Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Mayumi Yamamoto

When I was small
at an age unknown,
someone told me that
in South Africa,
angels were black,
not white.

In South Africa,
they had apartheid as the racial segregation system based on colour
where black people were not allowed to share facilities with white people.
(The real apartheid was more complex, though.)

The white minority controlled the larger black majority.
Black people were even deprived of basic human rights.
That’s the reason, I was taught, why angels were black over there.

And I was told, too, that
we Japanese were treated equally as white people were
—despite the fact that we were labelled “yellow” by Westerners
because we were officially designated “honorary whites”.
This designation was due to our miraculous economic development,
which made it possible to form a trade pact between Japan and South Africa
in the early 1960s.

Among non-white people,
we were the exception who could enjoy staying in South Africa,
if we claimed we were Japanese nationals
wherever we visited, restaurants or hotels, by bus or train.

The person who gave me all this knowledge asked me, then,
“How do you behave if you visit there?”
I answered,
“I’ll try both,
just for experience and to know how it is to be privileged and discriminated against.”
Then, he said,
“That’s not tolerated. Not accepted. You have to choose. You must decide.”
Whoever the person was
asking such a harsh question to a less-than-10-year-old girl is
no more in my memory.
My father?
Could be.
He had Korean friends and witnessed
how they had to struggle in their daily lives just to survive in Japan
if they claimed they were Korean nationals in those days.
(Mostly they kept their Korean identity secret by using Japanese names.)

I was confused.
I have forgotten what I said to him as my answer. But
I haven’t forgotten the question I was asked.

I was too small to learn the history of others.
I had no idea what Mahatma Gandhi had done in South Africa many years ago.

Recently, I discussed about the lyrics of various English singers,
with my poet friend.
When we shared the song of my favourite Irish singer, Glen Hansard,
he commented that his lyrics to “Bird of sorrow” were in colour.
“The poem with a coloured background”, he said.

I was sad to hear that,
because I could not understand what he felt.
I told him about my experience during the journey in Ireland with my daughter.

One day, on the way back to the hotel,
I was standing at a bus stop with my less-than-10-year-old daughter.
The place was 2-3 hours away from Dublin, the capital, by bus.

We were surrounded by greenery, low hills, and vast fields.
It was autumn.
Then two old women, who seemed to be locals, came and
found us when we were waiting for a few minutes.

One woman said, “Look, she is dark!”
Another one replied, “So cute!”

It was in 1996.
Ireland hasn’t received many Asians as migrants.
They mustn’t have been accustomed to seeing Asian children
with straight black hair and a different skin colour from theirs. According to them,

it was a “dark” colour, and
it was cute as well.

They were approaching us with smiles, and
admired the skin and hair of my daughter.
The one even touched her hair,

As for the comment on skin colour,
it was my first time hearing this kind of compliment. And I didn’t doubt that
they used the word “dark” in a very positive way.

“Dark? Is she?”, he said.
“Comparatively,” I said.
“Irish people are…pale,” I added a little hesitatingly.

Although a dictionary says one of the definitions of “pale” is “not dark”,
I know that this word doesn’t sound very positive.
But what I wanted to say is that
Irish people were “pale” for me
if Japanese were “dark” for them.

I had another experience in Delhi relating to skin colour.
It was almost the similar experience but with another word applied to me.
When I visited a certain residential area of lower-class people,
I was called “white” by the kids there.
They surrounded me and chanted, “You are white!”
Repeatedly and pleasantly.
I understood that
I was relatively “white” for them
if they were “brown” for me.

This time, the situation was different.

He reacted immediately and said,
“For me, most Japanese are technically white, and Caucasians are flesh.”
And he added, “based on Crayola’s colours.”

He and I are both Asians, of Southeast and East Asia, respectively.
Physically, we are not different, and
that’s why he said “technically”.

I felt as if I were slapped by him.
He drew a clear line between us, saying that “we are different.”
My choice of word—“pale”—became a trigger.

I was recalling, then, why I visited Ireland.
At that time,
I could have chosen any other European countries besides Ireland
had I desired.
It was the opportunity provided to me—as a staff member of
a Japanese embassy located in a developing country—
to visit whichever countries I preferred
for regular medical check-ups if they had adequate facilities for that purpose,
according to Japanese government regulations.

Ireland was recommended by my friend.
According to her,
for a mother traveling with a little girl,
Ireland is the best place in Europe. “Because”, she said,
“Irish people are willing to accept a woman with kids wherever it is,
whether restaurants or theatres.
Basically they are very kind to children.”

Then, she advised me to visit
Kilmainham Gaol,
a museum run by an agency of the Government of Ireland.
This was once a prison,
where majority of the nationalist Irish leaders were detained
from eighteenth to twentieth century. Thus,
its history as an institution is intimately linked to
the story of Irish nationalism.

For a person from a “Far Eastern” country,
both Irish and English are the same “white” people.
But there seemed to be another history that
I had not been aware of yet.

As he said,
“For me, most Japanese are technically white,”
I concluded talking with him saying
“Anyway, it’s a debatable matter.”

I didn’t have enough courage to continue our conversation because
I have been already awakened to the fact that
Japan had once ruled his country,
although for a relatively short period.


Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her poems, creative non-fictions and opinions have appeared in Literary Yard, Indian Periodical, The Space Ink, RIC journal and Spillwords(forthcoming). She authored several published books in the Japanese language.

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