I’ve never had it rough. Ever. A healthy white girl from a great family, I grew up in nicer-than-average Californian suburbs and spent most of my adult life in San Francisco. Beyond shoes, books, and travel, I’ve never really wanted for anything. A close friend of mine likens this kind of life to “playing a video game on the easiest level.”
I love this analogy 1) because it’s so true, and 2) it also speaks to the natural curiosity that goes beyond perpetually playing Level One. Traveling off the beaten path to developing countries has taught me that I have absolutely no right to bitch about anything. At all. It’s also shown me the chasm between the obscenely wealthy and the crushingly poor, and who ends up on which side of that chasm often has little to do with hard work or perseverance, but rather luck of birthplace. Of race. I guess that luck is a big reason I moved to Asia.
Now I’m not in a hut in the middle of Calcutta. But being in Japan for a few weeks has made me unpack my longing to live abroad, and not just in another English-speaking country like Australia or England. For over a decade, I yearned to be turned upside down completely, I just never knew why.
The foreign population of Japan is less than two percent, and being a minority– an extreme minority– is a jarring experience. I’m overtly stared at and photographed on the train. I’ve been blatantly ignored and avoided. I hear conversations in rapid-fire Japanese and pick up “Shinshia” and realize people are talking about me, right in front of me. I talk to people who’ve never spoken to a Westerner before. Being the only person of another race in a room is an unclear feeling. It doesn’t exactly bother me, sometimes it’s strangely freeing to be the novelty, but I’m constantly reminded that I don’t, nor will I ever, fit in. I could speak fluent Japanese, live here twenty years, marry into a Japanese family, learn every possible cultural custom, and not much would change. It’s sounds like I’m whining, but I’m not. I asked for this because I needed to experience first hand what otherness feels like. I don’t know why exactly. I’m not sure that it matters.
Maybe it’s good to feel uncomfortable sometimes. (I know– very Robert Frost of me)– but when you’ve been so lucky in your life it’s important to remember that most aren’t as lucky as you. Being lucky doesn’t make you special, it just makes you lucky. And maybe not being grateful for that luck is the definition of being spoiled. It’s a real fear of mine– forgetting just how lucky I am.
I hope this doesn’t sound like syrupy, white-liberal rambling–though I’m pretty sure it does. And I realize despite being part of the”other” two percent here, the racism or exclusion I deal with isn’t a fraction of what some endure. When you bring on the otherness yourself, it’s something of a contrived experience. It’s just the best I could come up with.