Travel makes us grow as people and we each experience the change in unique ways.
As an example of this realization, I begin in the suburbs of Kanagawa, where I was stopped by a school boy who told me I was the first non-Japanese person he’d ever met. Instantly, I thought to myself; “How does he know I’m not Japanese? He hasn’t heard me speak yet”.
Of course, I’m most certainly not Japanese. I needed his greeting translated by a local companion. In the ‘burbs of everyday Japan, I stick out like the Mexican President at a Breitbart meeting. I’ve got blonde hair, for one thing. But hang on, isn’t instantly judging someone based on the way they look the definition of racism? Or at least, sort of?
“Dude, he’s just an innocent school kid,” I hear you saying.
Fair point. Which leads to my next uncomfortable observation of that same situation…
He wasn’t a shy type of kid. He was confident, all smiles and personality, and not the slightest bit intimidated. The little guy was clearly happy with his discovery and so a second or two after getting over the embarrassment of not being able to respond to him in his own language (during a “conversation” in his own neighborhood and country), I decided the best I could do was perhaps offer to pose for a picture with him.
If I was truly the first “gaikokujin” (literally, “foreign-country person”) my new friend had ever seen, then maybe he’d get a kick out of being able to show his friends and family a photograph of who he had met.
“Yeah, that’s a great idea,” I reassured myself and my Japanese buddy. Until a much different thought came over me…
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I very quickly decided against offering to have my picture taken with this awesomely bold little dude (whose name I didn’t catch because I was way too busy worrying about whether I should appear in a photo with him or not), and that decision soon had everyone on the way to where they were originally going.
My thoughts may be best summed up by considering the reverse scenario. If I had a child (I don’t. Yet. I mean, I’m sure all my gear works properly and stuff. I just haven’t put it to the test) who came home from school and showed me a photo he had taken with some strange-looking grown man I’d never seen before, there’s a chance I might look down on such things. Maybe I’d jump to the conclusion that this weirdo was up to no-good. Perhaps he’s some sort of predator. Either way, he has no damn business hanging out with my child!
See what I mean? Like I said, I’m not proud of the fact that this fear was the thought which took control and dictated how a potentially beautiful interaction went down. I could have made a new, cool little friend, but instead I let the fear of being judged get in the way.
If you’re a visitor to Japan, you may not have this same experience. I met that little guy about a week after arriving in Japan. During the six months which followed, it remains the one and only time anybody ever told me I was the only gaikokujin they’d seen. The closer you get to cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, and any other touristy area, a dumb-looking guy with blonde hair is nothing new.
All things considered, it was a missed opportunity to have a legit, organic interaction with the locals and culture I’d come to experience and I pussied out on it because of preconceptions and misguided judgments of what is right and what is wrong.
Or did I? Was making that call a good one? I still can’t really decide.