Lessons Learned: A Journey of Self-Identity

written by Melody Wong (岡山県)

IMG_3800-MelodyWongIt’s over. Two years of a journey of a lifetime and it’s finally coming to an end. It’s hard to believe that time has passed by so quickly, but I have definitely learned so much about Japan and myself. It has been a fascinating and life-changing journey, to say the least. Some of my greatest joys and greatest woes were faced here, especially being a female of Asian/Pacific Islander (API) descent. Two years ago, I embarked on my Far East movement to Japan and now I am packing away my lessons learned in my memory suitcase. So, what have I learned? Let me count the ways…

Expect the unexpected. 

As a foreigner, we are constantly told that we will stand out and often times will get treated like a celebrity. Though I knew that they weren’t necessarily referring to a foreigner that looks Japanese, I did expect to be treated like I was someone different. I really didn’t mind so much that I blended in with the locals while I was on my own, but I really didn’t expect to be hyper-invisible when I was around other foreigners who, well, looked foreign. I didn’t expect to be ignored, yet at the same time be treated like I was the Japanese tour guide for the group of gaijin. I was especially surprised and hurt when some of the locals would laugh and make fun of me when they found out that I needed a Caucasian person to translate Japanese to me.

Instead of distancing myself and holing up in my introverted cave to avoid these situations, I decided to accept and seek the positives of it all. I had to realize that Japan is very different from where I come from and there really isn’t much exposure to people like myself here. Learning to accept the situations as they come and having a close network of friends and a support group has helped me embrace my unexpected encounters.

Remember who you are and be yourself.

There will be times when you’re expected to be “Japanese.”  By that, I mean you’ll have to obey the cultural rules that are not necessarily written down and learned through any kind of class. These are things you pick up through social interactions and witnessing other Japanese people’s behavior. I found it to be especially crucial for someone who looked Japanese like me to be “Japanese” since it would be particularly difficult for me to pull out a “gaijin card” if I ended up breaking some cultural rule. Perhaps this was some additional standard I placed upon myself, but I didn’t feel very happy with this pressure. Eventually I learned to do my best to integrate into the Japanese culture, but I also knew I had to remain true to myself. It was quite a balancing act!

Remember that just because you may or may not have a good grasp of the Japanese language or culture, it doesn’t determine your self-worth. Be who you are and don’t compromise yourself. If you do your best and do what you think is right, you should be alright.

Be patient. It takes time.

My friends and family have told me that I come off as a rather charming person. Given the language and cultural barrier, it was often hard for my charm to come through with folks in my Japanese community. I wasn’t able to chat up a storm by the water cooler at work, nor was I able to really be myself around neighbors because they didn’t understand me (nor would they open up to me). Slowly, but surely, my Japanese language ability improved and coupled with my constant exposure to the same people over and over again, a little bit of myself was able to shine through. It didn’t come right away, and, regrettably, my charm is only now making its way through to my colleagues and neighbors, but it made it. From my experience, some people are just paralyzingly shy or just adverse to new faces. Change is hard, but you’ll make your impression on people.

As I am going through my list of thank-you notes to send to people and saying my last good-byes to my colleagues, students, and friends in Japan, I am realizing that it really didn’t matter in the end what I looked like to them. Beyond my skin color, physical appearance, and language ability, it was me who they saw; as an ALT, a coworker, and a friend. People will treat you how they know how to treat people and what it boils down to is whether it really matters to you and how you respond to it. I have learned so much from my experiences in Japan, particularly to be strong, to be positive, and to be true to myself. I’ll surely miss this amazing country, and I am thankful for every single second of it. ◆

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