If you get around Tokyo and Yokohama any, you’re likely to run into people of African descent from time to time. The vast majority of these people — if they’re not members of the U.S. military — will hail from either Nigeria or Ghana. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting the occasional Kenyan, Somalian, Ethiopian, Senegalese and Sudanese, but those have been far and few between. So running into a Zambian in Roppongi was a rare treat for me, and after spending a few hours listening to him hold forth, I urged him to bless Black Eye with his story. Thankfully, he agreed to.
Axson Chalikulima Jr., 51, the son of a Zambian freedom fighter, has been an English teacher in Japan for over 30 years. So far, so fairly typical for non-Asian residents. But his journey here was anything but typical. He was born in 1964, and has been collecting cultures, languages and wisdom ever since.
1964 is a revered year for Zambians. And, as Axson informed me, even many seniors here in Japan remember the year fondly and know why it is so important to his countrymen.
“When I speak with older Japanese people and tell them I’m Zambian, they often make the connection between Zambia and the ’64 Olympic Games.”
It was during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that Zambia ceased to be a European colony and gained its independence. On the final day of the games, Oct. 24, Zambia became the first nation to enter the Olympics as one country (the British colony of Northern Rhodesia) and exit as another, flying the flag of a free nation.
In 1967, his father, Axson Chalikulima Sr., in recognition of his contributions during Zambia’s push for independence, was appointed the first Zambian commandant of the Zambia National Service armed force. His diplomatic acumen and commitment to the burgeoning nation’s economic prosperity later garnered him several ambassadorships in neighboring countries, as well as in India and eventually in Japan. The first, from 1969 to 1974, was to what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It was there that young Axson’s formal education began, at a British school.
“Wait a minute!” I shouted out as we spoke, as the place and date clicked in my mind. There’s one extraordinary event every African-American — hell, every person of a certain age — knows about Zaire: The legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
“You were living in Zaire in 1974?”
“Yes,” says Axson. “And I was in Kinshasa. I went to the Zaire 74 music festival at Stade du 20 Mai (20 May Stadium), and saw James Brown and them. I didn’t get to attend the fight, but I watched it in real time!”
Though he was being educated by the British, he lived among the people and even learned to speak one of the country’s languages, Lingala. And with an ambassador for a patriarch, he began to understand the root of many of the issues between Zambia and Zaire — the issues his father had been sent there to try to resolve by diplomatic means.
“Zaire and Zambia have always been neighbors,” he explains. “We’d had our differences, but when the borders were separated by the Belgians and the British, we got into a few, er, skirmishes because of the mining industry. If you look at a map of Zambia and Zaire, there’s a portion that’s between our two countries. So you have to cross the border between Zambia and Zaire in order to get to another part of Zambia.”
That year the family moved back to Zambia because his father had been named as minister responsible for Zambia’s northern Copperbelt region. Copper was the backbone of the Northern Rhodesian government during colonial rule and is the primary natural resource that has made Zambia one of the fastest-growing African economies.
Soon afterward, his father was appointed as ambassador to India, so the family relocated once again. There Axson attended the American Embassy School in New Delhi. Again he lived amid the common people of India and absorbed the culture and language. So, in addition to English and Bemba (languages spoken in Zambia) and Lingala, Axson added Hindi to his linguistic arsenal. He graduated in 1982 with a burning desire to go West.
“It was my dream to go to America,” he says. “I was surrounded by a lot of American friends and I’m sure that influenced me. So that was my mind-set.
“I believed that America was where it all happens, where everything starts from. It was very difficult because my mother and father had different plans for me.
“Diplomacy is in my blood, but I’ve been running from it all my life, even now. Fortunately I’m the second son (among six brothers and four sisters) and my older brother went into diplomacy, so I had a little bit of leeway. I had my heart set on America.”
In 1983, young Axson made his way to the States, where he majored in communications at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, while the rest of the family followed the senior Axson to his next diplomatic mission, an ambassadorship here in Japan. In 1984, on summer vacation following his freshman year, Axson made his first trip to this country.
“I had no interest in Japan, mind you,” Axson says. “I didn’t know anything about Japan, so I came here with an open mind and an open heart. And Japan blew my mind! When I’d gone to America, I thought I had seen ‘The World,’ as far as advancement and technology are concerned, but Japan? My first thought was ‘What is going on here?’ ”
Axson ran off a list of observations that awed him, like highways that were actually above the streets, and unchained, unguarded vending machines that offered alcoholic beverages. By the time he returned to Connecticut, he was so taken with his summer in Japan that America had lost its appeal. So he decided to alter the trajectory of his life once again.
“I was intrigued by Japan, and I became really inquisitive. I wanted to know more, and decided I needed to be at ground zero,” he says. “I’ve lived around the world, and when you live in another country or another culture, you have to become a child again, because only then can you learn without judging.”
This approach allowed him to see things about Japan that he feels some people who live here miss. He puts it this way: “People are basically the same, but how we see things is different, based on how we understand them. And how we understand them is interpreted through language. There are certain similarities among people that all humanity has. But if you can’t see them from another point of view, it’s very difficult to understand where they’re coming from. So I knew before I could judge how the Japanese look at things I had to learn to see things the Japanese way, to see things through their eyes. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, or if you can manage to do this completely, but it was worth a try.
“Japanese language is very complicated but (it) isn’t that difficult once you learn how to use (it),” he explains. “The way we communicate in English and Japanese is completely different. Japanese people don’t actually say what they’re saying. You have to use your brain to interpret what the person is actually saying, and Japanese expect you to understand what they’re trying to say, or trying not to say. It’s like a chess game. This is not simply about language. These are human skills.”
Axson shared an experience he’d had in America that had helped prepare him for the challenges that lay ahead:
“Now, while I was growing up, in international schools, most of my friends were white. But nobody cared where you were from or what you were because we were all from someplace different. So I never really thought about who I really was.
“While I was at university in America I had a Jewish friend, and one weekend he invited me to his home in New Jersey for dinner. I don’t know if he told his family I was coming or not. But I was still thinking in the way I grew up and not in the reality of where I was.
“So I went to his house, and when his mother saw me she freaked out! She almost panicked. But the icing on the cake was this: You know what my friend told his mother? He said, ‘No, he’s not black. He’s from Africa.’ My diplomatic roots kept me from reacting, but I stood there trying to process what’s the difference between an African-American and an African.”
Axson walked away from that encounter having learned a valuable lesson that he applies here in Japan.
“My friend had never experienced the ideas and feelings he was experiencing that night, and neither had I. So I think we cannot fault people who don’t have the same experience, or expect them to understand something they’ve never experienced,” he says. “You can’t know something if you don’t know it. It comes down to this: Am I going to make his problem my problem? He has issues. I’m not gonna let him make his issues my issues.”
That personal philosophy, plus his native-level fluency in yet another language, Japanese, has helped him overcome most of the obstacles he’s encountered since moving to Japan, he tells me.
“Japan has became my home away from home,” says the Zambian, who has spent the vast majority of his life here. “Japan is always changing and refreshing. It’s a never-ending learning process and there is always room to grow. It’s safe, comfortable and remains a very exciting place to live.”
His father left Japan in 1987, headed to his final diplomatic mission in Angola, where he served until he retired in April 1992. Though his father is no longer here to nudge him into following in his footsteps, Axson Jr. can’t escape the diplomatic DNA coursing through him, nor his African homeland. Both still call to him.
Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Send comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.