Eyes Open To Other-ness

Leaving Michigan after an extended summer with friends and family was harder than usual this year, partly because my daughter is now forming relationships that matter in her day-to-day life. She knows the names of her friends, has preferences of how/where/with whom she wants to play. Packing up and flying away from those connections was difficult, but the pain of that transition was eased (at least for this mama) by the large hockey family we have here in Nikko and the baby-friendly nature of life in our corner of Japan.

Between Dave’s teammates and coaches there are 21 children from 6 months to 13 years old in our pre-formed social circle. When we get together my child has plenty of playmates. She’s never been shy and even with the language barrier, she often runs into a room of Japanese children screaming and twirling and totally overjoyed at the presence of other children.

The difference between this season and last season, however, is that as our girl has grown up she has become more sure of herself and more aware of her place in a group. Our blonde, blue-eyed, English-speaking babe is a noticeable minority in Japan, but especially here in this town outside the normal habitats of expats on this archipelago.

I find that the Japanese children I encounter here, compared in general with their North American counterparts, are amazing when it comes to interacting with and caring for the youngest among them. And for that I am so grateful. They sweep little V into their circle without a thought, they put food on her plate, lift up her to reach things, hold her hand on the stairs. They are kind. They are loving. They are patient. We are lucky.

But they are also, as children tend to be, curious. And excitable. They love her eyes. Her hair. Her general mystique that is basically only special because of her other-ness. sidenote: the special appeal of other-ness that includes what are perceived here as beauty “ideals” such as wide eyes and blonde hair tends to make me a little sad…but that is a whole other blog post.

This interest in little V is not limited to the circle of children we are connected with, in fact when we are out in public adults tend to make a bigger fuss. This culture seems a lot more child-centric in general, and it’s great to live somewhere that doesn’t expect you to keep your child at home lest others be pestered by the noise and mess of their existence. But I know the attention our child garners is a little more than what a local child gets, because I spend time in public with local children as well. I went to a playgroup with two Japanese friends and their daughters, and when we left one commented “She is like playgroup idol! Everyone wants to be with her!” Which is cute and interesting but the playgroup idol ended up spending most of the time throwing a ball by herself because she was just a little taken aback by it all.

Last year she was a baby and didn’t seem to mind the extra attention. The extra pats of her hair. The prolonged squeeze of the cheek. The camera phones in her face. The constant kawaiiii kawaiiiiiiii kawaiiiiiiiiiiiii. The fawning and fondling.

But this year she is increasingly aware of…everything. Of where we are and who is missing and what is being said. And even our very outgoing lass has suddenly (and literally) gone into a turtle position when she starts getting overwhelmed. I consulted a couple of fellow expat moms who have lived in Japan, and we all agreed I need to be more proactive about explaining it to her.

They are excited to see you! They are friendly! You can say ‘no thanks!’ You can tell them ‘no touching please!’

And sure, she may understand this “no thanks” game-plan (and I don’t think she is actually threatened by them) but they wouldn’t understand her, at least not her words, if she did ask them to back off. So it’s a partial solution. Besides this, the best I can do is a be a buffer when she needs me to and encourage her like crazy during the times when she is taking it in stride.

But while discussing this parenting quandary, these other mothers brought up the point of teaching children about race. And that while this topic is made obvious by the experience of actually being a racial minority and experiencing that with my child, this is an important conversation no matter where you live or how similar you might be to your neighbor.

Erica, a consummate expat who recently left Japan for Indonesia {read her fun blog here}, sent me this link to a NYT blog about the tendency of white parents to avoid to the topic of race in general, assuming that not talking about it is the same as saying race doesn’t matter. Studies have shown, however, that this approach could be what leads more white children to view “a neutral picture of an interaction between two students of different races in a negative way.” So. That’s not great.

Sure, right now we are in Japan. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’re in the world and the world has people of different races. I explain every other thing we see to her in detail, why not this?  If we didn’t have this very valuable experience of living as a visible minority would I have thought to address this so early in her life? Not only is race sometimes obvious by looking at skin color it’s also, unfortunately though possibly less obviously to a child, apparent by the way people live, are treated and treat others. This is real. This is life. I want her to learn about this from me, since I know she will learn somehow.

