably my first day at school: I was, happily, the only American learning in the school at the time (when I left, I was one of three). Students had come from Belgium, Germany, France, Holland, Denmark, Thailand, Taiwan, China, England, and Mexico, among other countries, in order to study Japanese. The Mexican fascinated me, because his journey seemed an inverse of my own. He had grown up in Mexico City, learned English, and now studied Japanese (and spoke with greater fluency than I did). As I was introducing myself to others, a robust, lively woman from France asked me where I was from. On the twenty-ninth of February, I wrote about the experience:
When I said that my dad was from Mexico, she said, ‘I knew it! You look Mexican!’ She lived in Mexico, and Eduardo, who was sitting nearby, nodded. Ironic that I am accepted as a Latina not by other so-called ‘Latinos,’ nor by even Americans, but internationals in Japan. But I am learning that there is a lot more to diversity than I thought; you can be a Mexican studying Japanese and fluent in English, or a Japanese person who used to live in America and is now studying X or Y thing …we all are such a mixture of cultures and ideas, feeding off each other via technology; how can we even begin to concretely label ourselves?
After only a few days of being in Japan, I was discovering how much more complicated the process of self-identification had become because of internationalism, and it was a wonderful, relieving feeling. Maybe I didn’t have to explain my family’s complicated past, or fight for my Latina identity to be recognized by others. The people around me moved fluidly from one situation to another, their identities becoming more and more complicated to explain as they experienced, learned, and took from the essences of different cultures from their own. The French woman, for example, was born in France but had never worked there, and had visited many of the countries on every continent except Antarctica. She spoke seven languages with varying levels of fluency, but retained the skill of being able to joke in all of them. One of the students who arrived shortly before I left was born in England, grew up and went to school in Los Angeles, and returned to England to attend Oxford University. She is now studying Chinese as well as Japanese, and has lived in both countries for extended periods of time. How could any combination of complicated labeling accurately describe these people, the nuances of their characters, the different shades of their smiles? I began to doubt the usefulness of the American hobby of self-labeling, insisting that we are somehow more interesting than ‘just American,’ more complicated, better. “Isn’t that obvious?” I began to wonder.
Throughout my trip, I was never once identified as American when people guessed my country of origin. “Italy?” they plied. “Spain? France?” In some ways, it felt reassuring to at least be somewhat separated from my label as an American, if not be separated from my imposed label as a foreigner. As I slowly gained the ability to talk about politics in Japanese, shocking images of the Iraq War played on the ten o’clock news, images of bloodied and armless soldiers that would never be aired in America, because then the war truly would be over. Hilary and Obama debated and were debated heatedly on Japanese television programs and in newspapers. America’s relationship with China was analyzed as Tibetan protesters were beaten and suppressed. In the midst of all the visible chaos of my country, and my own quiet, internal shame regarding my country’s actions, I was able for a short time to shed my American-ness for the wider label of being a foreigner. It was a small but satisfying freedom, as I was judged equally harshly for being un-Japanese, at least in my appearance. For the first time in my life, I experienced what life was like as an outsider, an ‘other.’
It wasn’t until I couldn’t blend into a crowd, when I couldn’t choose when and where I wanted to be noticed, that I began to realize that I had those privileges when I lived in America. Wherever I went, I was stared at. Some people looked away when I met their gaze (only to stare again when I turned my attention to something else). Some people met my eyes boldly, gazing unabashedly at my foreignness. I became more aware of how I was different from the people around me; I always shifted my weight to one hip while waiting to cross a street, while Japanese women kept their feet neatly side by side. My body shape was all wrong—too wide, the breasts too large—I never wore skirts, and one day when I wore a low-cut shirt, I felt eyes staring at my strange fashion. Japanese women wore tasteful clothing that emphasized their legs and behinds, which were widely considered their best assets. I only saw one Japanese person wear a low-cut shirt the entire time I was there. No one wore puffy black jackets like I did; no one had backpacks, but rather fashionable briefcases. No one walked with the wide, purposeful stride that I did. Even without my face and ethnicity pointing out my otherness, people could tell at first glance from behind that I was different. And I was; I was a foreigner, stared at constantly, whether I liked it or not. It made me feel self-conscious and shrunken at times, annoyed and defiant at others. It did not seem to be a matter of acceptance or of not being accepted, because that implied in one form or another that I was there—to stay. Rather, the stares of strangers made me feel like a spectacle passing through, as interesting as a cheap carnival, and equally forgettable. In that and many other ways, being an outsider in all parts of society was quite different from being part of a marginalized, or even persecuted, group, although I do not intend undermine the painfulness of such experiences. I was not hated or discounted, just ignored and shut out of being part of the group because I was seen only as ‘other.’ This was hard for me, as all I wanted to do was to mix intrinsically with the culture and people around me, to become part of the Japanese essence itself. As an outsider, I would never be able to do that. Even if I fully molded every mannerism of mine to mimic Japanese customs, my face and body would still give me away as a foreign person.
