I woke up to my chirping cell phone alarm at 6:30 feeling well rested. The crows were cawing, the bluebirds were whistling and Aiko was typing in the next room.
“Ohayou,” I groaned, feeling a slight twinge in my back. I’d played basketball the day before at the gym, and though I don’t look it or feel it usually, I am getting up there in years.
“Ohayou,” she sang. “Ne, ne,…eeeto, desu ne…” she said and paused which meant she was slightly hesitant to say the words that would follow. But, at the same time she had that distant, thoughtful tone she took on when she was working on something…and she was always working on something, which is one of the things I admire about her. The downside of this distant thoughtful time, however, is she tends to ask questions or say things she’s asked or said a 100 times before. But when she’s in the moment, she’s a slave to her rhythm. “Do Americans like Manga?”
I felt the blood rush to my head. I opened my mouth to reprimand her… and caught myself. This took all of 15 seconds to do today. It used to take hours, sometimes days; marked improvement if I must say so myself.
But before I could respond she added, “chigau yone. Anoo, I mean, do black people like…chigau…anoo, is manga popular in America?” she crooned.
I was beyond impressed! She had self-corrected a style of asking questions that I had been correcting her on for over two years without any success. For the past couple of years questions like those would really get under my skin, or rather, I’d let them get under my skin, and embrace the righteous anger that resulted. Almost everything else I’d told her about the English language and American culture, as I saw it, she’d absorbed readily, but this was an obstacle I was in the process of surrendering to. It seemed to be culturally hardwired into her psyche. But, I was wrong. She could learn to stop stereotypically thinking about the world if she applied herself. It wasn’t a hopeless cause but new evidence that anything is possible.
I climbed out of bed, pecked her, seated at her desk, on the forehead and made my way to the kitchen. My routine is to get the coffee brewing first so that by the time I finish shitting, showering, & shaving the coffee would be waiting. But, on my approach to the kitchen the junkie in me relished in the caffeine in the air.
I let out a long “Eeeee!” of surprise and Aiko called after me.
“Ko-hi tsukutta jan!” (Wow, you made coffee!)
Aiko isn’t a coffee junkie like me (so she says) but becoming increasingly fond of her lattes I’ve noticed, and had already brewed a pot. She’s the equivalent of an alcoholic who only drinks pretty cocktails with fruits and ornaments or a crack head that prides himself on his ability to maintain his job and his addiction simultaneously.
“Chigau yo,”(It wasn’t me) she giggled. “Chuugokujin kanaa.” (Chinese, I guess)
It was a running joke, one of our inside, intimate jokes. I once told her that all the problems in Japan, according to the newspaper, are caused by foreigners. And the foreign target of choice at one time was the Chinese living in Japan. According to the News, if you followed the paper trails of organized crime or the blood trails of violent crimes or the trail of discarded valueless contents of purses and wallets from the scene of a petty crime, they would all lead to foreigners, and in many cases, eased by their ability to blend in with the Japanese masses (more so than, let’s say, me,) to the Koreans and the Chinese. One time I accidentally left the back door open and when I arrived home, Aiko gave me an earful. I thought she was being ridiculous. We live in an extraordinarily safe neighborhood in an extraordinarily safe city in perhaps, statistically, the safest country in the world.
“Do you think some Chinese burglars are going to sneak in here and take…what…our computers? Or maybe some Chinese Otaku will steal your Manga collection,” I laughed. But, she was dead-ass serious and not finding humor in my carelessness at all. So, I straightened up and added, “With all these rich people around here, you really think the burglars would target us? You must really thing Chinese people are stupid!”
She laughed, and I could see in her face that she realized how ridiculous the notion was but she still felt compelled to hammer home her value of ‘safety first!’ However, from then on, whenever anything in our apartment was misplaced, she’d blame the Chinese.
“Who drank all of the Sake?” I’d ask.
“Wakannai!” she’d say. “Chyugokujin kanaa” (Beats me! Probably Chinese.)
“Who ate all the toufu”? she’d ask.
“Wakannai! Chuugokujin kanaa,” I’d say.
Soon, we began to use the joke for good occurrences, too. If I cleaned the house while she was at work and she’d come home expecting to have to tackle domestic tasks only to find they’d been done, I’d say, “Chyugokujin, kanaa…”
“Chyugokujin yasashi deshou?” she sang. (Chinese are very nice, aren’t they?)
