Plot twist: I don’t look Japanese

I think the biggest take-away was that I learned what it’s like to be a minority.

Sapporo is more isolated and less “Japanese”, I think, than other large cities in Japan like Osaka or Nagoya, and especially Tokyo. Part of this isolation is that it’s on a different island than Tokyo, and wasn’t part of Japan proper until about 200 years ago, which means it has fewer cultural and historical ties to the Japanese empire. The people of Hokkaido are fiercely proud of their uniqueness, and are quick to put “Made in Hokkaido” on everything (even moist towelettes, which, I’ll admit, was a bit excessive).

A BTS concert, where though I wasn’t the only foreigner, I was one of a handful of Westerners.

In terms of tourism, summer isn’t exactly the hip and happening time to see the city. It’s known for it’s skiing and winter climate (it hosted the winter Olympics in ‘72), and there is a large snow festival that, according to Wikipedia, annually draws in as many tourists as live in the city. And as for permanent residents, the vast majority are Japanese.

Me, I am not particularly Japanese. On one occasion, I was, however, mistaken for Japanese (it was wet and cold, so I had a lot of layers on and my hair was hidden). As soon as I turned around to see who was speaking to me, my secret was outed, and I replied “I don’t speak Japanese,” and that was the end of that.

Most of the time, however, I was obviously a foreigner. I like to think that with sunglasses on that my hair is dark enough and my skin pale enough that I had some blending in, but that’s just wishful thinking.

There was part of me that was self-conscious wherever I went. I felt like people were waiting for me to mess up, to say, “Oh, that American.” But then I had to remind myself that I would never, ever see these people again. I could have literally stripped naked and ran down the street and it wouldn’t have mattered (unless there’s a law against public nudity, I don’t know). And even with a law, some part of me thinks that the police would have been so afraid to interact with a foreigner (we don’t have the best reputation), that I would have been allowed to get away without any negative repercussions.

There was another part of me that knew that as I walked down the street, I wasn’t an individual, but a collection of people. Since I was foreign, the unknown, everything I did reflected  my culture, so my identity was much more than “Sophie.” I was “Sophie-the-American.”

For example: I had to take the bus. I was terrified. I got on the bus at a tourist stop (it was a scenic outlook with a famous statue). I had walked there, but was too tired to walk back. Just as I was planning to leave, I saw the bus I needed to get on, and thought, “Aha! Here’s my chance!” So I followed other people and got on the bus. When I sat down in my seat, however, I realized I hadn’t paid when I got on,

I had to walk back to that giant shiny thing far in the distance.

and couldn’t find out how much it was going to cost. I stressed the whole bus ride. When we finally reached our destination, everyone had their change in hand. I had less than a hundred yen (~ one dollar) in change, so I had to pay with a 1000 (~ ten dollars) yen note instead. Man oh man, I held up the whole line trying to figure out what I needed to do. I felt so self-conscious because I was the idiot American who didn’t know Japanese and held up the line and everyone was able to watch me fumble around. It wasn’t until later that I remembered that personally, I shouldn’t be embarrassed. I did what I needed to, and people are going to forget my face. However, there was residual shame, because I knew that while I individually would be forgotten, the impression of the bumbling white girl would live on in the memories of those behind me waiting to get off the bus.

It was also weird when I go out to eat food. The more I went out, the more I found people trying to assist me with the menu by pointing to things and using English words to try and help me order. For example, there was a festival in the main park, and part of this meant lots of food booths. I went to an ice cream stand, and the man in the booth just started speaking to me in English. I told him what I wanted (in Japanese), but as I was leaving, he said, “Have a nice day!” To which I responded, “You, too!”

Sure, on the one hand, he was trying to be nice, maybe try out his English, but on the other hand, I couldn’t help but think of all the clothing and accessories that have random English words and phrases on them. My language seems to be more of fad, because oftentimes, the words are strung together with no order and make no sense, or are completely irrelevant to the item on which they’re printed.

Now, coming from the US, it sounds really weird to say that I think my culture is being appropriated. After all, normally white people are the ones stealing aspects of other cultures and inculcating them into our own aesthetic. But I think that’s some of what’s going on. English is “hip” and “cool” so people learn phrases just to seem like they have that wow factor. People buy American brands not because they’re better than anything Japanese, but because they’re ~American~.

Which leaves me with the impression that people like me or notice me not because I’m an individual who came to Japan for her own reasons, but a part of a much bigger culture. People want to know why an American came to Japan, not why I, Sophie Eichelberger, wanted to visit.

This was reiterated when I went to a club. My friends (two other foreigners) had read online that foreigners were treated like celebrities at the club. We, of course, wanted to know if this was true. Well, it was.

I had a dreadful cough, so my host told me to put a mask on. Aslo, 3/4 of my outfit I bought in Japan, so this is as Japanese as I could hope to be.

People came up and tried to buy me drinks because I was white. People watched me dance way more in Japan than they have ever done in America. Anything I did, from waving my hands to nodding my head, they would parrot right back to me, because they thought I was cool.

I felt very much that people only saw my green eyes and double eyelid and instantly put me on a pedestal. Even other women, they would grab me and try to talk to me, grab me and put me right in front of the DJ, or would make sure that I got some of the drinks that were being handed out.

Obviously, it isn’t everyone that has the same views to outsiders and English, but I found some people had an odd obsession with English and foreigners, which was not at all what I was expecting, and definitely makes me think about how I treat people who look differently than me here at Davidson.

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