On She Goes

At Peace with Myself

Being Black in Tokyo

Jamera McNeil
Jamera McNeil
August 7, 2017
Story hero image

This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. 

I’ve always loved adventures. So it wasn’t that big of a shocker when I told my family I was moving from New York to Japan to teach kids English. My desire to travel is a big part of me, so much so that I pounced on the chance to not only visit, but live in a country I’d never traveled to before while at the same time going on my very first overseas trip. Despite my mother’s concerns about her youngest child living abroad alone, my grandfather’s hesitancy over the distance, and having to scrounge up the funds to make this fresh start, I knew it would be “wheels up” to Tokyo, Japan, in March 2016. Living and working as a young black woman in Tokyo would be my biggest adventure yet.

Jamera McNeil at the Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Why Japan?
People often asked me this, and my answer was always, “Why not?” Admittedly, while my plans to live and work in Japan weren’t completely derived from my passion (or, more accurately, lack thereof) to teach kids English, I saw an opportunity for true cultural exchange. I was most interested in living in a country whose values weren’t based in Western ideology. While Tokyo is very commercialized and the Western influences are visible, Japanese values and culture are still present. I knew that one of the bigger societal norms I’d have to adjust to was Japan’s collectivist mindset. While I was brought up to embrace my individualism and encouraged to stand out from the rest, in Japan the opposite is advised. You do not want to stir the pot, and you actually want to blend in as much as you can. Though these approaches strongly contrast one another, I believed I could benefit from having a more collectivist mindset while also infusing my students with the confidence to embrace the things that make them unique.

Shibuya crossing in Tokyo.
photo by Jamera McNeil

It’s okay to be a little uncomfortable
I was lucky to be living in Hachiōji, a city located an hour west of Tokyo’s center, where a small population of expats lived. Although the inhabitants of Hachiōji were used to seeing foreigners, thanks to the nearby US Army base, I couldn’t escape the stares. While there weren’t many, it was often awkward to encounter a set of eyes that would not budge when my own eyes met them. Despite the uneasiness on my end, I felt the stares came from curiosity rather than animosity. When I would teach at each of my three junior high schools, I always felt accepted by the teachers and students. Despite their initial shyness, the students became comfortable enough to ask me about life in America, what my impressions of Japan were, and even about American politics. The teachers, though very busy, would welcome me with smiles and occasionally practice their English with me. While the work was tiring, it was rewarding getting to know the students and teachers and connecting with them by the end of the school year.

Shop replica at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.
photo by Jamera McNeil

Getting to know myself
While I’m not part of the “no new friends” league (unlike DJ Khaled), which meant refusing to accept additional friends into your life, I didn’t expect to make such great connections in Japan. As an introvert, I don’t initiate conversations in social settings, but after living in Japan for a while I found that I wanted to share in these new experiences with people when I was ready. Using social apps and websites like Facebook and Meetup really helped me put myself out there and meet foreigners and locals alike. This experience made me realize that there are times when I need people for support and that I shouldn’t be afraid to seek it out.

Besides travel, one of the main reasons for my move to Japan was to reflect and really connect with myself. Being away from family and friends helped me to block the noise and focus on myself.

Being in a country where your native language is barely spoken and you barely understand the country’s native language really shocks your system and automatically reminds you of how alone you are. Besides travel, one of the main reasons for my move to Japan was to reflect and really connect with myself. Being away from family and friends helped me to block the noise and focus on myself.

These experiences helped me realize that I could successfully live abroad alone and gave me more confidence to trust myself. Whether forest bathing at the Meiji Shrine or dining with friends at an izakaya after the fireworks festival, I felt at peace with myself and my decision to live in Japan.

Ferris wheel at an amusement park in Yokohama, Japan.
photo by Jamera McNeil

Finding small comforts
When I moved to Japan I understood that I wouldn’t find products for my hair type. I packed up my favorite products from America and hoped they would last the entire year I’d be there (spoiler: they didn’t). After a couple of months in Japan, I was so bored with my hair that I decided I wanted to cut it. The humid weather made clothes stick to you the second you walked outside, so I figured a tapered cut would be the perfect style. I was thankful and appreciative to find groups of black women on Facebook living in Japan who connected me to various shops so that I could buy hair, experiment, and get my hair done. It was this group of women who introduced me to China, a Japanese woman, who does great work on black hair. I made the trip to Hayato Salon in Tokyo’s upscale Roppongi neighborhood for a consultation. China was such a kind woman and very patient with me, as I don’t often go to salons for hair care and I had many questions about her technique. The vibe was right, so the next weekend I sat in the chair feeling excited as China snipped away. She was precise and considerate and provided such an excellent service, and most importantly, I loved the outcome! I walked out of the salon feeling and looking great, and it was all thanks to the Facebook group and China.

I was thankful and appreciative to find groups of black women on Facebook living in Japan who connected me to various shops so that I could buy hair, experiment, and get my hair done.

The nail salon situation in Japan is more expensive than what I was used to in the US, and more emphasis is placed on the nail art, which is beautiful. For example, in Japan, 3-D nail art is very popular along with light pastel colors. Meanwhile in America I noticed that nail art is more simplistic or nonexistent and using negative space on the nail has become very popular. And you can only imagine how difficult it was to find clothing and shoes that fit a plus-size woman. After a few sad attempts at clothing retail therapy, I settled for online shopping. I found that a lot of places I normally shop, such as ASOS and the Minnesota-based Hackwith Design House, ship internationally, but you have to pay for shipping, and that’s where it gets expensive.

All in all, my time in Japan was transformative. While I did receive some stares and giggles, my experience was mostly positive, and I felt grateful to have the opportunity to live and work in a country where the culture is different from the West. My advice to anyone thinking about living abroad is to go for it and trust yourself. The adventure will open your eyes, mind, and heart and will be one you’ll never forget.