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Journal 1: Hair
Over the past two days I have been inquired by 3 people about my box braids. Originating from African culture, braids have been a staple for many African and African American females like myself and even males in recent culture. The first encounter was when I went to get curry with some friends. As we left the restaurant there were a bunch older Japanese businessmen outside. One of them appeared to be inebriated. He approached me as I was on the outside of my group and he began flipping his own hair and pointing at mine. He was complementing me. Or at least he believed he was. In an instance, he proceeded to reach towards my hair and I immediately moved my head away from him and did a fake laugh. He was laughing and I appreciated the complement but the manner in which he went about trying to touch me.
Friday morning on my way to class by myself I encountered an elderly man on the train. He boarded a few stops after me and he began to smile at me and approach me. He initially spoke in Japanese but after conveying that I didn’t understand he began to speak a bit of slightly broken English. As I remember it he stated “Your hair..very fascinating, it must take long time” I responded to him that I takes about 4 hours and he looked shocked and smiled. He then asked, “what are they called” I responded “box braids” and he repeated after me in his Japanese accent “ahh box braids.” He then thanked me and went to stand by the door. My stop arrived at Yotsuya for Sophia University and I prepared to get off of the train. He bowed at me again and said “arigatou gozaimasu” and “have a nice weekend.” I bowed and told him to have a good weekend as well with a huge smile on my face. Compared to my experience from the night before and the looks that I normally receive from some Japanese elders for wearing shorts and having hair they do not understand, this was a refreshing encounter. This man had truly enlightened my morning and day.
Later that day, the next time my hair was observed up close by a Japanese native was when an elderly woman on the platform of our Shinkansen train to Kyoto. When she approached me, she was speaking Japanese and as hard as I tried to tell her that I only speak English, she kept speaking Japanese. I could tell she was inquiring about my hair but I could not understand her the least bit. I tapped our CIEE leader for the Kyoto trip, Junko, and asked if she could understand the woman. Junko began to smile and was answering the woman in Japanese assumedly from knowledge of the same questions Junko had asked me in the very beginning of the program. The elderly woman was smiling at me while Junko confirmed to her that my hair was done by someone else and I didn’t do it myself and also that it took about 4 hours to complete. The woman stared at me in amazement. She smiled and bowed at me and boarded her train.
Journal 2: Globalization
While in Japan I have been on my search for something to bring home. Whenever I look for souvenirs I always make sure the person that I am getting the gift for will actually appreciate it and find value and meaning in it. I know that people very often say that no matter what you get someone they will love it because you thought of them but I feel that everyone knows deep down when they will not be utilizing a gift or when they feel like it is something that does not mesh with them or their personality very well.
As I have been on this quest throughout my trip to search for the perfect souvenir for many of my family and friends who always support me, I have had a hard time finding items that are genuinely “Japan.” Everything nowadays is made in CHINA. I mean, I went to Daiso and saw beautiful “Japanese style” hair clips and designs to choose from but when I turned them over they all said “Made in Taiwan” I was very disappointed as I knew it was something my friend would love but it felt disingenuous.
Fortunately, hours after beginning this journal I went back to visit Asakusa with Chris and Zini and to explore the shops leading up to the temple we visited. We were able to go to all the private vendors and I was able to find very many geniuses gifts for all my family and friends that were actually made in Japan and was able to support locals at the same time. I was in amazement because all of the trinkets and gifts they had at these shops were so intricate yet they still had a decent amount. The pessimistic part of me is starting to wonder how soon until these booths and stands are bought out and gentrified like all of the things that are now made in factories by the thousands and pushed out and shipped for some corporation.
Journal 3: Differences
Throughout my time in Japan I noticed obvious glares from various people. With a program this big and diverse, it is understandable that seeing such a big group with people of various backgrounds walking around Japan would seem like a sight to what people have debated to be such a “homogeneous nation.” For the most part, when I am with my smaller group as in for the scavenger hunt you could tell some people were somewhat perplexed by seeing such a diverse group. It is obvious that many adults try their best to not stare but for myself the most glances I have gotten have been from babies or children. While I am at home very often babies or kids will smile at me and even with some of the Asian students in the group the kids will smile at them but when children look at me they look somewhat confused to see a black person. I can understand how this can be complex to think about how identities like race and culture matter when traveling abroad but I think it is worth being able to notice and to start to understand why it is that these stares happen.
This is something that I honestly wish I could’ve discussed more with natives of Japan, on how they view black people specifically. It is something that is consistently on my mind while at home and abroad because it is something that I cannot erase and is something that I feel I am constantly being judged and stereotyped for no matter where I travel to at home or abroad.
While I know that through social media and our world expanding and becoming more interconnected than ever, this is possible to change or at least alleviate this uncomforting stares, I know that it will take time. Sometimes I wonder how long it will take places in the East to start to get rid of 100+ old stereotypes of black and brown bodies. I think that a lot of work is being done where there are more people of color present and able to speak for themselves and fight back on those stereotypes that have existed so long in places like the Americas and Europe, but in places like Japan, outside of tourists there isn’t much room for diversity as it is right now. Hopefully this will change, as I knew this would be an uncomfortable experience for me, I am glad that I can grow up knowing that I tried my best to start a trend for students of color know that they CAN travel the world, and the world will eventually have to accept us.