Ironically, as soon as I ventured to talk to the same people who stared at me in such a shocked manner, they were extremely polite, complimentary, and helpful beyond what any American stranger would consider necessary. Although I never made any lasting connections with those I met, I keep the memories of the many fleeting interactions I had with Japanese people close to me; their genuine kindness helped me become braver at asking for directions and, subsequently, exploring Fukuoka on my own. The strange transformation from staring stranger into kind friend, from being seen as an outsider to being, briefly, accepted as a person, was so strange that after a week I dared to ask my host family about it. Reflecting, I wrote about the experience:
Nori-san, my host father, said that people stare at me because foreigners are rare in Japan, and because they’re afraid that I’ll talk to them in English. Even though students learn English in school, they don’t learn how to speak English, only the grammar and how to read/write it. Even the English teachers, apparently, don’t know how to speak English! “They want to be friends with you, but they are shy and don’t know how to speak to you.” He said. This seems to be the case, since whenever I speak with someone in Japanese, they are very nice to me. In any case, I’m choosing to believe this whole-heartedly.
Although I learned a lot and benefited from truly experiencing what it is like to be an outsider, there came a point when the power of the stares of others, their silent labeling of me as foreign, broke. It happened on my last day in Japan: Saturday, March 23rd. I was determined to see as much as I could, sight-seeing like a steadfast, weary colonel, refusing to give up. When I woke up late the next morning though, it was a beautiful, warm day; more buds on the plum and cherry trees were bursting into bloom, and the sun shone kindly on my back. At some point between eating a leisurely breakfast and setting off to my first destination, I gave up trying to hurry to every place I still wanted to see in Fukuoka, and just took in the day. Eventually I made my way to Momochi Seaside Park. I hadn’t been to that area of Fukuoka before, and made a few more acquaintances before I found the beach. I rolled up my pants and took off my shoes and socks, aware all the while of my strange appearance, a foreigner with a large plastic bag and strange clothing. Most of the Japanese people, however, were engaged in playing volleyball, and didn’t even notice me. As I walked leisurely along the wet of the shore, methodically picking up small shells and daring once or twice to stick my feet into the still-frigid waters, I saw a strange sight: a group of dark-skinned people— the only woman’s loose, colorful clothing indicated that they were Indian—were congregating by the shore side up ahead, washing their arms and faces repeatedly in the ocean water . As I watched them, I was reminded of the bathers of the sacred Varanasi River, seen only from movie clips and my favorite movie, Water. Emboldened by the knowledge that this, indeed, was my last day to embarrass myself, I snapped some pictures of them. As I got closer, I saw that they were washing in the red areas of water, which looked similar to blood, although my first thought was that it was red alga that sometimes washes ashore. The rest of the sea around them, though, was blue. When I got closer, I saw that the men and woman had red and green all over their faces, like thin, watery paint. We looked at each other for a moment before falling into conversation and, just as easily, into friendship. They explained in English that they were in Fukuoka on business, and that today was Holi Day in India, in honor of one of the many feats of Lord Rama; it was the festival of colors. They invited me to join them, and I didn’t hesitate for a moment. After seeing Water and pictures of the festival in National Geographic, I have always wanted to take part in the festival. I put my bags up on the shore, and they poured some red power into my hands. One had to get the powder wet and then rub it onto others’ faces, saying “Happy Holi Day.” Laughing and enjoying each other’s faces, we washed off in the ocean, the reds and greens coming off in vibrant hues. It was so amazing to me, to fall into friendship with these men. I felt so exhilarated, as if that moment was magical. Here I was, in Japan, celebrating an Indian holiday with newly-made friends. Once again, I reveled in the beauty of internationalism, the beauty of cultures giving and taking from each other. In that moment, I felt truly free of the burdens I was carrying, the awareness of being ‘other.’ In an entirely different part of the world, strangers were befriending each other just as I was now, throwing all colors imaginable into the air and celebrating life. Even if others saw me as foreign in Japan, I was still a citizen of the world, changing and becoming harder to define with every cross-cultural interaction. I belonged just where I was in that moment; at ‘home’ in a country that was my own even if I was not a citizen or had the blood of its traditional inhabitants running through my veins. Did it matter? I was home in my body in the world around me, with friends I cared about surrounding me. My friends and I, “Japanese” and “Indian” and “American-Woman-Jewish-Latina-White-Bisexual,” may not all speak the same languages, or have the same beliefs on a fundamental or societal level, but when we truly connect, as I did in that moment celebrating Holi Day with new friends, there is no ‘other’ and no ‘same.’ We are all members of an increasingly united international community of indefinable, endlessly diverse human beings.
After speaking to my friends some more about my desire to eventually learn Hindi, and explaining the purpose of my visit to Japan, we exchanged e-mail addresses and bade farewell. Ironically, I was actually stared at less when my face and arms were covered with red, green and black, a mixture of the two colors. I washed some of the paint off my face in the ocean, but it was far from gone. Wonderfully, I wasn’t burdened by my otherness anymore. “Who cares?” I thought fearlessly as I walked into a shop to see if I could buy any soap. There, the salesperson, even though I was covered in paint, kept an entirely straight face and spoke to me courteously and professionally as if I were any other clean-faced customer. I wanted to laugh and give her permission to do the same. My language skills, however, prevented me from doing so; I just smiled, paid for the soap, and cleaned up in a public bathroom.