Two days ago, the customs guy at the airport assumed I was a drug smuggler. Or at least a drug user with a sweet tooth since he asked me if I was carrying any marijuana cookies. What is a marijuana cookie anyway? Well, maybe I should backtrack a little, for today I want to write about my first ever experience with being profiled, and I gotta say, it sucks. It is not cool at all.
First of all, I am a simple white girl from a conservative family in Southwest Virginia. I had the quintessential “American” upbringing. I come from a middle class family where both of my parents are teachers. I was a straight A student (except for that lone B in English. Darn you, Mrs. Moore!), I played sports everyday of my life and my parents always came to watch my games. I have two brothers and we are very close. The only thing that we lacked was the white picket fence and the dog named Spot. We did have a cat named J.J., whom we suspect was poisoned to death, but that is another story for another day. The point is, I was a normal girl, brought up in a normal town with normal parents. It was the All-American family.
But what does it mean to be All-American anyway? These days, the fabric of American society is changing at such a fast pace that Caucasians are now the minority in the state of California. But where I am from, in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains, the population is still largely white, and many, like me, never have had any encounter with being picked out or targeted by authorities just because they are different.
So I was the “normal” “all-American” girl until I hit age 40, at which point i underwent what I would like to call a “midlife renewal” during which I gradually morphed into a middle-aged punk rocker. I decided that I wanted to pursue my artistic side, which I had finally discovered when I started to write. And the fear of being different and sticking out, which had plagued me my whole life, was finally gone with the wind. So I did what most country girls living in Japan would do (are there any besides me?)–I got like ten ear piercings, one nose piercing, three tattoos, and a funky haircut. I have bleached and colored my hair so many times I am not quite sure what color it really is. And now, I have these cool black extensions that, along with my new leather jacket and Harley boots, makes me look like a middle age rocker indeed. I have never been more comfortable in my skin, for I know who I am and what I stand for, and I know that the color of my hair or the number of piercings in my ears have nothing to do with my character, my integrity, or my ability to do my job well.
The problem is, I live in Japan, where 80% of a person’s value, at least upon the first meeting, is determined by appearance. I often struggle with finding the balance between expressing myself and respecting what the culture in which I live in values. I live and work in Japan, and in Japan, sticking out is not cool. Which is why, while I may have a tattoo or two or three, I get them in places that are not very noticeable. It is also why I don’t wear my holey jeans to class, and leave my punk rocker clothes for weekends (well, most of the time). I have to respect that this is where I have chosen to live, and with that choice comes a degree of responsibility. Once, a student asked me about getting a tattoo, and I told her that she should think carefully about it, because in this culture having tattoos can hurt your employment or even marriage prospects. I told her that it is great to want to express yourself, but you have to accept the consequences when your parents freak out, or a prospective employer turns you down. It is sad to me that this is a reality, and while maybe people like me can help change it, for now, it is what it is.
Which brings me back to drug smuggling. When I went through customs after a 38-hour marathon trip home, I was looking and feeling more than a little rough. I was wearing my white-framed glasses, my leather rock jacket, Harley boots and black jeans. The customs guy looked at me and immediately asked to look through my bag. He saw on the form that I am a teacher, and he kinda smirked and said, “You don’t look like a teacher at all.” Ok, now let’s analyze that comment. First, what the heck does a teacher look like anyway? I have seen some teachers that look much more like drug smugglers than I do. And second, can you get any ruder than to speak out loud what you may be thinking in your head? Seriously?
He then proceeded to show me a laminated sheet with various plants (drugs) and asked if I had any. Of course I said no and played along. At this point, I was incredulous that this guy was even asking these questions and saying this stuff to me. I wasn’t mad at all. But then he asked me if I had brought back any snacks, like, say, marijuana cookies. First of all, I don’t even know what they are, although I am assuming that they are cookies with a little bit of a punch baked right in. What did the guy expect me to say anyway? I mean, if I had marijuana cookies, I would for sure not tell him I did. “Yeah sure! Right here in my bag! You want one? They are off the shizzle!” (Not sure I even used that right. Help me out here….). I politely replied I had no marijuana cookies, and I had the urge to show him a picture of my three adorable daughters to help dispel his ridiculous stereotype that I was a secret member of a drug cartel. Finally, he asked where I worked, and when I told him I taught at a university, I got another smirk and shocked expression followed by, “Man, you seriously don’t see many university profs like you! Hee hee hee.” Hardy har har.
Finally, to bring a weirder twist to this bizarre experience, he came across a CD that I had received at my Christian conference. (The fact that I am a Christian probably surprised him, too). The artist, Asiah, is well-known in the Japanese Christian world, but not all that much in mainstream culture. The guy said, “Hey! I have this too! I love this singer!” So now, all of a sudden, he is in the mood to talk gospel with me after pretty much accusing me of being a drug smuggling impostor professor. I guess he figured any fan of Asiah was a friend of his.
I left customs and the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I mean, what the heck was that? In all my years in Japan, I had never once been stopped at customs. And if I had been, that is okay. I mean, it is their right to randomly check bags. Only in my case, it was not random. I am 100% sure, due to his rude comments and behavior, that he profiled me. He decided that I was suspicious entirely on my appearance. While I have experienced mild discrimination in Japan because I am a foreigner, that was the first time in my life I had been so obviously judged because of my appearance. For the first time in my life, this redneck from Southwest Virginia had an inkling, if ever so small, of what it must feel like for blacks or Muslims or any other minority to be singled out and looked down upon just because of the color of their skin or the accent with which they spoke. For the first time in my life, I felt harshly judged, and I can tell you, it didn’t feel good. While the customs guy was this cute chubby dude with a nervous laugh and probably not an ounce of ill will, I still felt like he was determining my value not on who I am but on how I look. And that feeling, my friends, totally sucks. I left the airport doubting myself, doubting the fashion and style that has helped me to be more comfortable in my own skin than every before in my life. I started thinking that maybe I shouldn’t wear these clothes, or boots, or (insert any funky fashion accessory here).
But wait. I didn’t do anything wrong, and there is nothing wrong with who I am. That man does not determine my worth. In fact, no man determines my worth. My worth, and the worth of all humanity is determined by the one who created us, the one who, upon finishing his masterpiece proclaimed that “it was very good.” I am not going to change who I am because one man at customs thought I looked more like a drug smuggler than a wife, mother, published author, university professor and Jesus follower. He had no right to profile me like that, just as no one has any right to assume anything about anyone due to their race, religion, gender, or anything else that makes them not “normal.”
My friend said that many Japanese make 80% of judgements based on appearance, and that while it may sound harsh, the only way to avoid being judged is to not stick out. I cannot accept that, for while I am willing to make some compromises because of the culture in which I live, I refuse to squash who I am because if I don’t, I will be judged on my appearance. Maybe 80% of judgements are made on appearance, but I am confident that my remaining 20% is enough to shake Japanese culture to the core and make them re-evaluate what really makes a person valuable.
I love Japan, and this one experience will not change that. I know that I am surrounded by a community that accepts me and respects me for who I am. In fact, I am getting teary-eyed just thinking about all the people who love me and are my biggest fans. I love Japan, and I want Japan to love me back, not because I look like I am supposed to look, but because, in spite of all my piercing and tattoos, and funky haircuts, I love this country and these people with every atom of my punk rocker being, and every lock of my bleached hair. That is what I want people to see when they look at me. I want people to love me not in spite of the fact that I am different, but because I am.