Repeating Newness

The last couple of weeks have been pretty grim. Having recently transferred to a new (bigger-and-busier-than-ever-before) school, I’ve been feeling pretty exhausted as I try to get into the schedule.

Part of the tiredness comes from the sheer newness of things, which for any foreign teacher who’s ever changed jobs in Japan means not having to learn new routines and procedures, so much as having to repeat yourself for the ninety-eighth time… again.

Of course, even in the West, when you start working with new people, there are going to be generic questions about marital status and hobbies and what TV shows you like, that kinda thing. But as a foreigner living in Japan, the questions and conversations have a sort of dull regularity that repeats itself with every new person you meet. Are you from America? You’re not? You’re from South Africa? Do you like Japanese food? Can you eat natto? Can you eat sushi? Is raw fish OK? Do they have seasons in South Africa? Oh wow, you can use chopsticks really well!

The sheer repetitiveness of these questions can be mind-boggling. There are of course rare (usually awkward) questions. My personal favourites so far – and I wish I was lying about this – have been “Are you black? Why not?” and “How many cups?” while ogling my chest. I’ve had aggressive middle-aged men demand that I “explain Apartheid” and I’ve had people asking me if I’m a Christian in the same breath that they introduce themselves.

Sometimes the devil in me wants to answer with outrageous lies, just to see if they’ll swallow it. For example, I have contemplated informing people that I’m the same kind of black person as Michael Jackson – we get lighter as we get older, like Lipizzaner horses. I’m not entirely to blame for this tendency – back in the days when ICQ was new and exciting, a lot of South Africans’ hobby was convincing impressionable Americans that we rode zebras to work. The not-teacher in me feels that a stupid question deserves a stupid answer.

But… the teacher in me sighs, and realises that snarkiness will not, in fact, promote any sort of enlightenment. The vast majority of Japanese people have not, in fact, ever met an African, regardless of their skin colour. It’s the sad truth of human nature that nobody bothers to learn about what they don’t need to know about, and because the “foreign” population in Japan is so tiny, most Japanese will never bother to learn anything about “real life” in other countries. The portrayal of other countries is in general so bland, so one-sided and generic, that people never really move beyond seeing Africa, for example, as “a desert” or “hot” or “poor” or “gorillas” or “lions”. There are not a few copies of Little Black Sambo floating around the place, sometimes as murals on kindergarten walls.

How do you explain a continent of fifty-four countries to people who think of it as a giant amorphous blob of inhospitable landscapes, dangerous animals and even more terror-inducing people? How do you explain the beauty of the people of Africa, the romance and the violence and the grief and the joy? How do you explain to people who are convinced of their own racial superiority that Africa is the cradle of humankind, and that you can feel it when you walk there and are dwarfed by its magnificence? How do you explain the bush, the meaning of which every South African of every race knows instinctively from childhood? Or of waking up early in the morning in said bush and drinking “plaas koffie” or sweet rooibos tea out of an enamelled tin mug and eating rusks while listening to every kind of bird you can imagine, or the cold crispness of a winter morning on the Highveld, or the smell after an afternoon thunderstorm? How do you explain crime and civil war and grass roots peace projects? How do you explain all that to people who think of Africa as a sort of caricature?

The truth is, I’ve long since stopped bothering. When I do my millionth self-introduction, I show the lions and the elephants and I talk about the beautiful views, because that’s what they want to see, and from my experience any sort of in-depth discussion is lost on everyone except the rare and widely-travelled individuals. I try to be nice about the fact that I have unwittingly been cast in the role of clockwork-monkey-as-ambassador, but nowhere does “evangelist” appear in the job description.

I’m not really complaining. I get all the whys and wherefores of the situation. I wish that Japanese people would educate themselves a bit more about foreign cultures, just like I wish people from other countries would educate themselves about Japan. (I’m so tired of people asking me if I’ve eaten dog.) I don’t claim to be a cultural expert, but I’d like to think that I’m culturally savvy and interested enough to be able to engage in an open discussion with someone from another country. And maybe even learn something.


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