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February 4, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

“Internationalism” of a stripe of one color (Part I)

Mie on a recent birhtday

Mie on a recent birhtday

(October 8, 1998)

My daughter Mie, born in Shizuoka prefecture, attends Oberlin College. Now in her third year, she has declared her major as East Asian Studies, with a concentration in Area Studies.

Mie is bilingual in Japanese and English and studies Chinese. After spending the summer in Beijing in an intensive Chinese-language program, she is now in a junior year abroad program at a university in Tokyo.

Although she would have preferred to live in Tokyo on her own, the study program she’s in is designed to include a homestay so foreign students gain an inside perspective on Japan. Even though Mie has lived her whole life in Japan, she did not do it in a Japanese family. I too thought a homestay experience would be a unique opportunity.

After attending the program’s orientation session and assigned to a family, she called home. She liked the family, she told me, and has her own room and key to the house. The family she was placed with has two little girls, and I could hear them chattering in the background as they played in her room.

But she is less than thrilled that her commute to the university is one and a half hours on crowded trains. (“I can’t even tell if some chikan is touching me because everybody is touching everybody!”) I explained that a long commute is normal for Tokyo. And, after all, I said, “All your fellow students are in the same boat.”

“Oh no they’re not.”

“What do you mean?”

“I found out yesterday from the program director that I live the farthest out of all the students.”

Apparently, all the students who had requested to be in the middle of Tokyo were placed in homes reasonably close to the university. Some students didn’t care, and others preferred not being right in the city.

I knew Mie, who has never lived in a city in her life, was looking forward to living in Tokyo as her big chance. I was curious why she had not been placed with a family centrally located.

“The director told me that there weren’t many families who would take a ‘black child’ into their home.”

While I swallowed (if not exactly digested) that, Mie went on: “Of course none of the families know anything about my background or where I come from or anything about me other than the fact that my skin is browner than the other students in the program.”

I am not disposed to presume the worst of people. But it could come as no shock to me that most families preferred a white student as their “gaijin accessory.”

Mie said that she was mad that even though her parents were paying the same amount of money as the other students’ parents, she was not ‘qualified’ to live with a family in Tokyo like the other students.

We could give a damn about the money. What is the shame is that the host family give kokusai koryu (international exchange) as their reason for wanting to host American students. Since they’re presented with a list that gives the name, age and a photograph of each student, it’s evident the families pick and choose by skin color. That is, their international sentiments are exactly skin-deep.

That evening at dinner I related Mie’s story to my husband. His reaction:  1) Why are you trying to ruin my meal?  2) You don’t want to hear what I think of those people  3) I told you so.

And yes, he has, many times.

As a university professor, over the past 20 years he has arranged numerous home stays for Japanese students visiting America. Although the students themselves don’t care, often they tell him their parents want them placed in white homes, and some parents have asked him pointedly not to place their children with black families.

“I don’t know what they think will happen to their kids in a black home. But I think the students who do get placed with black families are fortunate — they see an America they would not otherwise. I remember one family took their student to parties and to church to sing gospel music — the student had a great time.”

He says it’s obvious to him that the black families can relate and identify with being different — and that the Japanese students don’t even realize they are different “until they get over there and are in the middle of white communities where they stand out because they’re Asian.”

Internationalism is a worthwhile endeavor — thus I am exasperated by the base corruption of the idea, as well as the misuse of the word. Too often in this country “international” has been employed as the adjective of choice to describe poorly organized events — international exchange that’s as flimsy as the ‘flags of all nations’ certain to be displayed. Now, the word is being asked to cover something as despicable as the selection of foreign students by skin color.

Japan continues to stumble toward “internationalism” — finding that the multisyllabic word is easier to pronounce than it is an ideal to achieve.

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POSTSCRIPT

I received numerous letters in response to this column — all from people outraged that my daughter was subjected to such outrageous behavior and blatant prejudice. Some praised me for my “courage” in writing about it, but I never felt courage played any part. I did follow up and reply in a Part II of this column.

Mie, by the way, has more than proven herself on the international stage. In the past year alone, she has travelled for work to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, Latvia, Bulgaria. She has lived and worked in Tokyo, New York, Oslo, Munich and is currently based in Stockholm. Actually, she is currently on the beach in Chile! — taking a break from work in the capital Santiago de Chile.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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