一期一会 (One life, one encounter)
Song of the Day:
“Sukiyaki,” Kyu Sakimoto
Going from Switzerland to Japan didn’t compare to the culture shock I experienced when I accompanied my grandmother to clean homes fewer than 6.3 miles from our own. My first time was in high school and I continued through my freshman year in college. I went because I loved being with her and helping her, though she insisted on paying me. That world was so far from mine that I felt like a foreigner in what I once believed was my own backyard. Although homes were larger, driveways larger, swimming pools nicer, the people who lived there struggled with the same things we did, but their struggles were shaped by the presence of wealth and our were shaped by the lack of it
This was in the early 1970s. Black and White families shared familiar routines of work, play, grocery shopping, doctors’ appointments, laundry, mother’s preparing dinner, crying babies, and troubled teens, but the language and look were different. Their children seemed to cry out for help in bigger ways, because big money allows that—more parties, more drinking, more drugs, more shopping, more divorces, less time, less of God. Their parents went to therapy. Ours went to church.
As very young diaper-wearing toddlers, Black children were often trained to recognize a change in the pitch and tone of a voice and in a subtle shift in facial expression to recognize joy, fear, contentment, praise, disappointment, anger and within subtle shifts. We could tell when all was well and when it wasn’t going to go well for us. Public displays of misbehaving provoked a stern look from our parents or other elders. It was advance warning, a heads up, putting us on notice that if we were disrespectful or disobedient we could anticipate the equivalent of the wrath of God in the form of spankings or harsh tongue-lashings once we were out of public space. If we ignored the subtle signals, then public embarrassment was guaranteed, because disrespect was intolerable and bringing shame upon our parents and families was and unacceptable.
My observation was that White children were given endless chances: “One . . . . Mary, give the book back to your brother. “Two . . . Now, please. Two and a half . . . How many times do I have to tell you? Three . . . .” And on it went. No consequence named or given. The expressions of love and protection given to us at home were life lessons intended to protect us from societal consequences our ancestors had experienced being Black and not having endless chances.
Our parents would just look at us and whatever was going to happen on the other side of three happened at one. There was no conversation, no counting, only the voice of authority to be respected because it was coming from a place of safety and love. Theirs came from money and optional rewards of plane trips to exotic locations or buying sprees to department stores that boasted family names and street addresses: Saks Fifth Avenue, Joseph Magnin, Bullocks Wilshire We traveled ten miles to the beach or bought on layaway at J.C. Penney or Sears Roebuck. If a blender broke, a stereo, or a TV, they threw it away, and bought new. If those items, viewed as precious treasures in our homes, broke, we fixed them.
It was on the other side of the wall between communities that I learned I was from the group of people viewed as working class and apparently in dire need of being lifted up so that I, too, could have a bigger portfolio, a bigger home, and bigger issues. This help came in the form of college scholarships—closed minded thinking cloaked in diversity initiatives, welcoming a handful of us Black and Brown people into their world of higher socio-economic status, White privilege, and the pride associated with pursuing advanced education. All the while reminding us of the honor it was for us to be admitted into these “highly selective institutions of higher education.”
After a summer program for incoming Black students, I started my freshman year at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, a member of the Claremont Colleges, my education funded by scholarships and work study. The scholarships were based on academics and diversity. It was often falsely assumed by White staff and students that to meet the diversity quota, surely the standards for students of color had been lowered. Untrue. So anyone who saw a Black student automatically assumed we all got in with lower GPAs, even when they were the same or higher. We were completely objectified. Even with the assumed lower GPA, we were welcomed with open arms, the message clear: “So happy you’re here. We need the diversity.” The mask of White liberal racism—the assumption that racial differences are deep and profound, the fascination with studying us, as though we were a different species—was foreign to me, just as it was to my White working-class friends, who were subject to the same otherness, based on false assumptions, were challenged to find their own voice. They could assimilate. We couldn’t. It was during this time that I began to understand Dr. King’s words, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” I had entered a new fight for civil rights and respect.
The value of economic diversity with White middle- and lower-middle-class students wasn’t an issue for White faculty, staff, and fellow students. It wasn’t obvious that many shared similar backgrounds to the students of color because externally they blended into the environment, making them unrecognizable and spared by professors who couldn’t point them out. But for the rest of us, who were not White and upper middle class, no one was exempt from being the subject of sociological and anthropological case studies used to justify why we were less fortunate than others. Those of us who were considered the less fortunate, those of us being studied, were encouraged to share our thoughts so professors and classes could scrutinize the sociological influences of our upbringing and how best to label the perceived deficiencies that would allow us to forever be the poster children for their future philanthropy. We were the source of their case studies.
This was their training ground and we were their subject. God help us! And such excellent subjects we were if we stayed in the social sciences. Gifted with wisdom, skill and talent, more than three quarters of my fellow incoming freshman of color opted out of social studies and majored in science and empirical data, areas where numbers rule and high future dollars would prevail. They opted for pre-med, pre-law and pre-dentistry as majors. They excelled in advanced chemistry. I never did well in advanced math of any kind and had to find my place within social studies.
Interestingly, this was also my introduction as an undeclared sociologist, observing the language, influence, and upbringing of other non-White students whose parents were second and third generation wealth, with degrees for post-graduate studies in medicine, law, and chemistry. They were proficient in math. The Chicago-based wealthy parents of two of my roommates were striving to put their names on buildings like the Carnegies and Rockefellers. Most of these students were Black. And though we looked the same, and I believed I should have felt at home with them, I was naively surprised by our differences and learned a lot about myself and expanding my perspective of my own potential. Many of these students had attended prep schools. They had cars and funds to promptly access professional Black beauticians, freeing them to swim without worrying about their hair. They were girls who were as comfortable as their White roommates leaving their scent on expensive bars of soap their parents purchased from the same department stores. They also had their own cars! They came from neighborhoods I assumed were filled with large homes and long driveways because I would hear others whisper whenever their backs were turned during BSU (Black Student Union) gatherings.
Some of these girls were graduates of celebrity-status private and public schools, such as Beverly Hills High School. They benefited from assimilation into White America because of Black networks that discriminately provided exposure and opportunities not available to all Black people. They spoke of being second- and third-generation members of Jack ’n Jill, an elite organization for “America’s Black upper class” whose members include many of the first Black millionaires, politicians, and generations of prominent Black families.
Other than reading about people with these backgrounds in Ebony Magazine or accompanying my father to the barbershop and reading Jet, I had never been up close and personal with any of them. I saw all Black people as being the same as long as we were all members of the NAACP, liked Motown, and fought for civil rights. Nothing would seem unusual about a group that was selective in its membership. After all, my own parents were members of the Freemasons and Eastern stars, until my mother decided that being segregated within the already segregated Black community wasn’t for her. All societies that have specific requirements for members and reserve the right to exclude certain populations. She modeled for us that this segregation wasn’t for her, and thus not for us either.
These wealthy Black girls didn’t grow up like many of my friends as Girls Scouts, but they were cool and smart and they, too, forced my mind to be open to another world of possibilities that comes with being in this Black girl skin, with Black girl hair and Black girl dreams. I didn’t understand their lifestyles and values, but we shared other things in common. We were at this college for a world of possibilities.
Yet still, I felt I didn’t belong. What’s going on? I kept asking myself. I should feel at home here. I could ride my bike to school. I was that close. So feeling like a foreigner in this domestic environment, I decided it might easier to be me and understand others if I saw more of the world. So I went to Japan for my sophomore year, even though that option to study abroad was reserved for juniors.
By nature I’m an engaging introvert, an observer, and a selective participant, but at that time, I became lost in the conflicting messages and haunting introductions to Black- and Brown-skinned people who lost themselves within their advanced education: They lost the soul of their heart by drinking the Kool-Aid that limited intelligence, value, and culture based solely on Anglo-Saxon American standards. The message was clear: “You’ve come to this side of the wall to be like us.” So they complied. They started straightening their hair, talking differently, carrying themselves differently. They forgot who they were, where they came from. They bought into the belief that you aren’t of value if you didn’t come from those with the same high income and academic aspirations. So, they set out to become of value. They got into positions as academic heads, and totally lost their soul and their hearts. I was experiencing The Souls of Black Folk, that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of in 1903, the double consciousness and witnessing the idea that Black people must have two fields of vision at all times. We must be conscious of how we view ourselves, as well as being conscious of how the world views us.
The subliminal messages of objectification caused me to question myself: Who am I? Where do I belong? And so I went to Japan to find out.
I hadn’t studied Japanese. But I had a strong desire fed partially by memories of family friends visiting our home from a place called Japan. I was in elementary school at the time. The wife was from Japan, her in-laws from Mexico and Indiana. Their children spoke Japanese and Spanish, but their hair looked like ours and that of their father, who was African-American and Hispanic. They kind of looked like me, but they spoke other languages and offered treats and gifts from their mother’s homeland. The seed was planted. Japan? Mexico? Africa? One family, in a single day confirmed what I would later come to know as true: we’re all connected. How can this be? I thought at the time.
Never mind that I didn’t know the language, the people, or the culture, had never tasted the food, or knew how to maneuver chopsticks. I wanted to go. Growing up, I’d also had a burning desire to understand the emotion, place, culture behind the song Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, his rich, mournful, oddly upbeat voice blasting from the AM radio station we listened to as we ate oatmeal our oatmeal before school. One image of family friends, one song, and one new calling: Go to Japan. Never mind, that I didn’t meet the strict stipulations of being a junior in college.
Never mind that the only thing I knew about Japan was from reading books and deciding to organize an international day at my high school. Two years earlier, still in high school, I’d decided to ask my gym teacher, Miss Tanaka, for input about Japan. She agreed to tell me what seaweed was and to bring samples of sushi from her “real Japanese” friends after getting over being offended that I would label her as “Japanese” just because her parents were from Japan and her last name was Tanaka, when, as she put it, “I’m from Diamond Bar! I don’t know anything about Japan. I’ll ask my real Japanese uncle and his friends.” She may have lost her Japanese identity, but I would find mine…