Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No Longer at the Bottom of America's Cultural Totem Pole

Since moving to the land of the rising sun, I have had so many people ask me the same million dollar question:

"So, how do they treat Black people there?"

You know, I can't speak for any other Black person living here, but I will tell you that my experience has been an uplifting, truly positive one. What gift has Japan given me that America wouldn't? Well...finally, I can say that I know what it feels like to live life and do business on equal footing as White Americans. Imagine that happening...not in the country of my birth, where my great-grandmother broke her back working as a slave in Louisiana...but half-way around the world in a country that many Americans view as overtly racist.

When witnessing the image of our country through the eyes of people abroad, we don't appear to be 'united' at all. For the most part, America is the land of 'White privilege,' a privilege that comes at the expense of what the American majority sees as its 'minorities.' Oh, now don't get me wrong, I'm not here to stir up controversy. I'm just here to share my feelings as they already exist, minus the sugar-coating. Those of you who have a problem with sensitive issues involving race may wish to stop reading here. Now, for those with the thick skin...
It's the ARROGANCE that gets me. I remember when I first applied for a Japanese government-sponsored job teaching English. During my interview at the Japanese Consulate in Chicago, I was asked a question that almost made me roll my eyes in disgust: "So, Ms. Taylor, as a Black woman, you're going to stick out like a sore thumb in Japan. How are you going to deal with that?" I gave the answer I felt they were obviously searching for, i.e., sharing my culture, exposing Japanese kids to a positive experience with foreigners, etc. But I was thinking all the while: "You arrogant, IGNORANT fool!! How dare you even ask me that question? I managed to survive life (and rather successfully at that!) all these years as a Black woman in the South without being 'broken,' so why would Japan be all that different?"

It was never me, the Black woman that they had to worry about. They should have been worrying about the racially 'privileged' applicants who were suddenly going to have to figure out how to live life abroad as a minority. Many White westerners I have known leave here hating my second home.
Trust me, it's not Japan...it's the bitter taste of racism and oppression. For me, life tastes far better here than it ever did in the United States. Imagine that.

The arrogance didn't stop there. I've heard it many times since from Whites whenever they hear me speaking Japanese at an airport and automatically assume that I MUST be stationed on one of the military bases in Japan. As if a Black person can't be here on any other kind of business. Mind you, I'm not knocking those in the military, but when White Americans say they live in Japan, the next question usually is: "Oh, so what do you do there?" For us Black folks, it's almost always a military-related assumption.
I see very bitter arrogance on some faces when I drive by in my convertible Alfa-Romeo Spider (imported from Italy). The looks often ask the same question: "So how did SHE get THAT?"

Sadly, I can sense the blistering arrogance in some of their hearts every single time I return to shop in the States. If, at first, I'm not followed around in the stores, then I'm totally ignored as a Black female shopper in favor of my Japanese friends (whom they automatically assume to be filthy rich!). I called one lady on it after she ignored me while I was looking around in her section. My friend came over and that witch almost broke her neck jumping over the counter to help her. After she figured out that my friend wasn't going to buy anything, she turned to me with a nasty little smile and offered to be of assistance. I smiled back; calmly informed her that I make 4 to 5 times what my friend does and that I'd be paying for all of the things that I had found in her section at another register. I ended that fading smirk on her face with one last comment: "I just LOVE commission, don't you!?" Then I exited majestically...better than any 'pretty woman' ever could. You could say I had the walk of a queen going on.

You know, my 15 years here have definitely shown me that I'm a confident, determined, capable, passionate, intelligent Black woman. I won't lie down to be trampled on by anyone.

Now, to end this heavy topic on a lighter note that will leave you smiling: when I worked in the elementary schools years back, my 1st graders thought I was just another Japanese lady who hung out at the beach to get a tan every day. I LOVED their innocence and the unconditional way in which they cared for me. It's that kind of love that we adults can learn from.


Menopausal Mick said...

Ahh... that's it, isn't it? Hate is a learned response. Children are blissfully free of its poison until some adult teaches them otherwise.

My family member who is half-Japanese explains the culture to me from what he learned through the eyes of his mother who was a wee child when Nagasaki happened. Her family was from an ancient shogun line.

For the traditional family like his mother's, Don's mixed blood made him only suitable for the Yakuza. Purity of blood was all important to them. He hasn't returned to Japan for over twenty years and things are probably very different now.

I read him parts of your post and he said he isn't at all surprised that what you experience there is so positive. They seem to only make judgements about the purity of their own culture and treat all other races/culture with the utmost of civility. To do otherwise would be impolite. It isn't racism as we experience it here in the states, but it's hard to find a name that fits...nationalism, perhaps?

The French strike me in a similar way, but they are not at all polite about it! heh.

I was in Paris years ago, visiting the open air artists. My French is non-existant and being an artist, I very much wanted to discuss a watercolor technique with an artist displaying her work. She began rapid-fire French in response to my interest. Of course, I raised my hands and looked as confused as I felt.

She said in perfect English:

"Oh, you don't speak French.. YET."

She patted my hand like I was a small child and went on with our chat in perfect English.

The idea being that all evolved people eventually learn to speak French. heh. I was obviously uneducated. Perhaps she was right...and I was, afterall, in her country!

I look forward to many more posts of your experiences abroad. You have a great style as a writer.


Angie-in-Japan said...