“Sou desune,” I replied and headed straight for the shower. I opened the door to the shower room and eased my head through the threshold, inspecting the walls, floor and window for bugs. I hate bugs! And bugs always seem to find there way into the bathroom. Actually I don’t mind spiders that much, but Goddamn slugs, centipedes and cockroaches- they’re the worst! Actually it has only happened a handful of times in the two years I’ve been living here, but one time is one time too many. And I was actually traumatized the first time. I was naked, of course, in a soapy, tile walled and floored room, vision impaired by soap, totally relaxed, singing about the good times with Al Green. Needless to say it was a rather vulnerable state to be in when a cockroach the size of a bat decided to take flight brushing me as it passed, making that nasty insecty buzzing clicking noise when in flight and landing with a solid thud on the opposite wall. Armed with a shower massage nozzle and a washcloth I practically broke the spring door off its hinges as I retreated providing my own cover fire aiming the shower spray at the creepy antennae’d multi-legged star of my nightmares. But, today, once again, the coast was clear.
After my shower, I brushed my teeth, taking note of their darkening shade. Tobacco and caffeine have been unkind to my smile, and for someone who loves to smile as much as I do, I was seriously contemplating using a bleaching agent.
Coffee and smoke within reach, I checked out MSNBC, CNN and even FOX news to find out the latest news on the man I credit with presenting me with an indisputable demonstration of anything being possible if you set your mind to it: Senator and Presidential Nominee Barack Obama…his campaign providing a blueprint for success in virtually any arena and for most anyone, especially for a black man dealing with the ignorance I have to tolerate here. I still have a brief moment of anxiety as I wait for the MSNBC main page to open up, afraid the Breaking News headline will read something like one of the following:
“Obama and Farrakhan planning New Millennium Million Man March, claims the controversial Black Muslim leader,” or “These Crackers are Crazy!” says Michelle Obama on a recently discovered phone call between herself and Obama after the Pennsylvania Primary.” or “Obama Lynched as Secret Service looks on,” or some other kind of horror story. But, no, once again it’s the usual good news- bad news type stories, Obama’s up with this group, down with that group, needs to reach out to the other group, needs to consider so and so for such and such a position, was endorsed by so and so, blasted by so and so for flip-flopping on something or other, tweaked his stump for such and such a place, etc…
Relieved, I got ready for work, or rather for the world outside the relative sanctuary of my apartment. While I was getting ready Aiko was heading out.
“Nanji kaeru?” (What time you coming home?)
“Jyu-ji goro,” I said. “Anata wa?” (Around 10. You?)
“Konya shamisen kurasu wo shimasu. Dakara, jyu-ichi ji goro.” (Tonight I have my shamisen class so about 11.)
“Wakatta. Ganbatte!” (Gotcha! Break a leg!)
“Doumo. Ittekimasu.” (Thanks, later)
I blew her a kiss and counted my blessings. Against her cultural judgment, she has stayed with me, listening to me for two years tout the virtues of a book I’m working on. It’s gonna be great, I’d tell her. But, every time she’d come home from work I was either watching the news on Obama or something else I’d claim I derive inspiration for this book from; real truth stretches like: I was re-watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for a sense of the heroic I wanted to imbue my characters with, or I was studying reruns of “Ally McBeal” for a sense of comedic timing and the effective use of absurdity. She doesn’t buy it, of course. She knew I was sitting there letting the days go by, stuck on stupid and oppressed and trying to hide from the anger I can’t seem to manage well (and the shame of that failure,) but she has hung in there like a mother would for her only son.
On the walk from my apartment to the train station, I encountered my first outside world nihonjin of the day. I could feel that old tension coming on so I inhaled deeply, and asked myself, what would B.O. (Barack Obama) do? My new mantra.
