by Jes Stayton, Greenheart Travel High School Abroad participant
Being an exchange student in Japan is a little different from being an exchange student in France, or Australia. Japan is about 99 % ethnically Japanese, so people don’t even have to talk to you to know that you are an exchange student. In my first week, and sometimes even now, random strangers greet me in the hallways at school. On my second day of class, a girl in my English writing class whom I’d never spoken to before started asking me questions about America. (Yes, I take English writing. In addition to English, and Communications, which is conducted almost entirely in English) Outside of school, people usually don’t talk to me, but they do stare a little when they think I’m not looking. There are the rare instances, however, when students wanting to practice their English on foreigners say ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’ to me as I walk by. This is all little weird, but at least I knew about it beforehand. It must be hard, though, for foreigners who want to live in Japan just like any normal Japanese person would, and be treated as such, when even their appearance marks them as foreign. I also wonder if people from who speak other languages are insulted when Japanese students say hello to them in English.
After a month and a half in Japan, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to do this too. Whenever I see a foreigner, I do a little double take. It feels really strange to me that I’m doing this. I grew up in America, seeing all kinds of different ethnicity every day, so why I am surprised when I see foreigners? I guess the closest analogy to this is how I would feel if I were walking down the street in America, and I saw someone wearing a full length ball gown. It’s not strange, per se, but you definitely notice, and wonder what they’re doing. Are they on vacation? Where are they from? That sort of thing. I wonder how I’ll feel when I return to America?
The thing that really surprises me is that my fellow classmates think I’m cute. They admire my hated curly hair and ask if it’s natural. Curly hair is desirable in Japan. This seems strange to me, coming from a country where some of my friends spend up to an hour flat ironing their hair every day. I guess everyone wants what they don’t have. It’s a little ironic, though. As my friends are admiring my curls, I am admiring their beautiful, glossy, pin straight black hair. That’s one thing that makes me a little sad: the way Japanese people seem to want to look like like Westerners. Hair dye and perms aren’t allowed in school, but it seems like every other woman I see on the street has either one or both. Even the advertisements, and fashion magazines show almost exclusively people who look western. I wish they showed more people of Japanese appearance.