On Belonging


On Belonging

Even if I will always look like a foreigner on the outside, my soul is becoming a bit more Japanese every day. So to you my dear city, I say: arigato gozaimasu.

I’m white.  I’m just so white.  And as my Japanese gets better, my wardrobe evolves and I become more confident getting from point A to point B here in Tokyo, I am still just so obviously an outsider.  The Japanese have a word for foreigners.  It is “gajin” and it translates to the word “alien.”  I thought I could beat that label.  Find a way to blend in, like I always have.  Lately, I have realized I won’t.

Having moved around, I always found that right before the 1-year mark, I felt like I started to belong.  I remember leaving my apartment in Manhattan in my all black uniform, headphones in and sunglasses on, smiling to myself that I had officially become a New Yorker.  In LA, I would head to the beach in my convertible, surfboard in tow, flip flops on my feet and think - wow, I’m kinda legit.  And in Minnesota as I kicked the snow off of my Uggs and hung up my North Face parka explaining “Uff-Dah” - I was a full on Minnesotan.

Yet, here I have come to terms with the fact that I will never really be a part of this city in a way that I was a part of my other cities.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I DO feel like I belong within my Tokyo expat community.  I spend each day with the most lovely humans exploring the heck out of this awesome city.  And sometimes we let our Gaijin freak flag fly: in our athleisure wear, coffee in hand on the street, talking a little louder than we probably should.  And that’s ok. We aren’t from here.  And as long as we aren’t disrespectful, we don’t need to shake our roots entirely.

Of course, I have Japanese friends too.  And Aussie.  And Kiwi and the list goes on and on.  Our boys’ schools are a full on melting pot in the best possible way and I have met so many incredible people that may look different from one another but their hearts are the same.  In fact, my hope is that even if the boys don’t explicitly remember their time here, unconscious bias is being erased from their bodies.  

But at times, I love to hop on my bike and head out on my own wanting to blend into my surroundings.  But I don’t.  I am Caucasian.  I am tall.  I have blond highlights.  And I’m realizing that as much as my inside changes, my outside doesn’t.

When I head to a cafe, I am handed an English menu.  When I go shopping I am spoken to in English first.  When I try to break out the Japanese I have learned, they giggle and then go back to speaking English.  This isn’t disrespectful.  If anything, it is super REspectful.

But it brings up some deeper conversations of course.  And is eye opening in so many aspects of my life.  This is why I wanted to have this life experience.  It exposes a new well of empathy and respect.  But man, I have never been aware of my race like I have been as of late.

Yet, I do know this: TOKYO, I LOVE YOU.  And even if I will always look like a foreigner on the outside, my soul is becoming a bit more Japanese every day.  So to you my dear city, I say: arigato gozaimasu.

Melissa BertlingComment