'It Took Leaving the U.S. to Reach This Level of Pride'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

So far in our ongoing series of black expats reflecting on their time abroad, we’ve heard from: an African American woman who taught in rural South Korea describing the “systemic cultural ignorance and lack of awareness”—but “not racism”—among her students and neighbors; a less optimistic African American woman in China detailing her “weird and frustrating” time there; a racially-mixed man returning to his home in the American South during the mid 1960s only to feel like a foreigner there; and a black woman in Laos coming to love her dark skin for the first time.

Many more stories are forthcoming, including the two below centered on the global influence of African American music. Here’s Antoinette, an African American educator in Japan for 17 years:

Rural Japan was home for most of my adult life, and during my stay, I embraced the culture and fell in love with the people. Now, I am an awkward “repat,” coming to terms with having to adjust to life in a strangely unfamiliar New York City while longing for the tranquility of my second “home.”

So, why did I fall in love? Well, for the most part, I have found the Japanese to be the most hospitable people I have ever met. Of course, there was the occasional oddball, but even they were bearable because I felt there was no malice or disrespect in their actions.

I gave many of the colorful characters names to help me remember each experience ... because this sort of thing always happened. I met “Yo Baby Yo” at Mikuni Beach. I was with a group of expat teachers who decided to spend the day at the beach. Large groups of foreigners tended to attract unique characters, usually the more outspoken fearless Japanese with eccentric personalities. Yo Baby Yo was charmingly eccentric. He spotted us at the beach and made a bee-line in our direction. At first I thought nothing of it, because this always happened. Most of the time, one of the veteran expat teachers who had better language skills communicated with our self-proclaimed fans. But this time, Yo Baby Yo targeted me as the one to show off his language skills to. As my friends and I sat enjoying the beach, this brave young man approached and greeted me with a hearty “Yo, baby yo!” I was at a loss as to how I should respond. Restraining the urge to giggle. I said, “You speak English very well. Where did you study?” To which, he proudly proclaimed, “Thanks, I learned from the movies.” I did not have the heart to tell him how inappropriate his greeting was. I just listened to him chat about how cool he thought black people were.

Like Antoinette, this next reader, William Berry, saw firsthand the admiration that Japanese people have for music by black Americans:

I am an African-American male who spent two years working as an Assistant Language Teacher in rural Japan. The experience was one with many very high “highs” and many extremely low “lows.” However, I ultimately came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for African-American culture and an awareness of how our cultural contributions reverberate all around the globe.

Some context: Since I lived in a small inaka town, the only Japanese people I was only really able to associate with were older Japanese adults and the small children I taught in schools every day since people in my age range (20-29) had left for larger cities. Because of this, I used a lot of my free time talking to older Japanese people and I was struck by both their awareness of and appreciation for African-American culture. Particularly, many older Japanese are avid jazz listeners (as shown, for example, by the Japanese releases of jazz CDs having a few Japan-only bonus tracks for the loyal domestic fan-base). People ranging from random taxi drivers to small bar owners would excitedly speak to me at length about their love of figures such as Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker.

Additionally, my experiences in my schools were mostly positive. The students, of course, had grown up seeing a black president on their television screens all of their lives so “black” and “American” were not two incompatible concepts for them. The Obama Factor, combined with students’ generally positive perceptions of figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Michael Jackson, made my life there much easier.

Of course, there were some truly horrible moments I experienced due to my skin color in Japan, but I chalk those instances up to the actions of bad individuals more so than anything else. (Also, to be completely honest, these horrible moments are just as likely to happen to me here in the United States as they are to happen anywhere else.)

Overall, however, the Japanese people showered me with an appreciation and affection that I will never forget for the rest of my life. Knowing just how deeply and widely the artistic and cultural contributions of my people are admired by people around the world filled me with unspeakable pride.

It was curious that it took leaving the country for me to reach this level of pride. At various points in my life, I have been subjected to both an education system and the wider popular culture portraying black history/culture as a smaller, less important subsidiary of white culture/history, which is the supposedly the real American story. It was amazing to me that so many Japanese do not share this view. While too many people in the world do still unfortunately think in these terms, I think my time in Japan jump-started my process of personal healing. It is a personal source of solace and comfort during this difficult time in race relations in this country.