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February 7, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Internationalism of a stripe of one color (Part II)

Mie at her graduate school commencement

Mie at her graduate school commencement

(November 12, 1998)

I received numerous letters in response to my column of the above title (Part I).

One woman wrote it took “courage” to write the article, while another said I’d shown “gumption”. A good friend wrote: “Loved your piece this morning. You really let ’em have it! Do that more often!”

Well, it took neither courage nor gumption, since as far as I’m concerned, I was just telling one of my many stories of living here, raising a family, trying to get by. While I hope I made my point about small minds colliding with big ideas like internationalism, I wasn’t really trying to let anybody have it. Do it more often? Hey, life isn’t always so heavy. Neither I, nor my family, often find ourselves battling the discrimination demon.

A director of a study-abroad program based in Tokyo contacted me:
“When I read your column today I must admit I was surprised — surprised not so much that people continue to discriminate against others based on skin color, but rather by the way the program you mention arranges homestays.”

He says his program would never give families a list with photos, essentially asking them to “choose their favorite”. He goes on: “As the short chubby kid who always got selected last for baseball games, it scares me to think that organizations use such an approach for homestays. I would guess that, as you mentioned about your daughter’s experience, the host families here would tend to choose a blond, smiling, athletically built American, first.”

“Anyone whose skin is a different color, is too tall, too heavy, has a nontraditional hairstyle or seems shy in the photo would get passed over in favor of the ‘all-American’ dream kid. Thus, we don’t give our families, choices.”

Their homestay student matching procedure considers special dietary restrictions, allergies, personal hobbies and interests, and background knowledge of the families. Once the match is made, families are contacted and told about the students selected for them. The family is free to decline, but that “rarely happens.”

“We do our best to describe the student we’ve chosen for the family. This includes talking about their nationality, home school, and any physical restrictions. We want the family to know as much as possible before committing to a homestay.

“To be honest, the most difficult students to place have been students from Korea, or of Korean heritage.” The reason: the opinion and objection of a grandparent in the family. He says he’s had a hard time placing vegetarian students, but never has a host family “rejected the notion of hosting a black student.”

“Perhaps we’ve just been lucky, but I think it has more to do with the way families are selected and homestay matches made.

I thought his letter was useful and shared it with the director of my daughter’s program. We are engaged in a discussion and he’s considering ways to improve their program. And after all, an important role study-abroad programs play is in educating the families that participate in these international programs, as many do so from a sincere desire to learn. That, goodwill and generosity, is what prompts them to open their homes to foreign students.

Another letter came from a woman who’s lived here several years. She said she’d initially been impressed with her friendly and helpful neighbors, only to later find out “there was some kind of competition going on as to who among them would emerge as my “best friend”. I’d become an accessory, a status symbol. I was judged by my appearance: “White, fair-haired, tall — ‘cute’, as they put it. I felt disappointed and hurt. I was no longer quite sure whether I liked it here or not.”

Fortunately, she found a Japanese friend who was sensitive to her situation, and later met others with whom she was comfortable. But she admits it took her years to settle down and the process “has resulted in my developing a ‘gaijin nerve’. I’m extremely careful when I meet people. One could say the general attitude toward me as a white foreigner is based on discrimination.”

She ended her letter by extending her regards to my daughter and saying, “If she doesn’t mind visiting a complete stranger, she’s welcome to visit me,” and supplied train directions to her home.

While my daughter Mie continues to find her long commute bothersome, she is no shy, retiring flower, and has not quietly accepted her fate, tucked away in a far-off suburb of the metropolis. Indeed she’s enjoying herself immensely, flitting about Tokyo, and like every other university student, making great use of her mobile phone.

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POSTSCRIPT

I can’t help but note the small detail that the letters sent to me were typed or handwritten, and sent through the mail. I still have them. And who would bother to mention a mobile phone anymore. Then it was still a new gadget — and I didn’t own one myself.

_______________________________________________________

© 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.

One Comment

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  1. Arielle Solomon / Jul 13 2014 7:00 pm

    It was interesting to me to read about begin a ‘gaijin accessory’ since I have come to consider myself one of those during my time in Japan. I find it to be annoying, yes, but I do understand that where I live and go to school they are not particularly accustomed to people who look like me. Media and television have changed a lot of the things that you mention here, but just like every other place in the world, Japan isn’t perfect.

    Mind you, I may be more calm and accepting of various things now, but I raged for months beforehand.

    Like

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