“Melanin Marks” Japan: Silent Stares & Warm Generosity
I step off the ship to go through immigration like everyone else. However, out of the 600 students on this ship, I am only 1 of 19 Black students. Please note that when I say Black, I am not just saying African Americans, but Black people from other countries as well. All of us would have to go through the extras that our European counterparts wouldn’t experience.
I walk to the immigration officer and he smirks. He says “Are you from America?”
“Yes,” I say hesitantly while still keeping my smile. He stares at me for 5 more seconds, and I begin to laugh to make him more comfortable.
I look at him and ask “Are you from Japan?” A question I originally asked to break the tension, broke his silence and opened up laughter. He nodded his head to confirm. In that moment, I had just taught a simple lesson. That old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover. Just because I looked like somewhere else did not mean anything, and he could obviously see the error in his judgement when I walked away giving him one last stare.
I stepped onto the street and walked with my friends to friends to the subway station to take our train to the airport. It was 11:00am, so you could imagine the few suitors on the train was shocked to find 7 Black students entering the subway.
These stares would follow us to the airport and in Tokyo until we got to our Airbnb. I appreciated the fact that the Japanese people tried to be discreet in their stares. It was similar to being on a plane with a crying baby. You understand that they can be on the plane, but at the same time, why come? The locals didn’t mind that we were there, but what was our intentions for being in their country? Kind of a funny thing seeing as how they enjoy hip hop culture. The music and clothes are very apparent when you go into a restaurant or clothing store. I heard Gucci Mane’s mixtape get more spins out here than I heard on my Washington DC. radio station back home. Even when we walked into the Bathing Ape store, we still got stared down.
I’ve traveled through several countries in Europe before, and was used to initial judgement. I’m assumed to be from a country in Africa and speak fluent French if anything. Both assumptions could be further from the truth. When I opened my mouth, they were shocked to hear me speak English. Even though some were unable to understand me, they were not only shocked that I knew English (because remember, they expect me to speak a language from my “native country”) but they were also relieved that I was so friendly and understanding if they couldn’t help. Sometimes we would find visitors from Australia or Hong Kong that didn’t really know their way around Shinjuku also, but it was great to have that bonding moment of confusion through navigation.
Those moments where we did find someone who could help us just made our day. Japanese people are very helpful and will naturally go out of their way to help you, even if we were foreigners. While searching for a sushi place, we went to a local restaurant that did not have a desirable menu. We saw these two women walking into the restaurant where we stopped them to see if they could help us locate a restaurant. One of the women stayed and spoke to a waiter where he said there was one down the street. She smiled and walked with us halfway to the restaurant, in her heels might I add.
“What are you guys doing in Japan?” We laughed in unison before responding in unison. “Studying abroad,” we all said. She smiled brightly at the fact that we were excited to be here. We told her how we were only in Japan for 5 days and our 10 country itinerary. “That sounds so cool. I can’t believe you guys decided to come here,” she continued. There weren’t that many people who would stay in Tokyo, let alone Black people. She understood how far out of our comfort zone we were. Because we still decided to come for our studies and learn the culture, she greatly appreciated it.
These simple acts of kindness went on throughout my trip. However, just when I thought I couldn’t get more impressed, it happened, out of all places, at a black owned soul food restaurant. The owner moved from Texas to Tokyo 5 years ago and opened his restaurant over a year and a half ago. He told us an encounter he had with a Japanese man once where he explained his empathy for Black people who come to Japan. The man understood the problems that African Americans already face in the United States, let alone when they move to a different country where they are treated as an outsider as well. We’ve only been in Japan for 5 days, let alone 5 years where he must have faced many challenges adjusting to the culture; he probably still is.
There’s a high level of respect that the Japanese people share. It seems like they still want their country to be held to high levels of respect to everyone. Which means sharing their values for each other with foreigners as well, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at first. At the same time, I have a duty as an African American to break stereotypes in every country I travel to. I always remain humble and friendly to hopefully get the same response and make others around me feel comfortable, and in this case it was well reciprocated.
Chanel is on the Semester at Sea study abroad program where she will be visiting 10 countries by ship for the next 3 months. Follow her experience as a Black girl traveling abroad through her stories on Her Culture & follow her on Instagram @creatingchanel.