I tell my high school students that when I first came to Japan, I felt like a fish.
Why would Emily Sensei feel like a fish? I ask.
Because you are wearing a red shirt!
Nope, guess again.
Because you like to swim.
I do, but no, that’s not the right answer.
Because you are delicious!
What?! Um, no.
I usually follow up by showing a picture of a fish in a bowl and ask these questions:
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If you have a pet fish, what can you do with it? Play soccer?
Watch TV with it?
Then what can you do with your pet fish?
Look at it.
That’s right! Now why would Emily Sensei feel like a fish?
Understanding starts to dawn on most as I hold up pictures of other Caucasian foreigners and explain that because my eyes are big and my hair is fair, I stick out in a crowd. I tend to get quite a few stares as I go about my daily business. So many, in fact, that I often have to suppress the urge to start beating my chest or jumping through flaming hoops like the other zoo animals.
For the first month or two or three, this phenomenon was tolerable and even amusing sometimes. Little girls peeking out from behind their parents to catch a glimpse of thegaijin was kind of cute. Old men popping out of telephone booths to practice their broken English and stare at some white skin was less cute, but still bearable for a couple months. But even zoo animals get tired eventually.
Zoo animals like this one want to be treated like a human every once in a while.
They want to speak and be spoken to, not because you want to practice your junior high English, but because you care.
Zoo animals like this one want to be noticed, not stared at.
Zoo animals like this one want you to sit down in that empty seat next to them on the train rather than opting to stand.
They want to laugh with a friend over lunch, not entertain an audience by using chopsticks.
That’s probably why one particular bus ride home from school is such a treasured memory to me now. I had just finished a long day of work and climbed on the bus, knowing that a crowd of staring students awaited me. Glancing around warily as I made my way to the back, I made eye contact with one girl. She moved her bag and patted the next seat, inviting me to sit with her. As I smiled gratefully and sat down, she looked me straight in the eye and said, Sensei kirei desu yo. Teacher, you are beautiful. Is there any better way to initiate a conversation? I have yet to hear it.
What’s your name? I ask.
Mirei? Like kirei?
She giggles. Yes.
Where are you from? She asks in Japanese.
When did you come to Japan?
No uncontrollable laughing.
What are your hobbies? I practice my Japanese.
Really? Me too.
What do you like to cook?
No awkward pauses.
Are you married? She asks.
Does your husband live in Japan?
Yes. He speaks better Japanese than me.
The bus ride went by much too quickly. Mirei helped me with my Japanese homework and I taught her a few new English words. She called a friend to translate when her phone dictionary failed us. Sitting next to her, talking with her, laughing with her, I started to remember something.
I’m not the only foreigner in this country. Plenty of foreigners in Japan learn to deal gracefully with the unabashed curiosity of the Japanese society. They ignore the following eyes; they make friends; they don’t let the bowl they are swimming in set the limits.
I’m not the only foreigner in the world. In fact, there are plenty in my home country that I’m sure are sick of the stares, the dumbed-down loud talking, the glass bowl – or ceiling.
like this one…
Mirei knew what I had forgotten. And in that short hour on the bus, she ensured that I wouldn’t forget it again.
aren’t really zoo animals at all…
Someday, somewhere, I’ll be someone’s Mirei.
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