Lessons from Study Abroad: The Visible Minority

Today I’m going to pose a question based on a book I’ve been reading – “Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan” by Will Ferguson.  This book documents his hitchhiking trip from the southern most point of Japan to the northern most point.  He tells witty tales about the range of people that he meets, illustrates the link between behavior and culture, and references how he is constantly assumed to be an American (he is Canadian.)

While the book is enjoyable, playful, informative and engaging, there was one page that really resonated with me. That was page 113.

Page 113 spoke of the phenomenon of realizing, for the first time in your life, that you are a visible minority abroad. This page is a terrific discussion tool for pre-departure and re-entry.  Here is the quote from Ferguson who is attending a popular public event in Japan:

“I wended my way through and the crowds parted like the sea before Moses…Schoolchildren openly gawked, jaws gaping…Men watched my every move as if I might pull out a handgun and start shooting at any moment…

“A foreigner, look!” A flock of high-school girls burst past in a flurry of nervous laughter, and boys, brave after the fact, whispered “Harro!” to the back of my head. “Ah, we have a guest from American here today,” said the disembodied voice of the P.A. system, the voice of a decidedly tinny god. Maybe he will sing a song for us later.”

…That I, so very average and unexceptional, should cause a stir among these bright crowds of costumes gives a new perspective on the idea of exotic. I remember a trip to a Japanese zoo, and how the children turned their backs on the caged wildebeest and watched me instead. ‘More interesting than a wildebeest’ became my personal motto after that.  It was oppressive at times. What I wouldn’t give to be a Japanese-American, to be able to blend in without a ripple, to attend a spectacle without becoming one, to be able to relax.  When your face doesn’t fit the national dimensions you find yourself in an observer-affected universe; your presence alters actions, and the very act of observing changes that which is observed. You cannot slip by unnoticed.  You cannot forget the pigment that you present to the world. If nothing else, Japan has taught me what it is like to be a visible minority, and it is a hard lesson to learn.”

I read this and stopped in my tracks. I was immediately transported back to India, to a day that I had looked forward to for my entire life. I was in Agra, taking time off during a business trip, to see the Taj Mahal.  I started my day at the Red Fort, where I caught my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.  It took my breath away. The light was so soft, the colors so perfect, it almost appeared to be floating.  I was in awe. Speechless.  Gazing.

And then it happened.

A group of school children approached me with cameras.  They were smiling and giggling.  They pointed.  I looked around, wondering what they were pointing at.  Was I missing something? Perhaps there was someone famous here – maybe a Bollywood star or politician? I glanced to my left, to my right.  I looked in the distance, wondering if something was going on at the Taj that I had missed?  And then I realized.

They were looking. At. me. The foreigner.  The lady who wasn’t with a group of children or her husband.  The lady with the light skin and a lavender backpack.

I suddenly became more interesting than the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal.  My presence altered actions.  I could not slip by unnoticed.  It felt strange, unsettling.  And as Ferguson said, it was a hard lesson to learn.

When one is preparing to go abroad to a place where they will stand out, simply because of their skin, hair or eye color, size or shape, how does one truly prepare?  And when one returns home, how does one take that hard lesson and relate it back to the home country? How does this lesson change the lens that one sees the world through?

I hope that this discussion takes place in both pre-departure and re-entry gatherings.  Being more interesting that a wildebeest or the Taj Mahal is a challenge, to say the least.  So today, I ask Melibee readers:  How are you making these visible minority experiences teachable moments? What did you learn when it happened to you the first time?

(If you have a visible minority lesson to share – please click on “comment.” You do not need to register to comment on the blog nor will you be added to a mailing list. But if you do sign up for the Melibee newsletter in the upper right hand column of the home page, you may win a book by one of the Melibee  speakers – Ibrahim Abdul-Matin!)

Here is a link to Will Ferguson’s book about his experience in Japan:

 

 

 

  • Tara

    I experienced many of these moments in China – people nearly crashing their bikes because they were too busy staring at me and so forth. I actually related my personal experience more to what it must feel like to be famous than to be a minority. I felt like everywhere I went I stood out and attracted people's attention but not in a negative way. Even though the attention directed at me was not negative, it was frustrating to know that no matter what or where I went I could never just be "invisible" to those around me. I felt a lack of privacy that I imagine many movie stars must feel.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      Interesting insight Tara – thanks for sharing it!

  • suzinisrael

    I had a similar experience in China. I remember that before I returned to the U.S. (where I am from) someone pointed out to me that although it is tough being in the spotlight in a foreign country, it can also be tough being just "normal" and "uninteresting" when you arrive back in a place where you are no longer a spectacle and no longer treated like a celebrity.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      There are so many elements that are exciting and challenging about going abroad. And there is definitely that UMPH of returning home. It is never the same, ever, once you come back. That is usually the biggest challenge bc most people simply don't anticipate it.