It was three boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, headed for school, uniformed in khaki short pants, box-shaped yellow and black backpacks, as big as their backs, and bumblebee yellow baseball caps-altogether cute as all get out. They hadn’t seen me, yet, and so they were chatting and joking freely and easily, paying no attention to the well-traveled and predictable road ahead of them. One laughed raucously and in doing so glances ahead and noticed me. I braced myself for…nothing? No reaction? The usual would be for that kid to sort of stumble in the shock of seeing this incongruous being before him. Then, whisper to the other kids who hadn’t noticed it yet something either to the effect of “Don’t look now, but here comes a cool ass black guy,” or “be careful, ya’ll, danger at 12 o’clock.” However, he looks back to his friends just as naturally as he would if he hadn’t seen me at all, or if I were a Japanese person, or a lamppost. I waited for his friend’s eyes to dart my way- children usually being incapable of adhering to the subtleness and craftiness of a “don’t look now.” And then all the hilarity and animation in their conversation would vanish, replaced by something I’d become accustomed to seeing everyday in nearly everyone: extreme caution. But…nothing! I was shocked! Had he seen me? I was certain he had, but no reaction made me question that conviction. One of his other friends noticed me and he too registered nothing untoward or even unusual about what he beheld.
I was absolutely blown away then! It had to be a fluke.
I had long since given up on the adults doing what these kids had done but I’d held on to hope for the children up until recently. Their typical reaction was one I could easily attribute to fear of strangers, the way kids in NY might react to any strange man who happened to be following them around, or who offers candy, drugs, a lift to school, or something conspicuously dangerous like that. Encountering a black person, in Japan, is the equivalent for Japanese, I’ve come to believe.
However, these three kids passed without another glance at me, and…I don’t know…my heart started pounding a little and a lump swelled in my throat. I mean, I had truly lost all hope, and I didn’t know it until these three boys passed through my life without remark or reaction. I felt such an intense sense of gratitude. In Japan, it is stuff like this that makes or breaks my day. And, they had definitely made mine. Hell, they made my month! I wanted to, at once, turn around, catch up to them and show my appreciation, and also try to understand how they could be so different from what seems to me to be about 98% of their comrades and fellow citizens. But, I’m sure that move would have backfired. I probably would have scared them half to death and they’d never ignore someone who looked like me again.
Maybe the explanation was something simple like their English teacher just so happened to be black. Even so, I felt, for lack of a better word, human, and in feeling that emotional jolt I realized how intensely inhuman I had been feeling lately. I’ve placed such a high premium on being ignored, but as a black man in a yellow land, the raisin in the custard so to speak, I’m rarely if ever ignored. It’s the price I pay for being different in a land of likeness much the way I imagine celebrities must feel when they try to pass themselves off as ‘regular’ people, only my notoriety is not one of envy or amazement. Predominantly it’s one of fear, like if I were a panther strolling down the street. How these kids managed to ignore a panther strolling by them I may never know. But, man, did I appreciate it.
The closer I got to the station, the more people I saw. I live in an area with hills rising in all directions from a centrally located station at the bottom of all the hills, so all the roads funnel directly to it. I live in a duplex on one of these hilltops, nestled in an alcove, surrounded by homes owned by some affluent people. The hilltop road I take to the station is a two-way street but only the width of two very small cars at best, and is lined with large homes with manicured gardens and 2-car garages where BMWs and Mercedes are kept. It abruptly becomes a San Francisco-esque sharp slope that without strong legs you must run to negotiate downward and damn near need climbing equipment to negotiate upward. At the bottom is a rotary where 4 slopes converge into a single road with bikes and cars and racing people pouring in, jockeying for position, half running or trotting. Some of them have seen me before. Some have not. Not that it matters much. I’ve been living in this neighborhood for nearly 2 years and not a single neighbor has so much as said, “Konnichiwa,” so I don’t expect much.
Along this road there is a busy railroad crossing. And missing the light could cost you anywhere from 2 minutes to upwards of 10 minutes, depending on how many trains are passing at the time. As I approached the crossing I could see that a crowd had gathered and the queue of cars waiting to cross was about 10 long. Usually, as I approach, those that became aware of me would begin to maneuver themselves so as to stay as far away from me as they possibly can causing others who hadn’t noticed me to discern the disruption in the natural behavior of the people around them, which in turn would cause them to look around to learn the source of the disruption, spot me, and adjust according to their particular respective feelings about my presence among them. Some would shift, apparently, with the desire of not looking like that was their intention, god bless them, while others would do so unaware of what that they were inching away instinctively, and others would apparently do it as an overt snubbing, as if to say this is exactly what anyone in their right mind would do considering the reputation people like me have.
