I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in a place called Reston, Virginia. I like to think that I was fortunate enough to live in a fairly diverse part of the world. Even so, I was part of the majority of white, middle class people; never having to be an “other” in my community.
I had the unique experience of going to a public elementary school that had a Japanese Immersion program, meaning that my math and science classes for first through sixth grade were in Japanese. This gave me different perspectives from the Japanese student and teachers in the program. However diverse I felt my class was, the Japanese students were still the “others”.
I always tried to be aware of the fact that I was more fortunate than some others by not having to deal with being a so called “other” but without having been in that situation myself, I could never truly understand it. It was not until I visited Japan that I understood how it felt to be the minority in a community. My family and I traveled to Japan the summer after the earthquake in 2011. Because of the natural disaster that had occurred there were very few tourists there at the same time as us. We could feel the eyes on us, especially in more rural locations as the “others”, the few white people who came to Japan despite the disaster.
My family and I in traditional Japanese Kimonos in Japan, 2011
Even in this situation when I felt like an “other”, I was conscious of the fact that my family and I were not discriminated against for being the minority the way other people may have been. In fact, the Japanese people tended to be excited to see us yelling “hello, how are you!” from across the street and wanting to practice their English on us. Still, being in a place where I was not the majority was a humbling experience that gave me a new perspective and understanding.
I remember one particular time that a Japanese-American friend of mine who had grown up in the United States and had never been to Japan telling me about his experience the first time he visited his home country. He was so excited and explained that “it was the first time I had ever been in a place where everyone looked like me.” This story is something that has stuck with me to this day because it was not a situation that I would have considered or expected on my own. That being an “other” just in his physical appearance made him constantly feel out of place.
Othering happens day to day, whether or not we mean it or plan it. Because of the way in which our society places people into generalized groups, it is something that happens naturally. Because of experiences that I have had, I try to be cognizant of the natural othering that occurs and not let it affect my thoughts and actions towards those that are naturally labeled as “others”.