Monday, May 21, 2012

Random Thoughts: Hi, My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist

Shortly after returning to the U.S., I went into a little shop that sold panini and wine. It was small and had one long bar with about 8 stools around it. It was the type of tiny little place that wine lovers and tourists visit for a quaint experience with somewhat upscale cuisine. There were only 3 panini on the menu, and each had a long list of ingredients that were a cut above the usual fixings for burgers, like artichoke and pesto. I bought a vegetarian panino and shared an imported all-natural orange soda with my husband, and felt very much like I didn't belong.

I felt out of place for two reasons. One was that I had been in the U.S. just a little over a week at that time after 23 years in Japan and was still deeply fried from the lightning strikes of reverse culture shock. Here were people in a shop having a normal conversation with me, like I was just another human being rather than some purple alien from Pluto. I was also a bit uncomfortable because I'm not really an upscale sort of person who drinks wine and eats elegantly orchestrated Italian-style sandwiches. We chose that place because we were in a tourist area during the non-tourist season, and it was one of the only games in town that was open.

The people who owned the place were engaging in what I'm sure was usual patter for tourists and out-of-towners. The man behind the counter who'd pressed together our sandwiches asked where we were from and grunted with limited interest as we told him our story of where we'd been for the last two decades or so and how we'd come to where we were. An older and younger woman who also worked there and were probably his wife and daughter brightened up at the mention of Japan and started talking about how they'd gone there for a vacation and visited Kyoto and loved it. When the older woman said that she was sure they made mistakes manner-wise in Japan, I said that it was okay because the Japanese quickly forgave foreigners for their lack of understanding of Japanese culture and customs. The younger woman then said, "you'd think we'd be more like that here in America." I asked her what she meant and she said that she thought, as a country with a diverse cultural mix, Americans should be more easily forgiving of differences and transgressions.

Sometimes you don't think at all before you react to what people say. You don't know why you say it, but you know you've spoken the truth. In this case, what this woman said seemed utterly absurd and I didn't think about why until afterward and having had time to reflect on it. To her assertion that the Japanese were exercising greater tolerance in the face of diversity, I said, "they forgive you because they don't think you're capable of understanding their culture or language, not because they are tolerant of differences." After I said this, the woman turned away and my impression was that she didn't want to hear that. Of course, she may simply have been bored with the conversation, or at least the part where she was talking and I was listening as these people were less interested in what we had to say than talking about their own experiences in Japan.

I'm sure that there are many people who would say that I can't know what is in the hearts of Japanese people when they do and say what they do, and they'd be right. However, in a country which is known world-wide for having a culture in which "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down", I think it's pretty clear that there is a weak cultural backbone when it comes to tolerance of differences. I would labor to say that asserting this is not a criticism so much as an observation based on the way Japanese people treat each other as well as how I was treated, but those who would like to see it that way won't listen to me anyway and those who aren't inclined in that manner don't really need to be told.

Getting back to the point though, one thing that I have learned pretty quickly is that Americans are squeamish about anything which resembles critical commentary on other cultures and quick to deride their own. I've read plenty of things which are superficial and positive from people who have never been to Japan or only visited as a tourist. Though well-meant, they are sometimes diminishing or condescending. One person called them "adorable", and I'm sure meant it nicely, but it seems to reduce them all to cute, little children who deserve a pat on the head. People, and especially white ones and Americans in my experience, don't want to hear anything deeper than talk about temples, anime, and cuteness. They have an image of Japan, and they will fight cognitive dissonance with all of their might to keep it intact. They have to put up with a lot less mental noise if they turn away and eat their panino rather than listening to people like me.

"People like me" are not just people who have lived in Japan for a long time, but those with the eyes, ears, and psychologically-tuned nose for what is going on around them. Many people sleepwalk through life and can't understand when other people have certain feelings and experiences that they do not. A few of us have the equivalent of an ear capable of hearing a dog whistle when it comes to human behavior. We can "hear" what others can't. It's not that we're trying to do so, but you can't not hear such things when you're a sensitive individual. For us, it's like a blow horn right next to our heads, but others can't even hear a faint whisper, so they tell us that we're hallucinating or making it all up. If you try to convince them otherwise, they get angry at you, or stop listening because they have a precious version of reality to protect.

