what being a foreigner in japan is like

According to a survey conducted in March this year, 1.98 million “foreigners” reside in Japan today. And though this may seem a significant number, when put as a mere 1.54% of the entire population, it really isn’t. If your numerical skills are as bad as mine, let me tell you that 1.54% “foreigners”, means 98.46% natives. In other words, everyone is Japanese but YOU. This makes things a little difficult. Especially coming from a somewhat multicultural country as NZ. Why does it matter? Well, theoretically it shouldn’t but we’re flawed humans and sometimes, we just cant help but to feel like a complete outsider (with four legs).

I can’t speak for the urban dwellers but for me, being a “foreigner” in my rural Japanese village has proposed some discomforts. For one, people stare (sometimes with mouths wide open). This is because, I look different; my skin is darker, my nose is longer and my butt bigger. Next, my mannerisms are unlike theirs. For example, I often eat nuts, brown bread and things vegetarian. The latter, a term almost non-existent in my village. In addition, I don’t peel my grapes, I hardly ever use an umbrella (both in sunshine and rain), I like getting a sun tan and I go home right on the dot when my work is finished. All of which sometimes lead to racism.

Don’t get me wrong, this happens everywhere. Even in New Zealand, a moreorless “multicultural” nation, my family and I were/still-are subject to racism. I was constantly attributed offensive “bomb” and “terrorist” references. Even worse off, was my father. A walking stereotype; middle-eastern taxi driver with black facial hair. But, if I looked past the ignorant idiot making said reference, I’d see an Indian, a Chinese and/or a Samoan all dwelling in one place and in turn, I’d feel a little less isolated. They’re in the same boat as me, I’d reason. This was my personal tactic. But in this very rural very Japanese village, that tactic is ineffective since looking outside (at others) for solace is out of the question (seeing as everyone I encounter is a native). Which brings me to my recent revelation that I shouldn’t be seeking solace like that in the first place.

If I interpret the unfriendly stares of my neighbours or a certain colleague’s mean comments when I eat the likes of raw capsicum as treatment I am only receiving because of my “foreignness”, then I myself am actively contributing to the problem. For what am I to make of the endless love and generosity showered upon me by members of the same race? In her novel Change of Heart, Jodi Picoult says: “When you’re different, sometimes you don’t see the millions of people who accept you for what you are. All you notice is the person who doesn’t.” This is a profound statement. It suggests equality/fitting in is in fact, a conscious decision. However, I want to take Picoult’s idea a step further. Apart from our physicality and man-made nationalities, are we actually different? My new realisation is this: we need to stop seeing ourselves as different from one another. When we obliterate the idea of difference, of “foreignness” and instead accept that we are all in Bahá’u’lláh words, “the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch” then, no matter how alien we are in our appearance and in our behaviour, we see a little (or a lottle) part of ourself in one another and so become less sensitive to prejudice.

Today, my gorgeous colleagues made sushi (the western way) in my honour. You see, Japanese sushi is unlike “sushi” elsewhere. In Japan, Sushi refers to a piece of raw fish on a bed of rice with wasabi on it. Sushi in New Zealand, means sushi-roll doesn’t it? Filled with chicken, prawn, salmon, avocado, cucumber, lettuce etc. Nowadays, brown rice, black rice and quinoa sushi have also entered the market. To the Japanese, such sushi is not sushi in any sense. “Teriyaki sushi? What the…” Nevertheless, for my sake, my colleagues made an exception. If you look closely at the photographs you will see a bowl of brown rice and a small pot of soup without wet seaweed (wakame) which I strongly detest, especially prepared for Anisa-sensei.

I am so utterly grateful. There is a lot of prejudice in the world today but lest we forget/fail to see, this world is also home to much selfless generosity and compassion. In the profound words of Baha’u’llah, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

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