When I first arrived in Japan back in 2004, my identity was comprised of three major components: I was an African-American, a New Yorker and an aspiring wordsmith.
If someone had told me — as I stood on the international-limbo side of immigration at Narita airport, drawing my inaugural breaths of Asian air — that in 10 years’ time I would no longer identify myself by any of those attributes without feeling either overly modest, hypocritical or downright deceitful, I would have said, “Wow, so this is your thing: peddling prognostications to strangers in airport terminals?” before telling him how ludicrous his prediction was. Such was the state of my dignity in being of African descent; of my pride at being infused with that “I’ll make it anywhere” credo Sinatra crooned that New Yorkers were uniquely gifted with; and of my confidence that once I settled in and got my sh-t together, that I’d write something noteworthy, if not great. I was that cocksure.
But that soothsayer could have congratulated himself on having said some rather serious, er, sooth.
By far the most complicated of those attributes would be that aggravatingly vague label “African-American.” What is the difference between an African-American and an American? This is a question that hasn’t been satisfactorily answered.
Decades before I departed the U.S., there had been a sort of cessation of hostilities as far as labels for non-Caucasian people were concerned. Pinkish America pretty much proclaimed to Brown America: “Well, we gotta call you guys something, right? And, sorry, ‘American’ is already taken. We’ve tried nigger, Negro, colored, black, and even Afro-American — which fit so well with your hairdos — but every time we turn around, you guys get to whining and find something degrading, disenfranchising or prohibitively problematic about these perfectly fine designations.
“Wait! What’s this? Have you people finally made up your minds? This hyphenated African-American label suits your needs? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, for the time being. OK, let’s run with that!”
I’m paraphrasing here, of course. But, from the moment you step foot in Japan (or any other country, really), the complications inherent in that labeling begin to demand attention. For it’s a foregone conclusion that, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in the excruciating quandary of establishing yourself for people who have not limited or spotty information, but virtually no knowledge of your people’s perpetual struggle against tyranny and genocide — not to mention that unresolved identity dilemma. Your African prefix is certain to perplex them.
“Which one of your parents is African?”
“Neither. Both are American.”
“I see . . . But you were born in Africa, right?”
“No, I’ve never even been there.”
“Whaaa? Are your grandparents from Africa?”
“No, not even my great-grandparents.”
“Okaaaaaaay . . .”
So, by the time your place on that long, inching line of mostly real Americans — few of whom look anything like you — reaches the immigration turnstile, and you slide your passport to the waiting official (a U.S. passport that, by the way, doesn’t hyphenate your nationality), you’re bound to feel a little anxiety about your status in the world, assuming you care about such things.
I remember smiling, for at first it seemed that I had been relieved of a burden I wasn’t aware I’d been hauling around for most of my life. I imagined I could perceive the heft and girth of that “African” prefix once it was removed from the equation, and that life had gotten measurably lighter and less complicated. Suddenly, I was just another American, with all the advantages and privileges (or in some cases, less savory epithets) reserved for a member of the most powerful cartel in the world.
It felt like I’d arrived in a place that I had no idea I was headed. The removal of “African” (and the retention of “American”) suggested I’d no longer have to endure the foolishness: There’d be no more race-based institutional bias, no more second-class citizenship, no more hyphenations, no more ignorant and offensive presumptions about my intelligence, my likes and dislikes, my propensity to commit crime — hooded or otherwise — or to bring harm to others without provocation. No more!
“I’ve got the Platinum AmEx of passports in my paw, and it speaks volumes on my behalf,” I thought — in retrospect, stupidly. “I’m practically in the pink,” I dared to think, as I swaggered into a labyrinth of conflicted longings.
Picture it: Most of your life you have been relegated to a premeditated underdog status, and you have developed a conditional comfort and pride in that predicament. Until your arrival in Japan, you saw America as this unrepentant superpower that unleashed its wrath against its enemies abroad — Japan in particular — not nearly as often or dreadfully as it did against its domestic foes, which time and time again turned out to be folk that looked just like you, and quite often for looking just like you!
