A different light

I am useless when I’m hungry.

When I was a student, I volunteered for an organisation called The Oaktree Foundation. They run an annual fundraiser called Live Below the Line. The fundraiser is for an undoubtedly good cause – aiding those living under the poverty line and empathising with their situation – but it’s also a special kind of torture, if we’re going to be honest here. You see, participants need to spend a week or more where their meals can add up to only $2 a day.

That’s a week or more of agonising over every gram and every cent of every meal. A week or more of having my saliva ducts set off by anything and everything from the fruity scent of my shampoo to the spelling of my surname. A week or more of savouring every bite, every flavour, every moment my stomach was full.

The first time I participated was in its inaugural year so I made the mistake of doing that week alone. My manager was so fed up (ha pun) with my grumpy disposition within our first shift together that she begged me to let her feed me.

“Donate to my page instead,” I huffed.

“But you can give food to the poor,” she reasoned. “Why can’t I do the same for you?”

“Because, ok? It’s just… That’s not how it works!” I cried out, scurrying off to fold more jeans before I snapped at her or burst into tears.

As it turns out, hunger makes me surprisingly emotional. At the time, it was also hard to identify what those emotions were exactly on an empty stomach. Was I angry? Was I sad? I couldn’t pinpoint anything beyond feeling “not good.”

Watch as my public thoughts become slightly manic.

Although I never did Live Below the Line alone again, I did agree to participate over the next few years as long as I had a group of friends suffering with me. It was an improvement. Friends meant camaraderie (turns out, misery does love company) and that the quantity of food increased. The flavour, however, did not. During those weeks, I was more depressed than angry.

My mother watched on, half empathetic and half amused.

She came into our kitchen one day to find me dejectedly shovelling rice into my mouth. One look and she laughed.

“I know,” she said soothingly. “I was poor even before I was a refugee, remember?”

Suddenly, all those stories that she told me about her childhood and refugee days seemed more three dimensional. I mean, they were always tragic but in that moment, while I was experiencing hunger in a very minimal way, knowing that she went through decades of poverty made me empathise with her in a very different light.

Ron, however, had always been used to three delicious meals a day, courtesy of his mother or of the Hogwarts house-elves, and hunger made him both unreasonable and irascible.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” JK Rowling

Same, Ron. Same.

I’ve answered a few FAQs before but never the biggest one: “why did you move to Japan?” I’ve alluded to it from time to time but in truth, it’s not a one sentence answer.

So I usually tell people that I wanted an adventure, that the timing was good, that I wanted to become more independent, that I loved Japan as a tourist. All these things are true.

But honestly, I came to Japan because I wanted to be foreign.

It comes back to my parents, and quite a number of family and friends, who have experienced poverty before. In fact, a number of them were boat people.

As I became acutely aware of during Live Below the Line, not even I understand what it means to have experienced what they went through. That’s even with my unique insight into their stories.

But what I do know is this: they’re great people. What’s more, they’re good people.

People sometimes tell me that I’m brave for coming to a country where I didn’t have connections or language proficiency. They tell me I’m clever for getting a job and learning the bare basics of Japanese.

My parents were younger than me when they did the same thing minus the comforts of a plane ticket, the Internet, or money.

The Children Overboard Incident of 2001 was the first time I realised how important the media is.

If they had chosen to evade a corrupt system of authority, they’d be mysterious. If they had chosen to cross the sea on a boat into a new country despite all odds, they would be courageous. And if they had chosen to climb from manual labour jobs to their current educated professions, they’d be inspirational.

I never understood why their doing so out of circumstances rather than choice made them people to be pitied or threatened by.

Granted, most kids will tell you that their parents wear invisible capes. Even so, I still feel pretty justified in thinking highly of mine.

In light of this, I’ve once mentioned how confronting it was to hear a co-worker teach me about “the dangers of immigrants”. In summary: immigrants are out to steal jobs, probably because they don’t share the same values as Australians.

I’m not blind to the fact that refugees and immigrants are not all pure hearted. Still, considering the personalities of the immigrants and former refugees that I did know, I found this misconception and their subsequent fears to be sad and funny in equal measures.

What tipped it away from the funny end of the scale was when I heard these sentiments repeated about Middle Eastern and Islamic people in the wake of terror attacks.

Even worse, when I heard it from former refugees.

Something I hadn’t considered was that having similar experiences does not guarantee empathy.

There weren’t many Asian kids in my primary schools. So, children being what they are, I’ve been victim to racial slurs, both malicious and ignorant.

In high school, I changed to a school with a larger pool of Asian international students. I was never cruel to them. Never intentionally, anyway. But I’m ashamed to say I never went out of my way to offer friendship either. I could justify that by saying that I rarely initiated friendship with anyone. But the harsh reality is that despite my upbringing and my family’s origins, and despite the fact that no one openly bullied them, I just didn’t want to be grouped in as one of “the Fobs.”

I finally extended that hand of friendship after I entered university, when I joined my church’s international students’ group. Perhaps it was to somewhat rectify my actions in high school. Mostly, it was because I saw such a divide between their group and our second-generational group, even though we were parts of the same church.

As these friendships grew, I quickly came to understand that I couldn’t relate to their experiences. And that made me realise that while it was possible for me to work in the industry, it wasn’t likely that I’d become the type of journalist I dream of being at that rate. In fact, it would’ve been dangerous for me to enter meaningful conversations with such a limited worldview.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Atticus Finch, “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,” Harper Lee

So, coming back to why I decided to come to Japan. Some travel to find themselves. It seems that I came to Japan to do the opposite – to lose myself.

I certainly wasn’t in the popular cliques at school and I’ve never been drawn to the centre of the limelight. But I’ve also never truly been an outsider and chances were I wouldn’t have such an experience as long as I was in Australia. Not with such a comfortable and supportive community, anyway. Not with my social and professional skills …well, nowhere near perfected but certainly on the rise.

On the other hand, with life in Japan – that is, without established connections, language proficiency, or the skills required to be a teacher – everything has been a learning experience. Think about it: complacency is discouraged even among the locals.

The first thing that pops out when skimming this blog is that I’m wrong and awkward. Often. Still.

Just last week, to my shock and horror, a housemate pointed out that I’ve apparently been buying low fat milk for the last two years. (So I, of course, switched back to full delicious cream immediately afterwards.)

Moving here hasn’t been without its difficulties, even with a smartphone in my pocket, in a country as accommodating as Japan.

But it’s given me a taste of the challenges and the discomfort of being a foreigner. Not in its entirety. In fact, it’s been more like a rollercoaster ride; fear and nerves going down, but all the while safely strapped in, knowing I’ll reach the top before long. And, if I’m honest, the rush is a little addictive.

The point is, I haven’t at any point been without lifelines and I doubt I’ll ever be willing to go that far. Still, it has helped me to appreciate the insecurities and triumphs of those I had once struggled to relate to.