Throughout college, particularly as an anthropology major at a liberal arts school, “privilege” was a term that arose in just about every discursive situation. We read about it in analytical texts, fought about its applicability to ethics and agency, and lived it by attending the “highly selective” college that we were all in. Again and again, I would listen to my mostly white classmates bemoan their inherent economic and social privilege and how they were probably bound to these ideologies for life.
In these discussions, I usually felt excluded – in a good way, for once. Being a full-blooded Korean raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, I had always equated privilege with whiteness; to me, “privilege” was just shorthand for “WHITE privilege.” With the socioeconomic disadvantages that repeatedly burden people of color, an astounding tolerance for “funny” racism in mainstream mass media, and a litany of academic scholarship to back me up, America – despite being the proverbial melting pot of the world – is, at its core, a White man’s land. Thus, being an Asian in America, how could I be implicated in something that I could never fully be a part of?
This idea remained in the back of my mind when, five months ago, I moved to Japan to teach English. My quiet disdain for non-Asian foreigner teachers in Asia stewed when I heard the second and third year teachers talk about how they had attained immediate celebrity-status within their respective communities – a fact I mostly attributed to their complexion. However, while race was of course a contributing factor, I found out for myself that privilege can assume forms that are far more complicated than skin color.
When I first arrived in my rural town, I was interviewed by the local TV station. After it aired, people from all over excitedly recognized me – “Ah, the new English teacher!” – and students who I had not even met bowed to me as I biked by. Although I look just like everyone else I, like the other English teachers, had become known in my area. Initially, I was embarrassed when a Japanese person would discover that I am a foreigner. But after quickly realizing that my foreignness not only appealed to people but could be used to my advantage, I more actively employed it. Now, I approach people I normally would never talk to, an act that often yields in-store discounts and invites to home-cooked meals; and sometimes do things – like buying a cheaper but incorrect train ticket – knowing that, if I get caught, I can play the sorry-I’m-a-foreigner card and come out unscathed.
On a broader level, being a foreign English teacher in Japan has given me a unique social position in this society. The unsaid rules of Japanese etiquette do not (completely) apply to me. I use the wrong verb endings, never seem to bow enough, and sometimes ask inappropriate questions – but that’s OK because I’m The Foreigner. And not just any foreigner but a sensei, an honored title that was bestowed to me basically because I have a college degree and speak English. Still, it’s rather ornamental. I’m respected, but I hold no real authority; I’m an exception, but I’m dependent on those around me to explain what is going on and help me live my life.
This is where my simplistic view of privilege as whiteness, or privilege being singularly definable, is disrupted. In Japan, it does not matter that I’m Asian: I still have a multifaceted cultural privilege as a foreigner, an Asian foreigner who can blend in or “be foreign” at will, and an American foreigner who is an English teacher in this country. Interestingly, my cultural privilege heavily relies on interactive exchanges with people who can challenge my (apparent) position of power. I feel empowered to talk to random people because I am a cultural novelty, and people will generally treat me quite well because of that. But at the same time, am I only a novelty, and a helpless one at that? (I can get away with buying the wrong train ticket not because I’m a special person but because it is assumed that I’m stupid and can’t read the kanji.) My interactions always feel genuine and enjoyable, but perhaps it is through the mutual intrigue, limited depth, and relatively transient nature of these relationships that they are as fruitful as they seem. Thus, on an individual person-to-person level, am I still this privileged person, am I actually at a disadvantage, or do we become equals through the art of friendly communication?
Condensing my social interactions into a rhetorical question is a heartless simplification of these past few amazing months. However, as I reflect upon my experiences, myself, and whether or not I should re-contract, it is worth considering how “privilege” still pervades my daily life; though, this time, I’m actually included.
ABOUT MANDY: Mandy is currently living in Japan. And yes, she’s tried natto; it’s all right.
(Flickr photo credit: Gloucester, A Bottled Spider)