My Brother! (Finding Community in Unexpected Places)
By Eric Burton
On July 23, 2015
If we were back in the land of Stars and Stripes, we’d probably not even acknowledge each other in public. Yet now that we’re thousands of miles away from wherever we might have came from, it almost feels unusual for us not to mutually recognize our commonalities. Even if that recognition is just a mere head nod as we pass each other on the street.
It’s interesting how quick we can be to from bonds with others based entirely on external factors. It’s almost in our nature to seek out and connect with those whom we find similar to us. This human trait becomes a lot more noticeable in a place like Japan; where the likelihood of discovering people and experiences similar to those in one’s native land is quite rare.
Although we don’t openly admit it, a lot of us foreigners in Japan have—at the very least—one friend that is from the same country as us. Someone who we can confide in while stumbling our way through the exciting challenge known as culture shock. In my case I have these friends, and the “unofficial” black community of Tokyo.
There are times when I’m out having a drink, or even just riding the train, I’ll get approached by others of the same complexion as me. More times than not people are generally interested in getting to know me and my background, looking for common experiences to relate to. And on the rare occasion, it’s just a barber looking for new clientele.
During these conversations, I often feel a weird sense of connection with the person I’m speaking with. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a drunken uncle from back home: a man who seems to have the “best” advice on everything from women to finances. Other times I feel like I’m talking to a cousin: someone who’s having the same experiences as me, at the same time, and can relate to it all. And some occasions it feels like I’m talking to a younger brother from another: a guy new to Japan and just looking for some advice and direction. After the conversation has ended and we part ways, I’m still quite surprised at how much it felt like I was speaking to someone in my own family.
This unofficial connection shared between black people in Japan got me wondering if other foreigners sort of have that same, unspoken association with one another. I know I still get that awkward “Hey, you’re a gaijin too!” glance from foreigners in public; no matter the race. That subtle glance says a lot about how we as humans to just want to connect to that which feels familiar.
The idea of community can change when living abroad. Being so far away from my original community has gotten me to see that the idea doesn’t have to be limited to just close friends and family. In the end, we don’t have to be relatives to relate.