My child is nearly 2 years old, which sounds so young, but every single day she astounds me with what she understands. So does she know that the reason she gets this extra special attention is due to racial differences? Not explicitly. But it seems like something that I should begin explaining. Eventually we will, in all liklihood, be back in a place where our child is not noticable in this way. This attention will be gone, and any other-ness won’t be so easily identified. But what would I have missed if I don’t use this current reality as a teaching moment? What can I myself learn from this experience? How can we make this special circumstance translate to the other parts of our lives?

How I will do that, I don’t know exactly. But so far I’ve been winging it with every other parenting aspect and {mostly} things are going fine…

I’m planning honesty, simplicity, and matter-of-factness for the topic of race, what it is, and what it means. Any ideas, internet?

9 thoughts on “Eyes Open To Other-ness

  1. Interesting post Lane. I know what you mean about the blond hair, blue-eyed obsession. Lila is definitely aware that Maddy seems to garner some very special attention because of her blue eyes, something that Lila doesn’t have. It makes me kind of mad too. A woman in Tim Horton’s actually turned to her after gushing over Mad and said, “why don’t you have blue eyes like your sister?” “Because she has BEAUTIFUL GREEN EYES!” I retorted and then Lila, bless her heart, piped up, “just like my Daddy.” They learn these powerful messages so early…

    What a learning experience for V though!

  2. Love the post Lane. Very thought-provoking. I’ll add my two cents by agreeing with what you’ve said above: honesty. Kids have an amazing way of accepting and understanding things just as they are. Hope all is well! -Robin

  3. I went to China when I was 8, and had long blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles. People would come up and touch my hair, touch my face, follow us around, and it freaked me out. I really, really disliked it, and I was old enough to know why they were doing it. We get it in a different way now, even in the States, with Finn’s blonde hair (more when it was blonder when he was younger) and (my) Lila’s red hair.

  4. This is such a strange post to me…I grew up in Southern California and sure there were more “white” kids in my city but we had a strong representation of different ethnicities. I have tried my best to eliminate the idea of race from my life because I don’t think it is a viable way to define a person. That being said, I have never lived in a place where EVERYONE looked the same. I really do dislike the idea of race but in this instance it is a categorization that is hard to avoid, I like the term “other-ness” that you used, there has to be a way to explain the physical differences without categorizing people into broad groups. I am not sure how to have a deep conversation with a two year old that attempts to breakdown social constructs such as race but you guys are great parents for making sure to not take it lightly and approach it the right way…I wish I could help more than saying good luck!

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful reply Dominick! I grew up in rural Michigan, and will probaby raise my kid(s) there, so it’s great for me to get this chance at perspective now since where I live is not diverse, at least not racially.

      I totally agree with you that race is this really weird concept…while I get that there is like a biological and sometimes visible difference between people, it is also SO small and insignificant that the rest of our concept of race is totally socially constructed. ‘Other-ness’ on the other hand can be race but usually isn’t…we all have something about us, obvious or not, that makes us in the out-group at times. I hope I can figure out a way to get at this topic naturally and normally throughout her life. We are all set to learn something!

  5. Wonderful, thoughtful post. I have two (sort of conflicting) thoughts on how to handle this.
    First, I guess talking about race is also like talking about other topics that make parents squeamish (notably sex) start simply, start early, and then it becomes no big deal. So, in this light, I talk to my kid about race / religion / culture whenever it comes up naturally. For example, her nanny is muslim, and prays five times a day (usually three times at our house). So this is a great conversation starter for my kid; we talk about how mama doesn’t pray, but papi prays and Icha prays, but they pray differently, and praying is important, and we show respect when people pray. We also ask questions about cultural and religious traditions, which is another great conversation avenue.

