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: