Never take your friends for granted.
As an activist, this will first and foremost forever be rule number one.
I have traveled long and far to come to this conclusion, ending up in a crowded Starbucks near a busy Tokyo train station and shopping center, sipping a grande café mocha, ignoring the pretentiousness of this scenario, to share with you my insights.
It has been three months and I have never felt this alone. For a writer, it is absolute torture to be sent to a country in which I cannot fully express myself because my writing and speaking skills in this country’s language are below the level of that of a three year old. (Every time a child speaks without stumbling over their words, I cry a little.)
Because I cannot properly express myself, it makes it difficult to connect with any person on a deeper level, which severely sprains my ability to make friends. Unfortunately, this problem goes further than linguistics, for I have found that even when I find people who are able and willing to communicate in English (or in very, very slow and patient Japanese), it turns out that we still don’t speak the same language.
From junior high to college, I have always been surrounded by people who ‘got’ me, because they too were of color, queer, of lower socio-economic statuses, and/or deeply interested in social activism. It was not necessarily that all of my friends were gay, brown, poor, or activists – but I had plenty who were and that was enough. We were able to create a community of constant understanding and comfort in the face of a largely white supremacist and heterosexist world that did not often bother to look in on itself. By having this community, this basic source of self-affirmation and love, it was easy to then branch out and connect with others outside of this community, to share in other mutual interests.
Ironically, having become accustomed to its nourishment, part of me longed to exist beyond my community – to find aspects of myself that did not have to be defined by my race, my sexuality, my gender, my social economic class, etc. I longed to just ‘be,’ and coming to Japan, a country that had no direct role in my social history, was sure to be the ticket to that escape.
It’s quite funny, really, how much you understand how essential your identity is to yourself when others don’t. How impossible it is to exist ‘beyond’ being queer when every person you meet asks if you have a boyfriend in America and actually cannot fathom the concept of homo-romantic love; how impossible it is to exist ‘beyond’ class when your family members still call you for money; how impossible it is to exist ‘beyond’ race when white people you meet in Japan say to you, “Goodness, it must be so hard for you to get your hair done in this country! They don’t even know how to do my hair!” It’s impossible to be anything other than whom you are, no matter where you are. You cannot exist beyond yourself.
Furthermore, once you’ve become aware of oppression and privilege, you can’t unlearn it – because I still cringe when I hear the word “retard,” I still flinch if I hear the word “bitch,” I still become angry or hurt if I hear a joke about a minority from a person of privilege. I cannot hold a conversation for the sake of conversation if the conversation itself is riddled with privilege and ignorance, unless I bite my tongue – in which case, I’m not enjoying the conversation at all because I get nothing out of it, except a nearly bloody mouth. Once your eyes are opened, you cannot close them again – because even if you do, the image of what you’ve seen is still burned into your memory, still flickers in the darkness behind your eyelids.
I had similar interactions when I lived in the States, but it was far easier then, because I always had a place to go home to. Like a child, I had guardians and now that I am on my own, after having asked for my freedom, I am realizing that being an adult is not so easy.
It’s difficult to not be disillusioned. Once you learn that you cannot exist beyond yourself, in the context of this world, it is difficult to not then shut yourself away in your own mind and curl into yourself as your only comfort. Once you find that you cannot leave yourself, it becomes difficult to even try.
These are the growing pains of activism and social justice.
The first step for me has been to recognize my privilege as someone who had a community – and to remember that that community still exists; it is just not as close as it once was. The next step will be to find the balance between existing within myself and yet outside of my own head.