“Of course BBQ suits you, that’s so Korean!”
This is something where if I were in America, I would be completely comfortable calling the person out for their microaggression. I would easily explain how whether intent or not, statements like this are harmful to those belonging in minority groups. However, in Japan, I only laugh uncomfortably and nod.
Being in Japan has made me more self-conscious about my social identities because I know I can’t act or expect the same societal standard or expectations like I do in America. While I may not always know how people will react, I can expect most people in America to have heard of LGBTQ+ terms and issues. When I talk about race and ethnicity in America, I can hope that many will understand the position I am coming from.
However, in a country as ethnically homogeneous as Japan– and where social identity issues are rarely spoken about in public, it has opened my eyes to where I am more comfortable expressing myself while placed in a new environment.
The most visually-noticeable identities in both America and Japan are my ethnicity and gender, however how they are treated in each country are vastly different. My ethnicity is most complicated because since I am Korean-American, I am Japanese-passing. I can walk around this country without being labeled a foreigner– a somewhat mixed-bag of a privilege and a disadvantage. While I can safely walk around the city without being bothered or stared at, I am less likely to get help from others because I am Japanese-passing. Although no one comments on my Japanese-speaking ability (while others constantly get “Wow, your Japanese is amazing!” for speaking a single sentence), I am often expected to follow Japanese customs and mannerisms. I am able to be polite and act ‘normally’ in most scenarios because I learned a lot of cultural customs when I learned Japanese during university, but I feel a constant pressure that I should not make any faux-pas, as I will not be able to get away with it more easily than if I were more obviously foreign. When being thrust in new scenarios I find myself slow to to react or say anything because I do not want to make any mistakes.
Once people learn that my ethnicity is Korean, the situation becomes more complication. While it comes from a place of well-intended fascination, I am treated like I am Korean, not Korean-American. I am more likely to be asked about Korean culture, and am often met with confusion when I don’t know all-things-Korean. Despite being used to social interactions regarding my Korean-American identity in America, the boundaries which I feel comfortable seem smaller in Japan. I am racially Asian so I am mostly treated as if I am Japanese. If not that, I do not feel ‘Korean’ or ‘Asian’ enough because I am American. But at the same time, I don’t feel ‘American’ because people only see my race. Since almost everyone in Asia is Asian, my Asian-American identity feels erased. While this happens in America as well, I am more self-conscious about how my race and ethnicity clash while being in Asia.
The second social identity I am most aware of while in Japan is my gender. Being a female in this country isn’t something that challenges my understandings of myself as much as my ethnicity, but it is something that I am constantly being made aware of. My boundaries of my comfort zone are always being pushed because everything is explicitly segregated by gender. While in America I am used to being aware of my gender through sexist comments and expectations of my physical appearance, I am aware of my gender due to physical locations and actions in Japan. I sleep in the female work house every day. I prepare the two baths for the guests– one for the females and one for the males. The female workers do most of cleaning at work. The female workers are more likely to stay behind and clean up everything after work is over. This is all expected, so this is how things are.
While the new environment has reshaped my comfort-zone boundaries regarding my social identities, it is not something I resent. With a new culture, my social experiences and challenges are manifested in different ways that make me reflect on my own understandings of who I am as a person and the different social identities I belong to. My discomfort is not reflective of how good or bad Japanese society is– just how different it is.
While I still answer uncomfortable questions with a nervous laugh, I hope to bring back to America a new perspective on societal issues and a deeper understanding of my role within them.