“Wow! Cara you completely blend in with the students. I can’t tell that you’re a foreigner at all!”
As a small Asian girl (5′2″ or about 157 centimeters) with tanned skin and (previously) straight, black hair, I’ve reluctantly gotten used to being mistaken as Japanese in the past year that I have lived in rural Japan. Besides the East Asian facial features that I inherit from my Chinese parents, nothing about me is “Japanese.” I was born in Australia, grew up in Hong Kong, then spent eight years living in Australia and the U.S. prior to coming to Japan to work as an assistant language teacher in the JET Programme. While I might look as if I am from Asia, a lot of my ways of thinking are Westernized.
According to a 2016 article in the Japan Times, 30 percent of foreigners living in Japan come from China alone. Yet, the fact that being Asian doesn’t necessarily mean being Japanese still seems like breaking news to many locals.
Ignorance at school
Past ALTs at my school have all been of non-Asian descent and to be honest, I never really thought that I was that different from them. This changed, though, when one of my Japanese coworkers tapped on my shoulder and told me I look exactly the same as the students.
Not knowing how to respond, I tried to not feel weird about my foreign identity being unrecognized. What I secretly hoped, though, was that I wouldn’t be considered a lesser foreigner than previous non-Asian ALTs at the school.
But incidents like that have come back to me time and again.
From what I’ve observed at my schools, students with parents of non-Japanese descent try to mask their mixed ethnicities. The environment — one that by nature aims for homogeneity — pushes them to assimilate into the mainstream Japanese culture.
Though, never would I have expected to come across it in a school hallway. As soon as a student in one of my schools found out that Chinese blood flows in me, he has been pointing at me and shouting “Hey, you Chinese!” whenever I walk past him. Not going to lie, but that feels exactly the same as being greeted with “Konnichiwa” followed by a few sarcastic laughs from a few African-Americans on a dodgy street in Los Angeles a few years ago.
Was I annoyed? Yes, very. But could I get mad at a young kid who I know is likely going to encounter a similar identity crisis that I have undergone? No.
Asian ALTs are likely to be more susceptible to stricter expectations on physical appearances. A month ago, I dyed my hair ombre brown because that was what I used to have when I lived in the U.S. Many teachers were surprised at the color change, but one teacher, in particular, called me out and said: “Why is your hair orange? You know dying your hair to that color is not allowed in Japan, right?”
First, my hair is not orange. Second, even if it is, it’s still a hair color that many people in this world naturally have. I thought to myself: “Had I had white skin, perhaps he wouldn’t have given me the same comment.”
At this point, I can’t help but remember being asked in my JET interview how I would respond to kids who ask me why I don’t have a thick Australian accent or blonde hair? I answered this question by saying that not having those precise traits made me someone who could change the seemingly ingrained perspective that only Caucasians can speak English and that only non-Asian looking people are foreigners. The immigration culture is a large part of Western countries and Japanese kids deserve to know that.
The interview ended with the interviewers smiling and nicknaming me a stereotype-breaker.
Although not having blonde hair and blue eyes does make me look less like a foreigner, it doesn’t make me any less of a foreigner.
And I got into the JET Programme.
So here I am, wanting to break stereotypes, yet stuck in that liminal space between the Japanese and “foreigner” bubbles. I can’t blame my Japanese counterparts for confusing me with them since I do indeed possess similar physical features.
Therefore, I am going to use them to my advantage.
Perks of being an Asian ALT
Although not having blonde hair and blue eyes does make me look less like a foreigner, it doesn’t make me any less of a foreigner. I’m thankful for my dark hair and eyes because students may feel less intimidated to talk to me. They may think that, actually, there aren’t that many differences between us — that foreigners are actually not that foreign.
That is exactly where grassroots internationalization happens. By letting my students know that I didn’t speak English until age 15, I am showing them that if they work hard enough, one day they can speak fluently, too, even if they are Asian. While Asian ALTs may often be mistaken as Japanese and expected to act in “Japanese ways,” it’s important that we establish a clear identity for ourselves and spread the awareness of Asian foreigners within our local community.
Our schools are the first places where we can make a difference. We may look similar to the people around us in the community, but we are not the same. Asian foreigners are inevitably the minority among the ALT community, but we are actually the majority in Japan as a country.
So, where does this leave me? I am happy with who I am and what I can bring to the table.
So to other Asian ALTs: be proud of who you are! Let people know about your multicultural background and make the impact that only you can make at school. Japan’s students — despite old attitudes in the education system — are counting on this.
Have you experienced any cultural stereotyping at your school or workplace in Japan? How did you deal the situation? Was it positive or negative? Let us know in the comments below!
[Editor’s note: A few parts of this article have been modified from the original content to respect those who wished to remain anonymous.]