Today, as I approached, a woman was digging through her purse, looked up, saw me a meter or so away, smiled a little awkwardly, but returned to searching her purse without any excitement. A man in front of her turned his head to check the time on his watch, caught a glimpse of me in his peripherals, gave me a second take,-a little bow / nod, then turned back to face the train tracks before him. Like he wasn’t moved at all! This was odd, indeed. It’s so rare to meet an adult that doesn’t react to me. Even mild surprise or discomfort is the minimum I’ve come to expect. But, nothing? First the kids up the hill, and now…Well, I didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it. Maybe he had a black wife at home, I laughed to myself, for even though I’ve heard of it happening, and black men certainly don’t have a problem being with Japanese women from what I’ve seen and lived, in four years I’ve yet to see a black woman with a Japanese man. Or, maybe it’s simply that he works at an English School. Yeah, that would explain it. He works with foreign people everyday so of course I didn’t intimidate him at all.
With that self-reassurance that I hadn’t gone off the deep end or woke up in a country drastically changed from the one I’d gone to sleep in, I continued on my way to the station. Holding my head high and asserting the fact that I’m black and, though you might not think I have cause to be, I’m very proud. And, I smiled. Joie de vivre is my weapon of choice. I’ve been told my smile is infectious, disarming, and it’s my hope that it says to the beholder, “though I respect your right to be afraid, you do know that your fear is groundless and ignorant, don’t you?” It’s my latest in a series of efforts to deal with the xenophobia and out-and-out racism I’ve endured since my arrival here. It’s something I do more for my own esteem than for any affect it might have on the behavior of the people around me. It’s been only a few weeks since I’ve adopted this new approach, and it’s been effective thus far but I’ve failed so many times in the past that I’m not convinced yet that it will garner any better results those previous failed attempts. My esteem is plummeting.
The path to the station leads through a bicycle parking lot. One of the staff people there, an old man with ears that fan out like a monkey’s and a smile that always makes me smile, was smiling as usual. Several times over the past two years he has made an effort to engage me in conversation but he has very limited English and my Japanese, though improving, was still way too poor to have an extended discussion. We spoke a couple of times, but those interactions quickly changed into interviews, a series of questions to satisfy his intense curiosity specifically about foreigners, and in a general sense about Americans and myself in particular. There was a time when I was eager to answer questions like do Americans know how to use chopsticks and why do Americans like guns so much, but after a while I found myself coming face to face with not so much a genuine curiosity but a propaganda machine that confuses stereotypes and opinions with facts and statistics, and a questioner looking to confirm what he already believed to be true. And, fancying myself as some kind of American Ambassador, I found myself, whether I believed it or not, answering the exact same questions over and over, and I heard myself repeating the same rhetoric that had been shoved into my head over the course of my lifetime about diversity, like I were some kind of politician and this was my stump speech, and I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into an abyss of ignorance not only about what being an American means but about who I truly am.
He bowed and smiled at me as automatically as he would anyone other familiar face and I nodded and smiled back as I passed. It was kind of unusual of him not to single me out with a special greeting like I were a special guest in his neck of the woods but I was happy he didn’t. He couldn’t have had any idea how desperate my need to be treated typically was. Unless he was a mind reader, how could he? He simply accepted me as part of his daily life, I concluded.
The train platform was packed, as usual. I got on the line queuing before the 4th door of the 8th car because at the station where my school is located this door would put me closest to the escalator. Many people have the same idea so it’s usually pretty crowded but crowds are difficult if not impossible to avoid in the morning so I choose to be closer rather than farther away. Not that crowding affects me most often. Once my fellow commuters get a glimpse of me, a pocket of space usually materializes around me but only if I board the train with enough time to be glimpsed beforehand and if it is humanly possible to provide me this pocket. The pocket is sometimes only big enough for me to read a book or play Tetris on my cell phone (which is substantial considering the other people in the train car are packed so tight they appear to be merging into a single being) Sometimes it’s big enough to do calisthenics or perform a Savion Glover routine from “Bring in da noise, bring in da funk.”
Standing on line, I behaved conspicuously, coughing, clearing my throat, unzipping my briefcase bag audibly, nothing unusual, just enough to draw as much attention as possible, hoping people would have the usual response to my presence and move to another line or (in the case of the people in front of me in the line,) race headlong into the car in a effort to board quickly and get as far away as possible from the area they anticipate I might eventually reside.
