Saturday, September 4, 2010

You Look American

I overheard a comment the other night that gave me a bit of pause.

You see, Little Brother JET (the replacement of Big Brother JET), who is very gung-ho, polite, and friendly, does not look anything like his predecessor either. Big Brother got his nickname partly because he has red hair (like me!) and so I figured we could pass, especially in Japan, as siblings.

But Little Brother JET is half Laotian by descent. He doesn’t look Asian to me, not exactly. I remember thinking the same of other half-this or half-that people I’d met before. She doesn’t look Japanese. She just looks American, to me. A dark-haired, brown-eyed sort.

But when we were doing our meet-and-greet with some group or another, and he mentioned his hereditary background, someone said, “Oh, that explains it. I thought you didn’t look American!”

What, then, does an American look like? I wondered.

Because after living here a year, I can almost see the difference between who looks Chinese, who looks Japanese, and who looks Korean.. kind of, almost. And I like to think I can spot British and Dutch and Italian. But when it comes to American, all bets are off. I assume that looking like an American looks like anything and everything, because it very often does.

I know a bunch of Americans. In the same way that, as a little kid, you just kind of assume everyone’s life experience is pretty much the same as yours, I tend to assume that people are American until I have reason to believe otherwise (an accent, a statement in a self-introduction). I’ve more than once mistaken dudes I have seen around the cities in Japan as being black Americans when they are actually from Africa. Not African Americans, dude, just African.

And the dark-eyed, dark-haired half Asians? Look just as American to me as African Americans, and dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian-descended Americans, and yeah, the pale-as-death Irish-rooted Americans too. It’s not that I maybe couldn’t have picked out the Asian in someone’s features, it’s that I never thought to look for it. My own heritage is half Dutch, the other half a mix of British, Irish, and some Native American too (plus some other stuff I can’t remember). The sheer variety of all that is sometimes a little bit mind-boggling for some of our Japanese students, because Japan tends to be pretty Japanese.

Some people get married outside of the nationality/culture/Japanese race; it’s not like it’s taboo or unheard of. But a lot more don’t. Because it’s who’s around. For a lot of Japanese, where you’re from and your nationality and your racial heritage is all connected to being Japanese.

Being American, though, is a whole different system. Virtually everyone there traces back to somewhere else before, at least partly.

What does it mean to look American? Is it a complexion? An eye shape or color? Is it a stance or swagger or haircut? Is it a fashion statement? Do I bear the stamp unconsciously, just because I was born of ‘mixed’ heritage in the state of Georgia, because I went to school in Tennessee, all the while pledging allegiance to the flag and memorizing things like “Give me liberty or give me death!”?

Whatever the reason, I am assumed on first glance to be foreign. I often feel like people ask me where I came from just out of politeness, although I suppose it’s possible that they can’t tell by my accent I’m not Australian, New Zealander, or European.

The other afternoon, Little Brother and I were up at Haga Castle. The caretaker there, an old man speaking only Kansai-ben chatted with us at length. I was proud of myself for following almost everything he said. He speaking pace was slow enough to allow this, and it made me kinda smug. I figured Little Brother was probably following it too, although he said later that it got difficult in places. Little Brother is good at Japanese (prrrobably better than me), but Kansai-ben is still kind of a trip for the newly-arrived; however versed one may be in classroom-taught proper Japanese, get yourself into the middle of nowhere (like, for example, Haga) and up on top of a mountain, and the local people aren’t going to talk that way. Anyway, after a few minutes of going on about the castle and the area and his job being to shut the gate when we left, he commented that kanojo wa nihongo zenzen wakar’en, na?

Hey guy! I do so understand Japanese! The conversation turned there and we realized that he’d not only recognized the half-Asian-ness of Little Brother, but he’d figured it was half Japanese, and assumed that was why he spoke Japanese and that this was what qualified him to be an English teacher in Japan. He missed the part where I was a teacher too; I guess he thought I was a visiting friend. I wasn’t offended, just kind of surprised. Like I said, Little Brother looks (sounds, acts?) really American to me. If anything, I kind of feel like my more reserved demeanor and conservative nature are more “Japanese” than his outgoing directness..!

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