    On the other hand, I was listening to a CBC radio podcast that was talking about the science of morality and the morality of babies, and their inborn tendency to favour in groups over out groups. Babies naturally favour people who look like them, who talk their language, and who speak without an accent. THis tendency can be overrided, however, if they live in a context where race / language / culture is no big deal. Where we are, we have the luxury of this bing so. My kid’s preschool has children of all sorts of races and nationalities; she hers a variety of languages, and accents on a daily basis. So in that vien, I try to make a point of being really nonchalante about it. I also hang out with mothers of other colours and cultures, so I think that’s a good model of race = NBD.

    Still, I do think it’s important to talk about it, and say, oh yes, you have blond hair, Koske-kun has black hair. He’s Japanese! You’re American! And we can be friends even though we look different.

  6. These early experiences will certainly shape V’s perception of other-ness with you doing little extra. As Erica said, seeing diversity every day IS the best way to learn.
    Una goes to quite a diverse school and answers are coming to her naturally (except for religion, but that is a whole different topic). On the topic of language diversity, I have noticed that her friends who are exposed to any form of multilingualism accept our family language mess very naturally (e.g. one of her best friends and our first neighbour is Dutch but her aunt lives in the US and is married to a non-Dutch speaking person so when they went to visit she could not communicate to her uncle directly but the concept of multiple languages in one house doesn’t seem unnatural to her). So to me, as much exposure to other-ness is key, directly is of course best (and easiest on us as parents!) but talking, books, movies etc are also a good replacement.
    And I do think that a lot of it also happens naturally by learning from their parents, I am sure V is all set with her liberal mama :).

  7. Many years ago I did a documentary in Japan and had an opportunity to visit small villages. Women came up to me and touched my hair. (colored red with blond streaks). The first night at my host home, they invited the neighborhood to come and see the “Western Woman”. Really was interesting! Growing up in Marquette wasn’t the best place for diversity so of course anyone with a different “color” stuck out. After traveling the world the “colors” I’ve seen have reinforced my thoughts of everyone being so unique. I volunteer in the schools to read to kindergarten and first grade students and some of my favorite books are about people of color and how they deal with their uniqueness. I ask them to look into someone else’s eyes and tell me the color of their eyes, to look at someone else’s hair and tell me the color of their hair, then to look at everyone’s hands and tell me what they see. We talk about how special each and everyone is, no one has the same fingerprint, no one is really the same, each totally special. and wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we all were the same. Teach V about being special and keep telling her that, Teach her that everyone is different but special. Teach her to be confident about her uniqueness and be in awe of everyone around her and their differences. Hang in there, it gets even more interesting as she gets older. Proud of you!

  8. Hello from a fellow import to Japan (Osaka)! I’ve never posted a comment before but I *think* I discovered your blog a couple years ago when I was pregnant and looking for people’s experiences of having a baby in Japan. When I have a rare free moment I come read your blog and am always well entertained. So thanks!

    I felt the need to comment now because this entry really hit home. My baby Lila (seeing a trend here…) just turned one and since birth not a day has gone by without a bombardment of kawaiis and the subsequent stroking of hands and cheeks. Sure, I think she’s cute, perhaps the cutest child in existence! But I know the attention is really directed at her blonde curly hair, fair skin, and big in this case brown eyes. The clincher is that Lila’s dad is Japanese. I almost feel like apologizing to her for cursing her with my strong genes. Recently we’ve been getting a lot of “Hey, look at the foreign baby! Oh, foreigners’ babies really are cute!” and I cringe when I think of the identity crisis she’s going to have when she gets older and starts school.

    I personally moved to Japan when I was 14 and went from awkward, nerdy Maine girl to object of enthusiastic curiosity. For me it was a good thing and helped me overcome some pretty strong teenage insecurities. To actually be raised in that kind of limelight…I know it’s kids like Lila and Vesper who will be hit hardest with the highs and lows of it, but as a parent in the sidelines you want to put your child in a bubble (preferably made of two-way glass) while knowing you have to step back and let them find their own place in the world. Good luck to both of us!

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