October 14, 2002

Meeting Prejudice Face-to-Face, and Getting

Meeting Prejudice Face-to-Face, and Getting the Hell Out of There

I should preface this entry by saying the Japanese are, by and large, among the most polite people I've ever encountered. As one good friend I met while living in Japan said, "You could meet a Japanese person that absolutely hates your guts, but he'll do everything in his power to help you out."

It's hard to believe it's been almost 10 full years since I lived in Japan, and it's even harder to believe how strong some of my memories still are. As a 17-year-old in a foreign land, I did a lot of mental growing up in a very short time, and I learned a lot about how the world actually works, although I didn't really know it at the time. Overall, I viewed Japan as a condensed version of America, except the population was shorter, spoke a different language, and liked foods that sent my "steak and potatoes" taste buds into a tailspin. "They eat what? Why? Where's their ketchup? Why does everything have a subtle taste of fish? I want to die!"

The first lesson I learned, abruptly, was that I was part of the minority. I was often the sole tall white person amidst a sea of Japanese train-goers. Most people would simple go about their daily routine, sleeping while standing up, or reading those ubiquitous Japanese comic books. Others, though, would stare at me, almost through me, with unwavering eyes that seemed at once to be curious, cautious, concerned, suspicious, entertained and sometimes ominous. Nothing ever came of those uncomfortable train staring incidents, beyond the uncomfortable awareness of my own glaring differences in a country that was already totally alien to me.

I quickly was able to shrug off the feeling of being different, and I made friends with many classmates hailing from a plethora of countries like Singapore, Sweden, Germany, China, Korea, Japan, Cananda (okay, that doesn't count) and even a couple of Americans. By mid-year, I was feeling pretty acclimated to Japan and my new surroundings, and I had a wanderlust that took me all around Tokyo, sometimes by myself, sometimes with others.

My wanderlust took me on many adventures, but a handful stick with me as the most memorable (including the woman who slapped me around and accused me of fathering her child), and the time I almost got the living hell kicked out of me for being white is top among them.

I had gotten off the train at a station a couple stops down from Shibuya. I can't remember why I chose that station, or even its name, although I seem to recall a heavenly smell of pastry wafting onto the train when the doors opened that just kind of beckoned me off the train. I ambled around the unfamiliar streets for about 45 minutes, poking my head into assorted shops, not really interested in anything. Eventually, I noticed a narrow alley that sported a conglomeration of tiny shops that I always found irresistable. I explored a couple and was about to go back to the station when I noticed a tiny noodle restaurant that looked interesting. I was hungry, and I thought a bowl of noodles would realy hit the spot.

I entered the dingy shop, and I immediately sensed that I had stepped into the one restaurant in Tokyo that did not want me there. All eyes, about 25 pairs in all, set on me with a vigilance not unlike lions awaiting the fall of a wounded impala. Being 17, stupid, and just a tad too trusting of human nature, I sauntered up to the counter and waited to be served. And I waited. And I waited. And then I waited some more. And then I raised my hand to signal the woman behind the counter, and that was all the invitation the gentleman sitting next to me needed to forcefully elbow me in the ribs and send me sprawling from my stool.

Despite the screaming pain in my ribs, I scrambled to me feet and quickly assessed the situation. The situation, it turned out, did not look good. Five men, including the brute with the bony elbow, were moving in on me spewing forth harsh staccato Japanese phrases of which I was unfamiliar. The one word I did understand, gaijin (foreigner), made my blood run cold, and I quickly started staggaring backwards to the exit. Just as I reached the door, I saw a fist coming at me from the corner of my left eye and I managed to duck just in time so the solid blow landed squarely on my shoulder. The force of the blow carried me the rest of the way to the door, which swung open quickly as my back slammed against it.

By that time, I was within an arm's reach of lead guy coming at me, and the last thing I saw as I turned and started running down the alley was his hand making a quick swipe to try and catch my shirt. He missed, and I was not about to let him or his friends get another chance to grab me and pummel me to their heart's content.

I ran, and I ran, and I just kept on running until my lungs insisted I give them a respite, a flight that brought me to a busy intersection where a throng of Japanese curiously regarded the arrival of the strange, haggard white newcomer clutching his bruised side and gasping for air. One concerned individual who spoke limited English approached and asked me if everything was okay. I assured him I was fine and he gave me a toothy, friendly smile. I followed the throng for about a block, replenishing my courage and my faith in human tolerance.

Although I never stopped at that station again, the memory of that narrow, dark alley and the shop full of narrow-minded and dark-hearted people stays with me to this day.

Posted by Ryan at October 14, 2002 03:36 PM
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