I wish I had gone to China without having lived 6 years in Japan. Living here almost ruined my trip to China.
Have you ever spoken to a Japanese person about China or Chinese? Have they ever uttered a single positive thing about either, or something that didn’t have a big ass but attached to it? Chinese food is delicious, but…. China has an incredible history, but… Chinese people are clever, but… If you have, please let me know in the comments. I’d be curious to know what it was.
Once I told this guy I met in Shibuya, who happened to be from Spain, that he reminded me of a friend of mine who just happened to be from Puerto Rico. He’d have liked to kill me if his face was any indication of what was in his heart. Just last week, while I was in China, I mistakenly asked one of my tour companions, who happened to be Irish, which part of England was he from. If looks could kill… Hell, one time I met this girl in Yokohama and she asked me was I from Ghana…Who? ME??? She almost caught a bad one. I don’t even know why it vexed me so much, but it did. If she had asked me was I gay it wouldn’t have bothered me half as much. It’s the same with many Japanese. I learned early on in my time in Japan that a good way to get under a Japanese person’s skin (if you were so inclined (-:) is to suggest that they looked like, behaved like, or reminded you of anyone Chinese. Think I’m kidding? Try it!
I was a Chinaphile before I came to Japan. If you’ve read some of my previous posts you know why. China was actually the place I wanted to end up. Japan was supposed to be just a pit stop… A place to get acclimated to life in Asia before I made the big leap of faith.
I was actually a little afraid of China, to be honest. It’s like admiring a famous actor or a historical figure. You don’t really want to meet them…I mean, what if Denzel Washington is a real prick? Or Martin Luther King wanted to take you to titty bar in Roppongi? That would just fuck me up. I didn’t want China to fuck me up, so I came to Japan first. A place I also had illusions about but I wasn’t a Japanophile so I haven’t been disillusioned so much by the reality here. And, part of that reality is I’m forced to endure the Japanese attitudes towards my beloved (albeit from afar) Chinese.
Some of my Japanese friends, students and co-workers talk about Chinese people the way Nazis talked about Jews…no, I don’t want to overstate it…more like the way snobby benevolent rich people talk about shiftless ungrateful poor people…no, I don’t want to understate it, either…anyway, clearly there is an undercurrent of contempt in most everything they say…only it’s said, I don’t know, politely…sometimes. For example, this conversation took place a week before I left:
Me: Did I tell you? I’m going to China next week! I’m so excited!
Student: Really? Why?
Me: What? What do you mean why? Why am I excited?
Student: No, I mean, why are you going China? Is it for business?
Me: No…it’s my vacation.
Student: Oh. Ohhhh. That’s nice. But, why China?
Me: Why? Have you been to China before?
Student: Oh no. I went to Hong King and Taiwan, though.
Me: Okayyy. Is China very different from Taiwan and Hong Kong? Wait a minute…Isn’t Hong Kong in China?
Student: Hong Kong people are not like Chinese people. And, Taiwan people love Japanese people.
Me: I see. Chinese people don’t like Japanese people?
Student: China is a very poor country and Chinese people are…very different from Japanese people, I think.
Student: China is very dangerous. So take care.
Me: Is the whole country dangerous? Or, are there certain places I should avoid?
Student: I don’t know. Maybe everywhere is dangerous.
Me: Maybe I shouldn’t go? Maybe I should go someplace else…like France…or Australia maybe?
Student: Oh, yes, France is soooo beautiful! Europe is beautiful!
That was one of the nicer conversations…
There are a number of Chinese students in my school, only I can’t say much schooling is taking place because most of them cannot speak Japanese (nor English) and only a couple of teachers can speak Cantonese (which is the Chinese language spoken by most of the students.) Most of these bilingual teacher’s efforts are spent trying to drill the Japanese language into obstinate Chinese brains. So, mostly, the Chinese students sit in my English class amusing themselves or sleeping, totally ignored by the Japanese teacher…and the Japanese students.
Back in the teachers office we’d meet to discuss the lesson. I’m always trying to figure out ways to include them in the lessons, to get them more involved, mingling with their Japanese counterparts. The Japanese teacher would listen to my ideas, politely and patiently, and then respond with something to the effect of: They don’t have much in common with the other students, do they? Or, they aren’t very bright, are they? Or, some of them are troublemakers, aren’t they? They have a whole slew of excuses. Being Chinese is treated like a handicap. Personally, I think it’s unacceptable but I’ve learned from experience not to muck with Japanese school policies and office politics too much. I’ve had a knife thrust into my back by a polite and patient co-worker before and it hurts more than when it’s done by the person who makes it clear they’re out to get you. But, nevertheless, during class, I’d go up to a Chinese student and try to engage them, get him or her to participate in the lesson, and, to my dismay, they’d look at me like: what’s your problem? Save your energy, pal! You think I want to learn English? Hell, I don’t even want to learn Japanese!
Of course, what they are really thinking and feeling I have no way of knowing. The true reason they appear to have absolutely no interest in being in that class room beats the hell outta me. I believe, however, it has as much to do with the language barrier as it does with the low expectations of the teachers. I mean, if they were expected to do well, I know they could and I believe they would. I suspect my negative assessment of their facial expression and behavior has been heavily influenced by the over-abundance of negative critiques they’ve received from my co-workers over the course of the past three years.
But, that’s just one aspect of how my trip to China was affected by my life here in Japan. And, to be honest, it wasn’t a very impactful one at all. I mean, the same reason Chinese students aren’t excelling in Japanese schools can be said about African Americans in public schools across America (except for the language barrier, of course). I grew up in schools where some of the teachers had similar attitudes about me, and little to no effort was made to incentivize or inspire…I think students pick up on the attitude of their teachers and schools. If the teacher doesn’t care why should they? So, I didn’t go to China thinking they were stupid, or lazy, or shiftless, or troublemakers, per se. No, my trip to China was impacted more by something altogether different.
As a non-Asian foreigner living in Japan, the one thing you slowly begin to take less and less notice of is ironically the most obvious one: Virtually everyone around you is Asian. Seems silly, right? Of course they’re Asian. Duh! This is Asia. And, more specifically, and importantly, they are Japanese. Don’t get me wrong. You never forget you’re in Japan, and trust me the Japanese will never let you forget you are not Japanese. They are simply incapable of doing so. But, slowly and surely, (and if you’re like me and don’t get around Asia much) you start to think that this is life in Asia. You think you’ve learned a great deal about Asians and about yourself…and, it’s true…you have. You’re a genius with regards to Asia compared to your friends back home who’ve never left the West, and maybe even compared to some of your friends here in the East. You’re a friggin’ connoisseur. You’ve been there, and you’ve done that. You’ve seen it all.
So, what happens? You get off an ANA flight in the China you’ve been waiting a lifetime to see and you’ve been hearing so much about from your Japanese compadres, and you step into the cleanest, most spacious, most beautiful airport you’ve ever seen…
…and somehow you just know: You ain’t seen nothing yet.