As the train pulled into the station and I could see through the windows going by that it was packed, appearing almost as if it was being expanded outwardly like the walls in that hallway when Neo flexed his cyber-muscles in the 1st Matrix movie, until the train looked like a metal sausage. The sausage’s doors opened and people who had been penned against the doors kind of spilled out; some to transfer to yet another sausage, some only to allow others behind them to exit so that they jam back into the car and continue to their destination.
As I boarded the train something happened that had happened so infrequently in the past 4 years that I had assumed it was virtually unthinkable: I was pushed! I had noticed that it was common practice, and acceptable to an extent in Japan, to push one another but that custom was rarely extended to me. It was so surprising that I almost had a New York response to it. In NY, pushing, even on the subway, meant that the person was either out of their fucking mind or looking for a fight. In either case, the response is to turn prepared for an altercation of some sort. But, I didn’t. I’ve been here too long to expect a fight.
When I glanced behind me what I saw was that not only had a line formed behind me, but that they were coming towards me! And they hardly took notice of our glaring differences. They seemed not to notice anything about me at all. They were focused on cramming into this car, for the platform alarm had rung which meant that it was time for the train to depart- something that is taken very seriously here. I was shoved against the wall of people in front of me and I instinctively whispered sumimasens and gomen nasais and received nods and half-bows and Iies that indicated I shouldn’t worry about it. No one freaked out at the face of the apologizer or looked as if he couldn’t understand the English I wasn’t speaking, or acted like AIDS incarnate had entered the car, or gave me the fisheye. Or patted their back pockets confirming their wallets had not been tampered with, or anything else I had long since accepted as typical Japanese behavior when put into the unfortunate position of being uncomfortably close to a black man. No one at all!
No, all I felt was the crush; like a tightening vice, threatening injury. I could feel my back beginning to arch inwardly in an awkward way and the air being forced from my lungs, and I could hear the whispers of sumimasen in my ears, from the woman whose hand was accidently wedged between my ass cheeks and the guy whose briefcase’s sharp corner was damn near impaling my kidney…and in my conscience, above my annoyance at what would surely be a rough ride to Yokohama- for the next stop would only bring more people and wedge that hand deeper into my backside and that briefcase sharper into my kidneys, and push my mild claustrophobia to its irrational limits, at the same time I felt a sense of belonging, perhaps for the first time since I’ve been living in Japan. I was part of this society, a human member, at that. It was like the feeling I had had with the boys earlier only now it was more physically affecting. It said welcome home like the crush of a bear hug from a mother or your family upon your returning home from a prolonged war overseas in which you were held captured and tortured; like winning a championship after 20 years of underachieving and the embrace of a team who’d never stopped believing, and of all the fans who had turned on you and all but given up. I was lifted above the masses, riding on their shoulders.
I felt pathetic, suddenly; ashamed of my longing to belong. I’m not Japanese, will never be Japanese, and so to want this so badly felt not only like a cry for approval but like betrayal of everything I’d been taught over the course of my lifetime was just and true, a disloyalty to the rich culture from which I sprang. Which is ridiculous after all. Was it not my idea to come here? No one forced me. No one put a gun to my head and said, “Expatriate or die!” I simply wanted to get away from it all for a while, and that I have done, unquestionably…far, far away. So far that I wonder if I’ll ever find my way back to New York. Maybe I can never go back. Maybe that’s why I want to feel the crush so much. Because I know I’m here to stay.
Here to stay? Hmm, like that’s an option. Sure, I just got a three year extension on my visa so if I don’t get locked up for some violent crime I’m good till 2011. 2011??? I remember when 2011 was something you’d only see or read about in science fiction…now it’s a very real number.
Then, my alarm started chirping and I instantly realized that I had been half-dreaming half-sleeping. I opened my eyes and checked my cell phone. It was 6:30. The crows were cawing, the bluebirds were whistling, and Aiko was standing over me, looking at me…
“Nande waratteita? She asked. (Why were you laughing?)
“Wakannai.” (Beats me.)
“Okashi jan.” (You:re nuts!)
“Sou desuyone.” (You can say that again!)