Hey Mick...sorry for the delay! I finally got my computer up and running again.

I guess I am pretty fortunate. My Japanese-American friends have a hard time for the same reason as your family member. They have to deal with this added pressure of not quite being 'Japanese'... whatever that means. There is no way in this world (unless I was painted in white face as a geisha) that someone would think I was a Japanese woman...well, maybe speaking on the phone.

I will have a major test ahead of me. I'm dating a Japanese man and we're discussing our future. I'm sure his family will have a MAJOR problem with that. We've been dating a year and a half and they still don't know we're dating. More on THAT blog in the future. Maybe I should write a book..? :-)

Stay blessed out in the country. Enjoy the slow life...

Menopausal Mick said...

Oh Angie! His family doesn't know you're dating after a year and a half? Uh oh.

Well, now you've done it. You absolutely HAVE to tell us what happens when his family finds out.


Angie-in-Japan said...

Get the jitters just thinking about that one. He's the oldest son...which means it's the responsibility o him and his wife to care for his parents. Hope they like American food...

Hahhahaaa!! Stay blessed!

Anonymous said...

I think maybe you too have race on the mind. I applaud your showing up the sales person in Chicago, because the sales person only looked at you as black. But "a black woman" is not your identity. It's just a facet of your identity and there are so many other facets that make you who you are.

You don't need to be offended, or think the interviewer an "arrogant, IGNORANT fool" when asked what you might think of "sticking out" in Japan. You are letting race be the reason that a simple question offends you. I have many friends of various races who have "stuck out" here and not all have taken it with as much aplomb as you. I think the job interviewer's question was valid and fair. I'm white and I was asked the same question.

American slavery will always be a festering blemish on the history of our country, but on the other hand the fact that your great-grandmother was a slave while not something to be forgotten or taken lightly, is also not your personal cross to bear. If you decide to carry that with you at all times race will be the only frame from which you perceive interaction with people of other races.

On the other hand, don't let people who treat you only as "black" and not as the individual you are be your reason for hurt or offense, because you aren't going to change them and you will be letting their ignorance/intolerance bring you down. Just think of them as MFers and throw it back in their face, like you did in Chicago, when you get the chance.

Angie-in-Japan said...

Hey there anonymous!! I truly appreciate your comments...and if I do indeed have 'race on the mind' (as you suspect), it's in response to treatment that I have encountered from certain people both here and in the States. I don't mean to sound crass when I say this, but I do not expect that you can understand where I am coming from. I sincerely do appreciate that you are trying, though! This would truly be a much better world if everyone could open up and communicate about topics as difficult to discuss as this one.

I so agree with you regarding the comment about my identity having many facets! I realize that and resent being boxed by people who may see me as different from them. On most applications, at least in the US, we have to choose a race/ethnic group to identify with (nationality here in Japan!) and I am suddenly represented by the 'Black, non-Hispanic' box. The meaning of my post was to show how being a Black American woman in Japan tastes so much better than being a Black woman in the United States (at least in my case). It was really hard to admit those feelings when I initially sorted them out, but speaking about them now helps me to appreciate my life in America that much more.

As for the interviewer's question, it was more than loaded, in my opinion. Being that Japan is not my country, it would have made more sense to state that as an 'American woman' I would stick out like a sore thumb. As they already knew, anyone non-Japanese sticks out here...therefore, by way of reasoning, race should have been an irrelevant factor. Yet, suddenly I found myself having to explain and defend my 'box.' Honestly, I'm not even sure if I was offended when they made my race an issue...I was definitely disgusted, as I did/still do find such assumptions a by-product of ignorance and arrogance. (On a side note, we discussed our interviews upon arrival in Tokyo. It was there that I heard comments from countless other Hispanics and Blacks regarding the same questions I received. Most White Americans and Europeans we checked with, as well as some of the applicants who looked Japanese were, for the most part, not asked those kinds of questions. Participants who stated that they practiced Islam were warned about life in Japan the same way...as if Christians and those practicing other religions would have it any easier here). If you don't mind me asking, how was the question presented to you? Did they mention your race or your nationality when trying to prep you in regards to possible racism and/or sexism in Japan?

Slavery and other race-related ills that occurred in America will affect us for generations to come. I'm not carrying the same magnitude of 'crosses' my ancestors did, as things are somewhat better than in their days. My mother still remembers attending segregated schools while growing up in Georgia; I recently graduated with a master's degree from George Washington University (as department valedictorian)...an opportunity my mother never would have had the chance to pursue. My father still jumps any time a White woman touches him or tries to give him a friendly hug. Why? Because he would have been hung from a tree for just touching a White woman when growing up years back in Louisiana (this also includes if he had innocently bumped into her and SHE interpreted his action as indecent!). Yes, my ancestors (and I have yet to mention my Native America side!) have had MAJOR crosses to bear, and mind you, those crosses have thorns that you couldn't even begin to imagine. Though my crosses are smaller, they still are very much a part of the many facets that make me unique. These crosses do not represent any one single frame that influences how I interact with the world...but to say that they do not influence how I think, feel or react would be doing this wonderful conversation a grave injustice.

Again, thanks for your insight and advice. I must say that I have grown a MUCH thicker skin since those smaller crosses that I experienced in the past...and that may be the reason why my life here has been so positive. Such emotional training will undoubtedly make the larger crosses to come that much easier to bear. Best wishes...