But, without preamble or warning, you’ve been upgraded from an underprivileged underdog to an unshackled overdog. You see it in the Japanese immigration officer’s eyes as he gives you and your photo a triple-take and smiles, as if to say, “Well, if that don’t beat all!” and stamps your passport. He doesn’t see you as a refugee from some developing nation south of the Sahara, you tell yourself — uh-uh: You’re a darker-hued, card-carrying representative of First World global superiority.
You’re a Yankee now. And the world is your stadium!
This ultimately imagined recognition sends a disconcerting surge of reckless power and confidence coursing through your veins like mercury: “I will win in Japan! I will be the man! Women will swoon, and men will gnash their teeth. Wherever I go, they’ll know — oh yeah, they’ll know — if you show me love, you’ll get mad love in return, American-style, baby! But if you meddle with me, give your heart to Buddha cuz your ass is mine!”
I was an American, goddammit . . . well, for a solid 60 seconds or so, anyway.
Off in the endorphin-hazed horizon, I could see Paradox Flight 101 on its final approach, as the waxing weight of this new label I’d never fully borne before — and, truth be told, kind of despised — almost cemented me to the spot. The paradox being: The label “American” on its own was surprisingly much heavier than it had been before that double-edged prefix was removed. “African” had done more than merely modify “American.” I discovered, right there, between immigration and customs, watching a carousel of luggage go round and round, that it had been moderating it as well.
Being an African-American, the descendant of people who have been and continue to be on the business end of policies and behaviors resulting from fear and hate as old as America itself, has its “perks,” in a manner of speaking. Among them, there’s generally a measure of spiritual security in a cubbyhole of subjugation. In a system designed to put you at a disadvantage, failure is often justifiable and thus enjoys a measure of acceptability. And, success is doubly satisfying because it is accomplished against odds unhyphenated Americans rarely, if ever, have to defy.
All of that and more was gone with the stamp of a passport.
Later in your tenure, you will find this release liberating, but at that moment, on the threshold of a new life, it feels decidedly debilitating. When the customs officer asks, “Do you have anything to declare?” it feels like a loaded question, like you’re being offered the opportunity to testify before Congress. You’re tempted to be frank and say, “Funny you should ask,” and state your declaration of independence from African-American-dom and all its perverse trappings, but the uneasiness of your newfound independence has unnerved you, so you respond meekly, “No sir.”
Then you emerge from customs into the Land of the Rising Sun, and almost immediately your inner-city deceit detector is triggered! Something is amiss. You’re certain of it — as certain as you would be in a Brooklyn subway when a fight breaks out, where you could, at a glance, ascertain whether it was legit or a staged distraction crooks use to lighten the pockets of onlookers. The luminance of a new day fills the crowded terminal, revealing eyes lingering longer on you than strangers’ eyes ought to, but otherwise nothing occurs to confirm your misgivings.
You temporarily disengage that trusted device that has guided you through treacherous terrain for decades, and tell yourself something that will prove to be profound: “My watch might not be the only mechanism that needs adjusting.”
Minus an essential apparatus of your survival, stripped of your African accoutrement and, save that passport you’ve pocketed, any other identifiers that speak to your nationality and sensibilities (assuming, of course, you aren’t waving the Stars and Stripes, wearing an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat and whistling “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”), you advance through an array of unfamiliar sights and sounds, just as brown and naked as the day you were born, lugging so much baggage it’s a wonder you’ve made it this far.
From July, Black Eye will appear in print on the third Thursday of every month. This new column will focus primarily on the experience of living in Japan from the perspective of people of African descent. Baye McNeil is the author of “Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist” and “Loco in Yokohama,” and he has been blogging about the rewards and challenges of living in the city since 2008. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org