Shortly after returning to the U.S., I went into a little shop that sold panini and wine. It was small and had one long bar with about 8 stools around it. It was the type of tiny little place that wine lovers and tourists visit for a quaint experience with somewhat upscale cuisine. There were only 3 panini on the menu, and each had a long list of ingredients that were a cut above the usual fixings for burgers, like artichoke and pesto. I bought a vegetarian panino and shared an imported all-natural orange soda with my husband, and felt very much like I didn’t belong.
I felt out of place for two reasons. One was that I had been in the U.S. just a little over a week at that time after 23 years in Japan and was still deeply fried from the lightning strikes of reverse culture shock. Here were people in a shop having a normal conversation with me, like I was just another human being rather than some purple alien from Pluto. I was also a bit uncomfortable because I’m not really an upscale sort of person who drinks wine and eats elegantly orchestrated Italian-style sandwiches. We chose that place because we were in a tourist area during the non-tourist season, and it was one of the only games in town that was open.
The people who owned the place were engaging in what I’m sure was usual patter for tourists and out-of-towners. The man behind the counter who’d pressed together our sandwiches asked where we were from and grunted with limited interest as we told him our story of where we’d been for the last two decades or so and how we’d come to where we were. An older and younger woman who also worked there and were probably his wife and daughter brightened up at the mention of Japan and started talking about how they’d gone there for a vacation and visited Kyoto and loved it. When the older woman said that she was sure they made mistakes manner-wise in Japan, I said that it was okay because the Japanese quickly forgave foreigners for their lack of understanding of Japanese culture and customs. The younger woman then said, “you’d think we’d be more like that here in America.” I asked her what she meant and she said that she thought, as a country with a diverse cultural mix, Americans should be more easily forgiving of differences and transgressions.
Sometimes you don’t think at all before you react to what people say. You don’t know why you say it, but you know you’ve spoken the truth. In this case, what this woman said seemed utterly absurd and I didn’t think about why until afterward and having had time to reflect on it. To her assertion that the Japanese were exercising greater tolerance in the face of diversity, I said, “they forgive you because they don’t think you’re capable of understanding their culture or language, not because they are tolerant of differences.” After I said this, the woman turned away and my impression was that she didn’t want to hear that. Of course, she may simply have been bored with the conversation, or at least the part where she was talking and I was listening as these people were less interested in what we had to say than talking about their own experiences in Japan.
I’m sure that there are many people who would say that I can’t know what is in the hearts of Japanese people when they do and say what they do, and they’d be right. However, in a country which is known world-wide for having a culture in which “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, I think it’s pretty clear that there is a weak cultural backbone when it comes to tolerance of differences. I would labor to say that asserting this is not a criticism so much as an observation based on the way Japanese people treat each other as well as how I was treated, but those who would like to see it that way won’t listen to me anyway and those who aren’t inclined in that manner don’t really need to be told.
Getting back to the point though, one thing that I have learned pretty quickly is that Americans are squeamish about anything which resembles critical commentary on other cultures and quick to deride their own. I’ve read plenty of things which are superficial and positive from people who have never been to Japan or only visited as a tourist. Though well-meant, they are sometimes diminishing or condescending. One person called them “adorable”, and I’m sure meant it nicely, but it seems to reduce them all to cute, little children who deserve a pat on the head. People, and especially white ones and Americans in my experience, don’t want to hear anything deeper than talk about temples, anime, and cuteness. They have an image of Japan, and they will fight cognitive dissonance with all of their might to keep it intact. They have to put up with a lot less mental noise if they turn away and eat their panino rather than listening to people like me.
“People like me” are not just people who have lived in Japan for a long time, but those with the eyes, ears, and psychologically-tuned nose for what is going on around them. Many people sleepwalk through life and can’t understand when other people have certain feelings and experiences that they do not. A few of us have the equivalent of an ear capable of hearing a dog whistle when it comes to human behavior. We can “hear” what others can’t. It’s not that we’re trying to do so, but you can’t not hear such things when you’re a sensitive individual. For us, it’s like a blow horn right next to our heads, but others can’t even hear a faint whisper, so they tell us that we’re hallucinating or making it all up. If you try to convince them otherwise, they get angry at you, or stop listening because they have a precious version of reality to protect.
