Featured Image designed by Alice Katindig
Are you slightly socially inept or maybe you think you’re more neurotic than the average person? Or perhaps if you are an INFJ like me (check your Myer-Briggs personality type—it’s very informative, trust me), you may have minor issues with maintaining healthy modes of communication with the people around you. E.g., either you say too little or too much (e.g., word vomit) because being vulnerable with people is scary and emotionally taxing. It’s all OK, this is a judgment-free zone. If you said yes to everything, maybe you will relate to the semi-coherent rant below.
For some context, I grew up in a Filipinx American household where most of my family members are terrible at giving verbal apologies. (Love them to bits regardless.) My parents’ usual way of saying “Sorry I threw a tsinela at you earlier” was actually “Are you hungry?” Fights would end up with them eventually beckoning me to the dinner table and aggressively shoving a plate of steaming noodles towards me. We’d then eat in a sort of understanding silence. It is no surprise that I inherited somewhat unbalanced communication skills from them. With parents that seldom apologized, I instead found myself constantly spouting out sorries even when they were unnecessary. But I’m slowly getting better at not profusely apologizing for ridiculous things. Or I hope so. Sorry.
• Filipinx: a term acknowledges and is more respectful of genderqueer members of the Filipin*/Filipinx diaspora; click here for more information!
Before leaving the US for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program three years ago, I felt capable. Or I had quickly assumed I would be upon arrival. I spent years during college improving the way I spoke and reached out to people. Researching linguistic methodology, language acquisition, and anthropology forced me to break down communication as a concept and view it through both social and technical lenses. On top of my academic background, I had plenty of experience dealing with my own family’s general lack of openness made the Japanese concepts of honne (true feelings or self) and tatemae (social facade) feel familiar to me. In fact, interacting with my family improved some of my interpersonal skills so I felt confident that I could read between most lines. However, during my first year as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), despite my best efforts I still ended up feeling lost in translation, isolated, and was often treated like an office plant. Decorative but pretty useless.
It wasn’t outward cruelty or anything, but an ever-present feeling of being inadequate or insufficient.
My appearance is vaguely Asian—I think many Filipinx individuals like myself can look ambiguously Asian—and initially, this seemed to confuse my coworkers and students. At the same time, this confusion wasn’t the same as mild intrigue or interest, it was more along the lines of “Aww, the new ALT is from the US but she doesn’t really look like it, huh?” tinged with vague disappointment. I carry myself quietly so my subdued, laid back personality seemed to further trouble some people around me. On top of that, I spoke enough Japanese to get by in my tiny rural town of rice fields. During my first year here, I heard a lot of questionable external comments like:
“You fit in really well because you have a Japanese demeanor…” which may have meant: “You’re not as fascinating as your ‘more foreign’ predecessors but it’s really great that you don’t cause trouble for us.”
Or better yet, “We are so happy you can speak Japanese! It’s such a relief. You’re so independent.” which probably meant: “You are less of a bother because you can manage get stuff done by yourself and without our help.”
Over time, these supposedly innocent comments became more and more irritating. I became even quieter at some visit schools because I was exhausted and unmotivated to make conversation (in English or in Japanese) with my coworkers. Being jaded probably prevented me from making friendships earlier on too. While there were people who certainly did treat me poorly, I started to push even amicable people away in order to somehow protect myself.
I fought in the US to feel worthy, to feel enough, only to discover that my previous feelings of displacement and inadequacy had returned to me tenfold when I started living in Japan. Little things piled up.
I had uprooted my already transient life as a recent college grad in the US to move to Japan. My parents converted my room back home into a guest room. My childhood pets both passed away. Like me, some of my close friends started moving further and further away from our neighborhood nook into their own corners of the world. It’s not like I had thought of the JET Program as an escapist solution to my prior problems. I just felt like home was no longer over there and it definitely wasn’t here either. So where was I exactly?
To add to my predicament, my sense of self at the time was fractured but in a multitude of ways:
1) In America, sure I’m recognized as Filipinx American but I’m also not Filipinx enough because I can’t speak Tagalog anymore. In the Philippines, I am a tourist or a balikbayan.
2) During my time at a predominantly affluent white university, I was explicitly different no matter what I did. I clenched my teeth (and fists) and after graduation flew away from my sleepy college town as quickly as I could.
I was relieved to leave.
3) In my own family, I was marked as being a black sheep because I wasn’t demure enough, wasn’t patient enough, wasn’t normal enough. I was the kid who “caused problems” by being a wild card. Silent when it was convenient but if provoked, blurted out viciously honest things. (Hence the word vomiting.)
4) Here in Japan, due to my Asian heritage and ability to somewhat converse in Japanese, people either expected me to already know more about certain customs or ignored me completely. It didn’t help that I occasionally overheard coworkers talking poorly about foreign people (gaijin not gaikokujin to be specific) in Japanese right in front of me.
5) Finally, I experienced the usual loss of self due to typical language barriers. I didn’t have the confidence to express myself in Japanese and since words are power—especially my power—without any, I was powerless.
The underlying commonality in all of these were feelings of being not enough of something: not Asian enough, not Filipinx enough, not American enough, not balanced enough, not foreign enough, etc. So what did I do?
I tried to find my words again. I thought, maybe if I did, I would feel more grounded and at ease.
Maybe if I placed my thoughts and feelings into comprehensible expressions, I would feel validated. So I tried my best.
A big shout-out to to Niko’s incredibly helpful article.
“I’m Filipinx American. I was born and raised in the US but my ancestors are originally from the Philippines and China. My parents immigrated to the US in their twenties.”
“Even though I look Asian, I’m not Japanese. My Japanese is not fluent enough to convey different nuances.”
“I understand Japanese culture overall but no matter how hard I try, there are aspects of it that I can’t comprehend.”
“I think I may make Japanese people feel uncomfortable.”
“Because when people see me, I think that I don’t fit their idea of a ‘foreigner’ or ‘American’.”
In the end, it’s emotional labor to have to explain your reason for being. I felt as though I was trying to justify why I look and behave the way I do “even though I’m American”. Even today, I stumble when I try to explain this to coworkers I have befriended. I am still wary of offending people and have opted to remain silent on numerous occasions.
So I guess by placing these thoughts into written words, I am finally saying this to someone—to you.
As I reflect on my time in Japan, I don’t have many regrets. I haven’t been able to find all the words for things I am feeling yet but I know I will keep trying. In a way, I am stronger and more determined to connect with people than ever before. Sure, some of my experiences here may shattered me or broken me at times. But despite this, I was able to pick up my pieces and fuse them back together. I can always begin again. A new start perhaps? Or better yet, a continuation. A process of growth.
Maybe it’s just growing pains.
If you think about it, living through painful experiences is akin to a type of Japanese pottery called kintsugi. It’s cliched sure, but when these pots are cracked, their gaps are filled with lacquer resin and powdered gold. They are beautiful because they are imperfect. It’s a poignant thing to think about as I prepare for my return to America this August. (Alexa, play Beyonce’s Homecoming in the background.)
As Asian Pacific Islander individuals living and working in Japan, we may face a different set of problems compared to our peers. Despite the microaggressions, the almost-universal desk warming time, the daily ennui and tape recorder duty that accompanies the lives of many rural JETs, or if you are just having a bad day in general, please remember: you are enough the way you are. Whatever cracks you have personally, no matter the number, you let light shine outwards and inwards.
So I guess I just wanted to let this out somehow. Thanks for staying until the end of this unnecessarily wordy rant.
This is a friendly reminder that you are, in fact, enough. You are enough. We are enough.