I was the only black person at the school where I taught initially. Most of the Japanese students had never experienced being in close vicinity to someone of African descent so I was something of a celebrity to some of them and, to put it nicely, a curiosity to others. Even to some of the teachers (mostly Australian, British and Canadian) I was a novelty, as much for my race as my place of birth. Most had never met a genuine New Yorker before, either. One Canadian girl told me she had friends she often visited in Niagara Falls, NY, which for some reason was about the cutest thing I’d ever heard in my entire life til that point. Even her name, Jesse, was cute.
I can’t say I’d never experienced this phenomenon before. I had. Even in NY, at some of the companies I’d worked for, I was the first and only black person to ever hold a particular position or work in a certain department. If you can’t imagine what it feels like to represent an entire race and know that, however unfairly, due to the prevailing ignorance, whatever you do will impact higher-ups decisions to hire people of your ilk in the future, let me help you. Just imagine you’re at a crowded beach taking a swim when someone suddenly grabs your feet and pulls you under…and keeps you there while you flail and kick trying to free yourself. But instead of drowning you just stay in that pre-drowning state of panic, while everyone watches safely from the shore- some with pity, some just curious, others completely indifferent- from 8:30am til 6pm every day.
Of course, working for this franchise English school was not as bad as all that. It had that McDonald’s vibe about it that informed you that fuck-ups came through there all the time, so no matter how badly you fuck up, you wouldn’t be the first and you wouldn’t be the last. But I would still have flashbacks from time to time like a Vietnam vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. For example, any question that began with “Do all black people…” could trigger it. And, this question would fly from the mouths of students and teachers alike, on a daily basis. It’s a benign form of ostracization to be sure, but like a benign tumor, it still stings like a fuck. Answering such a question with a mouthful of bile is a feat in itself. I’d cut the Japanese some slack because at that time I kind of thought of all of them like ignorant children or like that Japanese soldier that they found living in a hole in Guam who didn’t know that WWII was over. This was my first introduction to Japanese benign ostracization so at the time I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
However, when this banality came from the teachers…I was a little less lenient. Jesse was my only respite. For some reason she never asked questions like that. She satisfied her curiosity about me by observing me…her green eyes adored me.
It was easier to roll with it back home in NY because at the end of each day I would return to the bosom and reality check of the community that produced me, surrounded by family and friends; the people who embrace me and kept me grounded.
Needless to say, that’s not the case here in Japan. Quite the opposite.
I went home to two loud-talking, heavy drinking, guitar playing, Vegemite-sandwich eating roommates. (If you don’t know Vegemite, it’s the Australian spread that pretty much disqualifies them from EVER saying anything untoward about the Japanese affinity for eating rotten beans for breakfast / Natto.) And, this would have been alright probably if we had been living in a Gaijin House, but we were living in a mansion (which is what the Japanese call their apartment complexes) where we were one of three apartments rented by foreigners while the remaining complex was all-Japanese.
And they weren’t happy…
How do I know? Well, you’d think I know this because of the dirty looks I received, or the knocks on the door and walls in the night, or letters / hate mail slipped under the door or painted in graffiti on the door, or any number of NY-style heads-up like that. Nope. This is Japan. If I happened into one of our Japanese neighbors, and upon seeing me if they didn’t manage to scurry back into their apartments in time or in any direction aside from mine, they would show the brand of kindness that would make me think they were going to submit my name for president of the Tenant’s Association…
Nope, the letters and complaints went to the landlord and the landlord’s letters went to our employer. And our employer in turn would alert us. My cellphone rang one day and on the other line was some bureaucrat from the main office with an Aussie accent telling me unkindly that I had better follow the rules, as laid down in my rental agreement (basically some legalese instructing me to behave as if I were among the silent dead every night – all night cuz the walls may not be made of paper like in ancient Japan but they weren’t much thicker), or face eviction. Rules I had been following for the most part.
Rules my room”Mates” were not.
After the call I got a little vexed, as you might imagine, and caught both of them in the living room living it up as usual and called a meeting for the following night. They’d said cool, that they had been meaning to speak to me, too.
They? they said, which implied that they had already huddled about me. Mind you the two of them didn’t know one another either when we moved in.
And about what? What issues could they have with me? Hell, I’d been more or less a model roommate. I was still in a kind of representin’ the race mode that first month in Japan. I hadn’t said or done anything to show I was anything other than a fun-loving, slightly prejudiced against Eminem, kind to trees and animals and Japanese, mildly womanizing New Yorker. I cleaned kitchens and shower rooms…I never used the refrigerator (cuz it smelled like Vegemite and various other things people Down Under dine on that don’t smell so hot.) We all smoked so that couldn’t be the issue. I hadn’t even given Gregg an earful about his anachronistic vulgarities…yet, so it couldn’t be about that.
I would find out the what the following day…and this thing would be just what I needed to finally stop representin’ the race with my new friends and simply represent Loco.
to be continued…