Me, in the bucolic splendor of my temporary digs in the San Juan islands. You can thank my stalkers for the lack of full-face revelation. That doesn't mean they won't eat eat this picture up with a spoon and tell me what a disgusting, ugly, old hag I am... It's all right though. They have nothing better to do with their time than read the words of someone they hate and let me know that I must go away because they couldn't possibly solve their problem by just not reading what I write. I fulfill a need for them. It's good to be useful.

Some of us are okay with having our reality rocked. In fact, a few are okay with having it shattered into pieces and put together again in a more complex manner, even if it looks a little uglier when we're through.  This brings me to the topic of this long-winded piece and that is Baye McNeil's excellent book, "Hi My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist." I'm sure that people who are reading think that when I speak of shattered reality that I'm going to say his book blows apart illusions of what life is like in Japan. That's not exactly true. In terms of how he discusses his experiences in Japan, and he discusses them well, with passion and in a manner that ups the interest level for the reader, there really isn't anything earth-shattering there. Many people have had the same experiences as him, though few from the perspective of an African American. The reality that fell apart for Baye was that of himself.

The real story of "Hi, My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist" is Baye himself and how his experiences during his entire life including his upbringing in New York, time in the Army, and, yes, time in Japan created self-revelation. The pretty picture that was torn to shreds and put back together again was that he had of himself. The title of his book is not an obscure statement, but the theme of the entire book. Life in Japan was like a pressure cooker that rapidly advanced his personal growth and it is not only a fascinating read because you can see how his life did this, but how this highly intelligent and sensitive person processed it.

The truth is that Baye is a little like me in some ways and that is probably why I enjoy his work so much. He's clearly also an HSP (highly sensitive person) and someone who spends a lot of time in his own head and thinking about the intricate connections between people, behavior, and experiences. However, where I tend to process intellectually and try to be relatively dispassionate, Baye is very much more human about things. He paints in big, vivid expressions of anger, love, fear, and excitement. For those who think life should be lived in muted tones of beige, cream, and slate, this can seem a bit much, but I found his passionate style invigorating and properly calibrated for the circumstances he was in. He feels his feelings and then he processes them. People like me try to tamp down those feelings before processing them and I think that living life big emotionally is something I used to do and lost. Baye's book reminded me of that loss, and made me ponder if I'm really better off for having muted my reactions, especially to Japan. I think too many people remain self-consciously dispassionate in their reaction to that little island country for fear of their emotions discrediting their observations or, even worse, appearing racist.

All of that passion and an extremely colorful life make for engaging reading. I insisted on having a print copy of Baye's book before I left Japan so that I could sit on the airplane and read it. I also think he's an incredibly talented writer so I wanted something real with a signature as I think he has the potential to be truly successful if he gets the attention he deserves. And don't mistake me here, I'm not writing a love letter or fan note to Baye. I don't hand out compliments about writing talent easily because I strongly feel there is precious little of it out there in the blogging world, or even the published world, for that matter. Mostly, there is a lot of content with little more than boredom and a desire for attention behind it and many people think they can write when what they really do is transcribe their thoughts. Writing is much more than that. I'm saying his work is worthwhile because he's got the goods, and I really enjoyed his book. I found it hard to put down, and I think others will enjoy it, too.

I'm not recommending his book only because he's a good writer, but also because there is great value in his journey emotionally and psychologically for all of us. As he dissects himself, he provides a model for how we might look a little deeper into ourselves. The amazing thing about it is that he does it unconsciously, so there's no element of trying to guide the reader. It just happens naturally to even the most marginally thoughtful reader through his process of living out loud in the book. His growth through a series of unique and colorful life experiences is a key through which we can unlock some deeper truths in ourselves if we can tear down our own self-image and illusions as he managed to tear down his.

Note: I previously mentioned Baye's book in this blog at a point when I had only read some teasers. This was written after having read the entire book. I'm glad to see that all of my praise in the initial post was well warranted. 


  1. I love your blog as well. Lots of interesting bits of information.

  2. Thank you for putting in the time and effort to write such thoughtful blog posts so often. I love your blog and check it every day for new posts. I lived in Japan for a couple of years and can relate to/recognize many of the things you write about, and I also love reading your opinions on things that would only come up after living in Japan for an extended period of time (as in, 10+ years). Many Japan bloggers don't have that experience and I certainly don't, so it's unusual and novel to get to read about Japan from that perspective. Also, I read "Hi, My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist" after reading your post recommending it and was not in the least disappointed!

  3. "Getting back to the point though, one thing that I have learned pretty quickly is that Americans are squeamish about anything which resembles critical commentary on other cultures and quick to deride their own."