Me, in the bucolic splendor of my temporary digs in the San Juan islands. You can thank my stalkers for the lack of full-face revelation. That doesn’t mean they won’t eat eat this picture up with a spoon and tell me what a disgusting, ugly, old hag I am… It’s all right though. They have nothing better to do with their time than read the words of someone they hate and let me know that I must go away because they couldn’t possibly solve their problem by just not reading what I write. I fulfill a need for them. It’s good to be useful.
Some of us are okay with having our reality rocked. In fact, a few are okay with having it shattered into pieces and put together again in a more complex manner, even if it looks a little uglier when we’re through. This brings me to the topic of this long-winded piece and that is Baye McNeil’s excellent book, “Hi My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist.”
I’m sure that people who are reading think that when I speak of shattered reality that I’m going to say his book blows apart illusions of what life is like in Japan. That’s not exactly true. In terms of how he discusses his experiences in Japan, and he discusses them well, with passion and in a manner that ups the interest level for the reader, there really isn’t anything earth-shattering there. Many people have had the same experiences as him, though few from the perspective of an African American. The reality that fell apart for Baye was that of himself.
The real story of “Hi, My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist” is Baye himself and how his experiences during his entire life including his upbringing in New York, time in the Army, and, yes, time in Japan created self-revelation. The pretty picture that was torn to shreds and put back together again was that he had of himself. The title of his book is not an obscure statement, but the theme of the entire book. Life in Japan was like a pressure cooker that rapidly advanced his personal growth and it is not only a fascinating read because you can see how his life did this, but how this highly intelligent and sensitive person processed it.
The truth is that Baye is a little like me in some ways and that is probably why I enjoy his work so much. He’s clearly also an HSP (highly sensitive person) and someone who spends a lot of time in his own head and thinking about the intricate connections between people, behavior, and experiences. However, where I tend to process intellectually and try to be relatively dispassionate, Baye is very much more human about things. He paints in big, vivid expressions of anger, love, fear, and excitement. For those who think life should be lived in muted tones of beige, cream, and slate, this can seem a bit much, but I found his passionate style invigorating and properly calibrated for the circumstances he was in. He feels his feelings and then he processes them. People like me try to tamp down those feelings before processing them and I think that living life big emotionally is something I used to do and lost. Baye’s book reminded me of that loss, and made me ponder if I’m really better off for having muted my reactions, especially to Japan. I think too many people remain self-consciously dispassionate in their reaction to that little island country for fear of their emotions discrediting their observations or, even worse, appearing racist.
All of that passion and an extremely colorful life make for engaging reading. I insisted on having a print copy of Baye’s book before I left Japan so that I could sit on the airplane and read it. I also think he’s an incredibly talented writer so I wanted something real with a signature as I think he has the potential to be truly successful if he gets the attention he deserves. And don’t mistake me here, I’m not writing a love letter or fan note to Baye. I don’t hand out compliments about writing talent easily because I strongly feel there is precious little of it out there in the blogging world, or even the published world, for that matter. Mostly, there is a lot of content with little more than boredom and a desire for attention behind it and many people think they can write when what they really do is transcribe their thoughts. Writing is much more than that. I’m saying his work is worthwhile because he’s got the goods, and I really enjoyed his book. I found it hard to put down, and I think others will enjoy it, too.
I’m not recommending his book only because he’s a good writer, but also because there is great value in his journey emotionally and psychologically for all of us. As he dissects himself, he provides a model for how we might look a little deeper into ourselves. The amazing thing about it is that he does it unconsciously, so there’s no element of trying to guide the reader. It just happens naturally to even the most marginally thoughtful reader through his process of living out loud in the book. His growth through a series of unique and colorful life experiences is a key through which we can unlock some deeper truths in ourselves if we can tear down our own self-image and illusions as he managed to tear down his.
Note: I previously mentioned Baye’s book in this blog at a point when I had only read some teasers. This was written after having read the entire book. I’m glad to see that all of my praise in the initial post was well warranted.
Orchid, I feel 10 feet tall… Thank you!
PS: Get Your Copy Here