Thursday, October 11, 2012

If you travel enough, everybody looks the same

Before I left Australia to live in Japan, someone warned me that it might be a bit of a culture shock to be surrounded by only Japanese people - because they look different. I'm sure this person didn't mean this in a racist way at all, rather they were passing on their own experience, and essentially they were right - it is an adjustment to go someplace where the people all look different to you.

Japanese girls wearing kimono for "Coming of Age Day"
Since Perth has a reasonably high proportion of Asian immigrants anyway, it wasn't such a shock to be in a sea of Japanese faces. But over my two years in Japan the way I saw these Japanese faces began to change.

At first, in that terribly stereotyped and getting-close-to-racist way that we Westerners tend to think (out of ignorance and lack of experience rather than actual racism, I believe), it did seem like everyone around me looked the same. I guess that's because they looked different to the norm of what I was used to seeing, and probably also because when I first arrived, everyone was a stranger to me.

Very quickly, I realised that there is as much variation amongst the appearances of individual Japanese as there are between individuals back home in Perth. Sure, lots have black hair (although you'll be hard-pushed to find too many young to middle-aged Japanese women who don't colour their hair something other than black), but everything else about their features changes from person to person.

Japanese kids on excursion in Koriyama

But what surprised me more than anything is that after a while, Japanese people started to look like the Caucasians back home. Perhaps about six months into my stay, I started having to look twice at people I passed on the platform at the train station, or in supermarket aisles. "That's my old neighbour!", "That's my friend Paula", I kept thinking. Of course it wasn't; not just because the people I was comparing them to were thousands of kilometres away, but because these people were Japanese and the old friends I remembered weren't; but honestly, the similarity in looks was amazing. I kept "seeing" people I knew from home, in Japan, for the rest of the time I lived there. Strange, but true.

In so very many ways, travel has taught me that despite our differences and diversities, every single human being is basically the same, and this was a classic example of that. And that's one of the reasons why I wish everybody could have the chance to live in a foreign country for a while - wouldn't it go a long way to eliminating racist thinking?

9 comments:

  1. "Travel has taught me that despite our differences and diversities, every single human being is basically the same" -- couldnt have agreed more. Like I always like to say "There is only one religion - humanity" :)
    Love the post, keep 'em coming!

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    1. Thanks so much, I'm flattered. And yes - the religion of humanity - how true.

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  2. Quite true, travel broadens the mind!

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  3. Great post Amanda, I couldn't agree more!

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  4. I think that travel should be mandatory - maybe a part of high school curriculum. It's incredible how much it changes ones perspective. I agree that it would eliminate prejudice and racist thinking.

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    1. Andrea, that's a fabulous idea. And I agree completely, of course.

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