    Oh so true. And if one criticizes anything about Japan, then we can always fall back on the "America does it too," or "It's worse in America."

    Lots of folks appear to walk around Japan for years and not really notice what goes on around them. I think you are right that some do try to distance themselves emotionally to avoid the possibility of any criticism of unique Japan being racist. Instead, anything less then wonderful about Japan must be explained away by tradition/culture (real or imagined) as the Japanese, unlike ever other culture are inexorably bound by their tradition and culture. Of course that line of thinking is not racist.

    I haven't read Baye's book yet, but I used to always read his blog. He is an outstanding writer, and his story of his life both before and after coming to Japan is much different than the usual, and much more interesting.

  4. I enjoy reading your posts and only wish that I could get the time to do so more often.

    Thanks so much for a great post. I had never really thought about how I think and analyze until you brought it up here, and that made me realize that I have been aware of faults within and working to correct them without realizing the process was something other do as well. So many just seem to go through life content without evaluating why think and do the way they do.

    I was interested in Baye's book after your first post on it long ago, but this one really makes it something I must get.

    Thanks again!

  5. I have just started reading your blog after looking for information about 'reverse culture shock' and I, like you, have been living in Japan however only for about a year (exchange). I agree with everything you say on this blog and the way you think, it feels like you're an old friend a few decades apart from me (I'm 21). I have to totally agree with you in regards to the way many foreigners come here and don't want to really know anything about Japan. I feel like an open book on Japan in comparison to the normal tourist, but Americans in particular have no interest in the quirks and 'different' sides of Japan you don't read about in travel guides. I still remember almost having a fight with someone who was insistent that all Japanese have great living standards and that there was no poverty/homelessness.

    The racism of Japanese leaves me a bit torn though. Yes, they expect you not to be able to do things - this drives me up the wall. Always being offered a fork instead of chopsticks after fluently ordering in Japanese at a restaurant, for example. But that being said, I don't think the ignorance of tourists helps our cause. The number of Westerners I have seen slowly raising their English voice - 'all Japanese can speak English though' - really does my head in, angers, and embarrasses me. As an Australian, I try to pull myself apart from my native culture as much as I can, as there are too many parts of it I feel ashamed about. I much prefer Japanese culture, and my 'get out of jail free' pass here as well.

    Racism is negative, but there are positives as well for us in Japan, I think anyway.

    Thanks again, I am going to be searching through your blog some more. Keep it up!! I will need to keep pretending I'm here to keep my sanity when I move back to Aus in August. I am actually terrified, and like you mentioned in another post, I think I will have lost most of my close friends.


    1. Hi, Jess, and thank you for your comment and for reading. You'll see that I do agree with you on the benefits and deficits for foreigners living in Japan. That's sort of the whole format of this blog in a nutshell - there's good and there's bad.

      You are right that foreigners who don't want to know the "real" Japan are a part of the problem, but, as is so often the case, the Japanese who also don't want them to know the "real" Japan are also part of the issue. Japanese people don't really want tourists in particular to understand anything other than the cliches of a clean, polite, refined, and sophisticated culture. One can hardly blame them for this. We all want to be perceived positively and put our best foot forward.

      The main issue with language, and I've said this before, is that most Japanese people *do* speak a little English (just as most Americans speak a little Spanish) and tourists in general are not expected to learn a foreign language before traveling. If one had to master even rudimentary Japanese before visiting there for a week or two, one would never choose to go to Japan. That's why areas that cater to tourists are often full of English-speaking help.

      The other issue, and I think this is realist, but not optimal, is that Japanese is a fading language. Their position in the world is in decline, their population is dropping, and their economic might is diminishing. Learning Japanese is something you should do if you expect to live there or want to deeply understand the culture. If you are there for the short run, it's not a good investment in time or energy.

      My saying that is not to be confused with saying, "don't learn Japanese," but rather a recognition that it's a time investment which may not be prudent for everyone. Yeah, it'd be nice if everyone learned to speak multiple languages, but there is a high bar to fluency in Japanese (especially for reading and writing) and relatively low utility outside of living there forever (which few foreigners expect to do). The truth is that, if you were going to invest time in a foreign language and are a native English speaker, you'd be better off learning Chinese or Spanish right now (for Americans, the latter especially). This is a purely pragmatic analysis of the situation and has nothing to do with the more humanistic consideration of communicating with people in their own language and making an impression as an outsider or personal edification.


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