December 1999, Berlin. It’s too cold, dark, and lonely. The high rise buildings of Potsdamer Platz have trapped me in their wind tunnel. My eyes tear up from the bitterness and spite of an early winter. My body isn’t built for this, I think, shoving my hands deeper into the pockets of a winter coat that wasn’t designed for this type of winter. I’m too far away from everything and everyone, yet not far away enough…perhaps never far away enough. Do you know this feeling? A life lived at arm’s length?
Berlin felt monochrome, then, as a I stood alone, the only dark face amidst a swirl of the curious, the fearful, the indifferent, and the obvious skinheads. My darkness, penchant for wearing men’s clothing, dreadlocks, all marked me for what I was and am: a foreigner in a sometimes unwelcoming space. Let’s go back.
December 1994, Florida. I’m sixteen and in the 11th grade. It’s a curious time, to say the least. I listen to Metallica and play guitar with my friend, Danny. I dress in all black, wear combat boots, and have a girlfriend, who’s a grade behind me. I’m nicknamed “Oreo,” by some Black students for not complying with unspoken racial expectations. You see, to them, I don’t sound or act Jamaican enough. I’m not sitting with the other Black kids in the cafeteria. I’m outside playing guitar, singing, figuring out my sexuality, and trying to wrap my mind around receiving phone calls threatening me that I’ll be raped. I’m busy trying to find a way out, to go somewhere, where there are people like me.
Back then, whatever I was, it threatened others: a foreigner in a sometimes unwelcoming space. Of course, to me, I was just living or trying to. Let’s fast-forward.
December 2020, northeastern Japan. It’s nighttime. The frost on my window reminds me that I won’t want to leave the warmth of my bed in the early morning to exercise. I’m listening to 30 Seconds to Mars’ “The Kill (Bury Me),” although I’m more of a metalcore fan these days. Also, I am alone. It’s my first Christmas Eve alone in many years. However, I don’t feel lonely, just reflective and a little tired.
The one rule I’ve learned living as a perpetual foreigner is: conform or depart.
Being all of who I am, the queerness, the not-enough-Blackness, the tattoo- and rock-loving, social activist, etc., can create a challenge in remaining in any space that demands homogeneity. Inevitably, whatever image others have created of me for me will be shattered as I fail to adequately fit their mold.
The sameness of life in Japan seems to be a part of the air. Everyone appears to breathe in the same experiences, thoughts, and feelings. There is an expectation to simply understand and not question the circumstances of life. You are expected to know and respond to the unstated feelings and needs of others. This is “場の空気を読む” (ba no kuuki wo yomu). This is high-context living. Additionally, for those who bear the title sensei/teacher, there is the expectation to be role-models 24/7.
As one of the most visible types of foreigners (read: Black female) in Japan, I have learned the importance of becoming less visible through adaptation of certain cultural norms, removing my headscarf, hiding my tattoos and sexuality, silencing my voice, and eventually my thoughts. Even writing this post feels problematic because it isn’t seemingly extolling the positive aspects of living in Japan.
Certainly, I wouldn’t trade this experience. Still, conform or depart can be a hard rule to live by, especially when seeking stability. Living invisibly and silently won’t do either, especially when seeking holistic self-acceptance and self-healing. Thus, another path must be found to move forward, fostering the dialectic of being exactly who I am and respecting where I am.
I am learning to bend without breaking.