Bryant Blount, Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students
Princeton Writes Prize
2015-2016 Staff Essay Contest
The first time I left the country with my brand new, crisp, unstamped passport in hand was after my 3rd year of college. I’d long entertained thoughts of becoming an English teacher in Japan; I signed up for a “test run” that would take me to the Land of the Rising Sun for a month to see if the two-year contract typical of overseas teaching jobs would be a tenable option following my senior year. Practically, I was concerned by how the difference between academic proficiency in a language and a cultural fluency might play out. Intellectually, I knew that I’d be an African American in Japan, with my race marking me doubly and indelibly as a foreigner, an outsider, a gaijin—a word encompassing all these sentiments and more.
So after twelve hours in the air (or about four movies, three square meals, and a few power naps mixed in with exercises designed to stave off deep-vein thrombosis), I jammed through customs and headed to crash with a fellow summer intern in one of the most Americanized, tourist-centered areas Tokyo has to offer: Roppongi. Once there, I cut the cocktail of jet-lag and culture shock I suffered with dinner at a TGI Fridays, drinks at an Irish pub, and a crash in his apartment, where I fell asleep to an Internet broadcast of my hometown Philadelphia Phillies—a night I could’ve had without making the antipodal flight. My body felt the effects of hopping across the International Date Line, but I hadn’t fully recalibrated to wake up in a starkly unfamiliar world.
It’s thirteen stops on the Hibiya Line from the Roppongi Hills metro stop to Ueno Station, and thanks to the Tokyo Metro’s trademark precision, the trip takes precisely 35 minutes. I had plans to catch a shinkansen, or bullet train, to Sendai, where I would be teaching that month. All nerves, I mentally clutched a map of the subway system, whispering my intended point of disembarkation to myself like a catechism. On the platform, dozens of identically dressed men and women flooded the station, forming orderly lines alongside marks where the train doors would open—their contribution to greater societal efficiency amid a chaotic crush of bodies. Just like in the stories, the oshiya, white-gloved train pushers, politely, insistently, inexorably packed my train to its capacity with human bodies—a sea of homogeneity, with me, in all my otherness, in their midst.
This huddled isolation contributed to my underlying anxiety of traveling in a country where I struggled to remember the language I’d last practiced in a classroom 6,700 miles away and fifteen months prior. It was a paradoxical awareness of being intently observed, even when everyone kept their eyes, their hands, their very humanity, to themselves. I felt my otherness draw their attention like a lodestone draws iron filings.
Perhaps counterintuitively, I felt most isolated in crowded spaces, standing cheek by jowl with total strangers. I seemed to stand out even more amid an anonymous throng. In small shops, restaurants, or one-on-one encounters, there was an awareness of my difference, but it was never as striking as when I was among a sea of natives, in a country where over virtually everyone is Japanese. Try being a black man in a setting where you are, on average, half a foot taller than the general populace, and you might begin to see the ways in which your status as a societal outlier is constantly thrown into sharp relief. In a society renowned for its societal bent toward collectivism, where was there room, on the train or otherwise, for a black guy from Philly?
When I boarded the train, the mass of bodies going my way shifted in unison like a school of fish, naturally and unconsciously offering me a pocket of space to stand in, duffel between my feet, clutching a pole for stability, and double, triple, quadruple checking every stop to be sure it wasn’t my own. After about twenty minutes of the trip, we seemed to have passed through the center of the city, and the crushing wave of passengers began to ebb. Seeing an available seat, I slowly lowered myself into it, shedding some of the adrenaline and anxiety that the unfamiliar trip had inspired.
Once seated, and with spaces opening in the car, I found myself among a number of individuals occupying themselves with newspapers, or their cell phones, or even riding with their eyes closed, retreated into some inner world. In this setting, I felt the veiled stares drain away. For most adults, without the veil of massed anonymity, the urge to stare was more easily suppressed, especially when I could meet their eyes with my own. What I didn’t expect, during my late morning transit, was to be seated directly across from a tiny boy wearing a school uniform.
The regular rules of decorum don’t apply to children in most regular cases, let alone with a Japanese child who, I suspected, had never seen a living, breathing African American. Beyond the cultural portrayals spread by American media, what was he to think? For a while, I pretended not to watch him watching me, assuming he would tire of seeing me do nothing but monitor the train’s progress. Then, when it became unreasonable to act as though I couldn’t notice, I made eye contact and smiled, going for the international sign of disarmament. The boy’s gaze, though unbroken, became sidelong glances at that point, and I figured that was as much of a respite as I could expect. Adjusting to this steady state of observation, I returned to counting stops.
A moment later, the child repositioned himself closer to me, and without warning, stuck out his hand in my direction. Puzzled, I looked down to see that he was offering me candy. Somehow, in that instant of stunned silence, reflex took over. My long-dormant training from Japanese 101 seized hold, and I managed to blurt out kekkou desu!—no thank you. The look on the kid’s face probably couldn’t have been much more surprised if a dog had stood up on its hind legs before politely declining the offer, but then again, from his experiences there was almost no way he could have anticipated that I would respond in his own language, albeit with the simplicity of a child myself.
At the next stop, the boy got off the train, and I was left to reflect on my surprise with a wry smile. A few minutes later, I left the train to make my own connection and embark on the rest of my trip—one that ultimately led me to other pursuits in my home country following graduation.
My moment on that train is one that people experience on this campus every day. At an institution drawing students, faculty, and staff with a wealth of experiences from around the globe, we have many kinds of difference set against an “American” culture. My moment on the metro plays out for members of this community in the stacks of Firestone Library, in the Freshman Writing Seminar, even on the TigerTransit buses. In that moment, I couldn’t begin to make sense of how I ought to feel. But in the years since, I see the trip abroad helped me experience firsthand a need to shake free from the assumptions we hold. We need to reciprocate those gestures of faith and humanity. We need to take the candy.