Sunday, August 26, 2012
Growing up as an Outsider
It’s never a good day when you feel those jolts of fear moving up and down your spine like someone’s wired you to an electric circuit. But as she studied my face, I felt them, and I knew without a doubt that I’d done something wrong.
It was Mother’s Day 1967, and the neighborhood kindergarten I attended invited moms to the school for a celebratory program. Each mother received a red carnation to pin to her clothing and then was ushered into classrooms to view some of the best artwork this side of Tokyo. Wearing a floral dress, her carnation, and a hint of perfume, my mother entered my classroom, ready to find the portrait I’d drawn of her.
Removing her sunglasses, she glanced around the walls. She stepped closer in, scanning the heavy oil-based pastel-colored creations. Then with an emphatic sigh, she looked at me. “Alice, where is your picture?”
My picture! We were right in front of it. Could she not see? Although worry clouded my mind, even so, I held it together. Don’t make a scene, never draw attention. Gingerly, I moved toward the wall. Standing on tiptoes, I pointed to the motherly face I had created.
Mom looked at the oval shape that held black eyes, red lips, and locks of black hair.
I had colored a little out of the lines, so there was some pink crayon—the color I’d used for her necklace—rubbed into her collar, but overall, the portrait was one I was pleased with. I smiled at Mom, expecting her to smile back.
There was no smile. “Alice,” she cried, “I don’t have black eyes or black hair.”
With feet now planted on the classroom floor, I avoided her expression. Seeing her every day, I knew what she looked like. But did she think that I was going to use a brown crayon or blue one to draw her hair and eyes when the other children were sharing the popular black crayon? So, I gave her a pair of eyes and hair to match my classmates’ artwork.
Knowing I was a foreigner was as familiar to me as the frequented candy store. Even so, I wanted to blend in. I tried to be inconspicuous, never stand out, or be different, noticed, pointed at, and ridiculed. However, with blond hair, brown eyes, and a light complexion, and even tall by American standards, I was clearly unique in a country where black hair, olive complexions, dark eyes and short statures were dominant.
I was born in Osaka, on a frosty January night in a hospital across from a Hankyu train track. I don’t know if I was born on the right or wrong side of those tracks, but I do know that I had a perfectly shaped round head and was as bald as a snow man. My head was unscathed because I didn’t use it to push through the birth canal. Later, I would realize that I was born lazy and would have to fight that tendency especially when it came time to do my chores or complete algebra homework.
Naturally, my parents gave me a name at birth but the locals called me something else. Gaijin. They called my friends with blond hair the same thing and even that pesky kid who tried to look up my skirt in third grade. (He was cute and gave me a Valentine, but he was still nasty.) My father, mother, and baby brother were also called gaijin.
The Chinese characters for the word gaijin are soto jin, meaning outsider. In Japan this takes care of anyone who is not a native of the nation of Japan, which comes to just about ninety-six percent of the world.
When a small child would see me and lift his finger to point, I wanted to disappear. My mom would sometimes point her finger back at the kids and call them gaijin which only embarrassed me more and made the kids laugh and scream all the louder. Didn’t she know we were to be seen but not heard? Never cause a ripple; be the good American. Besides, they didn’t realize that what she was doing was more than mimicking them; she was calling them foreigners. They didn’t understand that to outsiders like us, even they were soto jin.
One afternoon, young Japanese boys that often slid over the concrete wall from the nearby apartment complex, came to the hospital compound to play. Standing in a grassy field of clover, they saw my little brother by a large oak tree. Picking up stones, one yelled, “Gaijin!” Quickly, in chorus, the other boys followed suit. Stones flew past Vincie, some landed at his feet, while others bounced off the tree trunk. Vincie made his way to our front gate, entered it, and escaped into our home. To his advantage, the kids didn’t have the best aim, and physically, he was unharmed.
Occasionally, the sisters of these boys came over to find me, calling out, “Arisu-chan, asobo!” (“Alice, let’s play.”) Unlike their brothers, they were kind and sat with me in the clover field behind the hospital, weaving crowns and necklaces out of clover for me to wear. Seated beside them in the mass of green, I wanted to play dolls and house as I did with my missionary neighbor Jo Jo. I was weary of being asked the same questions, talked about as if I couldn’t understand, and being stared at.
At the time I had no clear concept of the United States, my country of passport, but one day, I would be reminded of how different it was from this crowded island. In my teen years, I would long for things about it, yet not understand most of its ways, and wonder how I fit in.
Little did I know, but I would have a lifetime of figuring out how to fit in.
~ An excerpt from Alice J. Wisler's Childhood on the Train, a memoir in progress. Alice is also the author of five novels, including Rain Song (Christy Finalist) and Still Life in Shadows. Her devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morning: Reflections of Comfort in Heartache is slated for publication in January. Visit her website: http://www.alicewisler.com