  • Kei

    In reading Will Ferguson's comment about wishing he was "Japanese American," I could not help but ask the question if he actually knew what it was like to be a Japanese American living in Japan. The reason I ask this is because for many minority Americans despite being a descendant of your country of residence the transition from the states back is not always as seamless as it may appear. This can also be said for individuals with European ancestry as well. In Japan they have a word for people of Japanese ancestry that are at least a generation removed, 'nikkei'. Something should also be said for those individuals that are multi-racial as well because individuals with Japanese ancestry are not free from the 'foreigner' experience themselves, even those of whom are 'nihonjin' are vulnerable to this as well.

    The second point I would like to make is that the experience of being a foreigner based on racial appearance is not limited to Euro-Americans traveling to Asian, African and Polynesian countries.

    Based on the discussions at SIT, the foreigner experience can be felt by minority Americans living in America as well. Several SIT students referred to this experience of being a racial minority in higher education settings and also living in a country of which you are not the racial standard. Because as Ferguson writes, "When your face doesn’t fit the national dimensions you find yourself in an observer-affected universe; your presence alters actions, and the very act of observing changes that which is observed. You cannot slip by unnoticed. You cannot forget the pigment that you present to the world."

    As a student at SIT in Brattleboro coming from Hawai'i, I was treated in some ways as a "visible minority" in the community. It was an interesting experience nevertheless as very little was actuaully know about the place where I came from in comparison to other countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. The most striking being that by U.S. legal definition the islands of Hawai'i are not part of the United States.

    Lastly, I would like to end this pithy comment by also suggesting that we all leave room for variable change as while it may be easy to assume the mono-culturalism of a country it would be naive to think that within a country there are not variations in race, gender, religious and historical relations. For the experience of being a "visible minority" amidst an Asian majority can be felt by taking the 7 train in NYC to the Chinese district of Flushing. As you get off the train you may be greeted by a big red banner that welcomes you to China.

  • Kei

    In reading Will Ferguson's comment about wishing he was "Japanese American," I could not help but ask the question if he actually knew what it was like to be a Japanese American living in Japan. The reason I ask this is because for many minority Americans despite being a descendant of your country of residence the transition from the states back is not always as seamless as it may appear. This can also be said for individuals with European ancestry as well. In Japan they have a word for people of Japanese ancestry that are at least a generation removed, 'nikkei'. Something should also be said for those individuals that are multi-racial as well because individuals with Japanese ancestry are not free from the 'foreigner' experience themselves, even those of whom are 'nihonjin' are vulnerable to this as well.

    The second point I would like to make is that the experience of being a foreigner based on racial appearance is not limited to Euro-Americans traveling to Asian, African and Polynesian countries.

    Based on the discussions at SIT, the foreigner experience can be felt by minority Americans living in America as well. Several SIT students referred to this experience of being a racial minority in higher education settings and also living in a country of which you are not the racial standard. Because as Ferguson writes, "When your face doesn’t fit the national dimensions you find yourself in an observer-affected universe; your presence alters actions, and the very act of observing changes that which is observed. You cannot slip by unnoticed. You cannot forget the pigment that you present to the world."

    As a student at SIT in Brattleboro coming from Hawai'i, I was treated in some ways as a "visible minority" in the community. It was an interesting experience nevertheless as very little was actuaully know about the place where I came from in comparison to other countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. The most striking being that by U.S. legal definition the islands of Hawai'i are not part of the United States.

    Lastly, I would like to end this pithy comment by also suggesting that we all leave room for variable change as while it may be easy to assume the mono-culturalism of a country it would be naive to think that within a country there are not variations in race, gender, religious and historical relations. For the experience of being a "visible minority" amidst an Asian majority can be felt by taking the 7 train in NYC to the Chinese district of Flushing. As you get off the train you may be greeted by a big red banner that welcomes you to China.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      Thank you for your thoughtful words Kei. I was wondering if anyone was going to comment on the Japanese American comment that he wrote – I’m glad you did! I agree that we need to observe the world around us and to take the opportunity to put ourselves in a different comfort zone level in our own communities. There is much to learn! I really appreciated your comment – thanks for writing in.

  • Kei

    My pleasure Missy. Thanks for initiating this discussion. I am sure many SIT students and Alum would be able to reflect on this topic. Additionally, thanks for your post about your "Reflections on Leaving and Returning to a Career in International Education" as it added much inspiration and substance to my admissions essay for SIT.
    -K.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      Thanks for your kind words Kei. It is humbling to know that Melibee inspired your essay. 🙂