(Korey and Co-Host insprired me to tell this tale from this week's LDT!)
Okay, I'm a 5'10, Latifah Large Black Woman who doesn't like fish. What the hell was I doing in the land of the rising sun?
Well, I was teaching English for a year. I'd just completed a tour of Europe, and right before that, had graduated University. So I find myself in this the town of Nakatsugawa Japan (2hrs from Nagoya), population of about 50 000. 49 980 of them Japanese.
It was summer, but school was still in in a reduced fashion. It was festival time so the whole school was getting ready to put on their respective shows (by grade year). I'd been there about 3 weeks, and was just coming out of my OMG WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PLANET panic period. All newbies go through that.
The second years (Grade 10 equivilant), were doing the South African musical Sarafina. I'd seen the musical years before while in high school, and I'd watched the film adaptaion, staring Whoopie Goldberg. It was heavy subject matter and I was quite surprised that they were doing it. But, I was also curious. My students... so happy and excited to have, not only a new Canadian gaijin to stare at, but a black one (honeslty, even some of the teachers were surprised there were black folks in Canada...). And they were practically ready to drop themselves off the roof if I didn't agree to come and see their play. So I did.
I'd arrived a little early - it was mid-day- and I wanted to go and wish the students luck - they were so sweet and happy to have me there, they had gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.
So I go around back behind the auditorium. I knew they would be doing final prep outside up there.
And there they were, all lined up, smiling and waving at me and jumping up and down, so excited that I'd arrived... hair in braids... arms, legs and faces in blackface.....
Did I mention this was my 3rd week there?
I don't think I spoke for fully five minutes while they displayed themselves and their costumes to me. I was in complete and utter shock.
I knew they weren't being racist - the Japanese are just a very homogonized society. Within their own country, espeically in the semi-rural area that I was in, they just didn't have the exposure to other ethnicities. They didn't know that what they were doing was horribly, HORRIBLY offensive to me...
And I didn't have the heart to tell them. They wanted me to like their clothes and make-up so much, I couldn't drop the hammer.
So I told them all they looked great.
I sat through the musical (it was actually very well done), and considered my options. My job there was not only to teach conversational English, but to be a sort of cultrual ambassador. Should I tell the teachers what was wrong? They were just as clueless.
In the end, I chose to remain silent. If I'd told the teachers, they would've told the students, and I didn't want them to feel bad in the slightest.
But ya, being a tall, big black woman in Japan was quite the experience. Especially as I'm a rather private person... everybody knew my shit. EVERYBODY. Oh the stories....