Actually, I’m “white”, but this phrase coined by Ali G. seems to come to mind more and more often these days.
On January 3rd, Y had to attend a neighbourhood meeting (yes, another one) for the building of the dondoyaki. This is performed every year to burn the daruma and lucky charms of the previous year as a kind of purification ritual. This is also a neighbourhood event which suggests a sense of community spirit. H’s kindergarten teacher was going to be at the community centre nearby the building spot, organising the primary schoolers who were taking calenders to all the residents as part of their community spirit thing. So she told Y to be sure to ask the children and I to come along (at least that’s what he said, but he may have got the wrong end of the stick).
So we all prised ourselves out of bed at 7:30a.m. Yes, it’s the holidays and we’ve been having more than a few late starts, so it felt really early. Plus it was FREEEEEZING. After a quick breakfast, we walked over to the field/community centre. We stood and watched Y and the other men (yes, it was all men…grunt work) for a while, while they stood and watched each other as they decided what needed to be done, then we wandered over to the community centre. There were loads of childrens shoes in the entrance, so I thought that maybe there were a few local children playing in there too. We went inside, and there were a few of the local women having some kind of meeting (phew, it’s a busy life around here).
Now I’m a foreigner here in Japan, and for those of you that are not aware, there are not a lot of foreigners here compared to other countries. In the larger cities, you will undoubtedly see more of us, but here in my village, there are as I’m aware, less than a handful of us. In my neighbourhood, there is me and Jim…an older man who I think is American, but I haven’t properly met him. This in itself is very unusual. Anyway, my point is, that I am used to being stared and pointed at. Some days it bugs me, but I don’t usually care too much if it’s children or old people. It’s easy to tell the difference between curiosity and rudeness. But when I walked in that building, I was looked up and down with disgust. I was glad when H said that she needed to use the toilet, because it was some purpose to us being there. I started to feel slightly uncomfortable, as women passing by us not only ignored my greeting, but continued this horrid looking up and down business. And then, to my dismay, I let them make me feel inferior.
H finished in the loo, and then we saw two primary school boys who live near our street and often come around to play outside with H and L. They waved and greeted us, then a woman snapped at them to stop it, pulled them away from us and gave me another all-too-familiar glare. That really was the last straw. I marched us out of there and we went off home. I was angry at them, and with myself for letting them get to me. But mostly, I felt that I would never belong here. There are things that I can do if I really want to “fit in”, which for comforts sake, a little would help, but I can’t change who I am and where I’m from.
Later that night, I sat down and had a good think about it. This place is small. The community is small. Why did I think that they had shunned me because I am foreign? Perhaps they treat all newcomers like that? I live here too. I pay their stupid community monthly fee that pays for them to buy alcohol for the parties we don’t attend and for the bentos that they give the volunteers. If I refused, then I may understand them being pissed off at me. Whatever, it doesn’t change the fact that they were downright rude, but the point is that my assumptions jumped directly to my outsider status. I started to think about cultural identity, and how much of me is British and how much of me is just me. There is a strong group mentality in Japanese culture. Am I trying to fit into an exact stereotype because I’ve lived here long enough to be putting people into boxes again? And will I always assume when people are rude to me that it’s because I’m not Japanese? It’s true that people don’t talk to me in the same way as they would a fellow Japanese person sometimes, but then I don’t speak great Japanese, so I suppose that’s too be expected a little bit. Y seems to think that improving my language skills would help me to fit in, and it’s true that communication is important, but communication isn’t just about verbal communication. There are so many social interactions that I worry if I learn it all that I will forget the ones I was brought up with.
There are a lot of people that seem to think when you move to a country as a long-term commitment, that you should fully immerse yourself in that culture. I understand that, but I still don’t want to lose my own, or even worse than that, I don’t want to lose me.
So back to the title of this post. If nothing else, this incident and others like them have brought me to understand ethnic minorities in the U.K. who immediately come to the conclusion that the way they are treated is due to racism or prejudice. A lot of people think that they are over-sensitive, and maybe they are, but I can totally see how it comes about. And the more incidents like that that happen, the more I don’t want to study the language or learn about the culture, so I can understand how foreign communities come about too.