A Year of Pretending to be Japanese

Reflections on Identity, Self-Confidence, and the Harms of Passing

written by Aimee Wenyue Chen (山梨県)

IMG_3642Something I’ll never forget and look back on with quite a bit of laughter: on my very first day in my designated prefecture, when my supervisor took me to the bank to open an account, the lady at the counter thought my supervisor and I were married. She took one look at us—one male and one female, both “Japanese” and appearing close in age—and asked us if we were opening a joint account.

Of course, I don’t doubt that my looking Japanese played a part in that assumption. Being of Asian—especially East Asian—descent in Japan is an interesting experience. As I speak Japanese and have been told that I have an accent close to a native’s, my foreignness was not something that was usually revealed by my skin color or by the way I spoke. My foreignness was something that I could mostly control—I could decide to let others know, or I could be invisible. I decided to be invisible, and to “pass*” as Japanese.

That decision was made early in the first year in my designated prefecture of Yamanashi. It was easier, I thought. I’m a chameleon. It’s less hassle. And I didn’t want to always, always have to explain. So then I began copying mannerisms and ways of speaking. I scrutinized the reactions of people I talked to, to see if I “gave away” my disguise. I worried if a person paused at something I said, because it meant that I spoke with unnatural wording, or had an unnatural intonation, ultimately revealing that I was a foreigner.

That year, I hated being treated differently. That year, I hated needing to explain who, and what, I was. That year, I was uncomfortable in my skin, and years of comfort in my identity as a Chinese-American were stripped away at the uncomfortable realization that identity is so often defined by the identities of those around oneself, and that without self-confidence, identity is hardly comforting or stable at all, but rather, something buffeted from all sides, thrown this way and that at the judgment of others. It was a year of anxiety.

I decided to be invisible…

Somehow within the next two years, I stopped caring. That first year of anxiety was so stressful that I completely rebelled against it. I became more comfortable in my skin, and didn’t care if I used the wrong word for “milk” for a particular situation (was it miruku or gyunyu?). I realized that it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t be myself because others wouldn’t let me be, but because I wouldn’t let myself be, that was making me so anxious and unhappy.

I began using humor as a way to deal with awkward situations, and jumped at the chance to explain why it was possible for me to be both Chinese and American when it seemed like the listener cared to know. The more confident I was in my skin, the less people questioned me, and simply let me be.

It was at that point, ironically, that I seemed even more “Japanese” to other Japanese people. I remember my surprise when, as I told a friend’s Japanese neighbor that I was a foreigner, that he began to argue with me and insisted that I had to be Japanese. Because he refused to believe me, I countered that I was an alien, sent from up above. To this day, I’m still not sure if he knows what country I’m from.

However, the point of this article isn’t that one needs self-confidence to pass off as Japanese. The point is that, for many of us who came from countries where our skin color or our names revealed our ethnicity as an Asian minority, we probably have to re-evaluate how we understand our identity and how we express that to others when we come to Japan—when many of us become “invisible” foreigners.

I don’t regret my anxious year of pretending to be Japanese: it forced me to question and reevaluate myself to discover what I really thought of myself, and what others thought of me. And it’s important, I think, to be cognizant of what people think of you, and why. It’s more important, however, to be able to put that aside, and to live your life.

Sometimes it’s a struggle. Sometimes I’m not sure I can always find humor in the uncomfortable situations. But it’s always a meaningful journey—and that’s what counts.

Aimee Wenyue Chen was the 2013-2014 API AJET National Co-Representative alongside Albert David Valderrama. She has moved 12 times, lived in 3 countries, and speaks 4 languages. After three years, she will be finishing up her time as a CIR in Yamanashi, and starting graduate school in New York.

Passing” is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, caste, social class, gender, intelligence, age and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance or to cope with difference anxiety. (Wikipedia)


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