“Where are you from?” I asked Heloise Halse over breakfast. We were both students at the University of Melbourne at the time.
It’s a question I hate. Not because I hate answering it – but because of the look of disbelief people give me when I give them an answer that doesn’t satisfy their preconceived ideas.
“Tokyo,” she answered.
“Cool,” I said.
Heloise’s response didn’t surprise me. My grandma grew up in the land of the rising sun.
“You?” Heloise asked back.
Thankfully, my answer didn’t surprise her, either. Born in Tokyo to a French mother and an English father, Heloise and I have been friends for a decade now.
“People always say, ‘but you don’t look Japanese’,” Heloise tells me over Skype.
Geniuses. I should give them a medal.
Growing up ‘gaijin’ in Japan isn’t easy. Yes – it’s a developed country, with a great healthcare system, a fascinating culture and lots to discover – but it’s also an island nation that was isolated for a really long time. With a population that’s 98.5% Japanese – many people say that Japan has a ‘homogenous culture’.
Foreigners stick out. We look different. No matter how much you try and fit in – you will always be gaijin. These days we’re referred to as gaikokujin, a slightly more politically-correct term.
Despite how obviously visible we are – are we ‘foreigners’ actually included, recognised and accepted in Japanese society?
Two generations later, I’ve returned to Japan to retrace some of my grandma’s old footsteps. I often find myself wondering what her life was like. Unfortunately, she passed away when I was five and I have no one to answer my gazillion burning questions.
“Young kids would point and say gaijin,” Heloise says. “Older kids would say kawaii. But that’s just kids being kids. I spoke Japanese first. I didn’t care too much about being gaijin till I was four.”
But then we all have experiences that change us. When Heloise was four, her parents left her and her sister Claire in France for the holidays.
“Claire had to translate from French to Japanese for me,” Heloise says. “When I returned to Japan, I couldn’t understand Japanese. I knew my nursery school teacher and the other kids in the class, but I couldn’t understand them.”
For the next year, Heloise would ask her mum, “When am I returning to France?”
Navigating cross-cultural difference is hard enough for grown-ups. It’s even more stressful for kids who may not have the tools to understand what’s going on. Heloise’s older sister went to a Japanese public school and got picked on. After that, her parents decided to enrol the both of them in an international school.
(Heloise with her parents and older sister Claire. Image courtesy of Heloise Halse)
“Looking back,” Heloise says, “I wish I had made more of an effort to make Japanese friends instead of sticking to the foreign bubble. I never became fluent in Japanese since I wanted to leave Japan from the age of four. It’s a shame.
“I loved the school I went to, but other than that, I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I knew some Japanese girls, but they were born overseas or had spent time overseas. There were also a lot of hafus at my school.”
Hafu is a Japanese term derived from the English word ‘half’. It is used to refer to someone who is half-Japanese and half-‘foreign’. Every country has its issues. You can’t run from them – no matter where you go.
But Japan intrigued me from the first day I landed on her shores when I was 12. There’s something unique about this country. I love it – I really do. But there are days when I wonder if I should really be here for the long haul.
It’s a question I still haven’t managed to answer. But… meh.
During our first Christmas together back in 2008, Heloise’s mother told me, “You never know where the wind can blow you.”
Her words have come back to me time and time again over the years. It’s true. You just never know.
I never thought that one day Heloise would come and visit me in Japan – as opposed to the other way around. It was her first time on Kyushu Island: the most southerly of the four main islands of Japan.
“I want to keep coming back to Japan,” Heloise says, “to see all of the places I never saw in Japan cause I was too young, too afraid to just go out there and experience this culture that I was in.
“I want to see anywhere but Tokyo. I want to go to the little villages and see the ‘real’ Japan. I went to Okinawa and Oita on my last trip. Oita was like going back in time – someone didn’t want to sit next to me on the train. But I went to this little town Usuki, and people were so nice there.”
I used to work in Usuki for a week each month. It’s an old samurai town that’s famous for fugu: that famous poisonous blowfish. The nature in Oita is absolutely spectacular. I grew to appreciate, respect and revere Mother Nature during my year on Kyushu Island.
“I felt comfortable there,” Heloise says. “It’s what I’m used to. People are friendly, polite and respectful. But it’s infuriating that they don’t always say what they think.
“It annoyed me as a teenager when people said things like, ‘Your Japanese is so good.’ There’s this body language with them that you’re different. You’re doing the most normal thing – but people are like ‘oh my God, there’s a foreigner doing it.’ I’m not talking about friends here – but complete strangers with all these crazy reactions.”
I laughed. It took me a while to stop. Oita really does sound like Tokyo 20 years ago. As beautiful as Oita is – I would take living in Yokohama over living in Oita any day.
“I felt rootless growing up,” Heloise says. “Part of it is the age: you’re not free and in this limbo. I wasn’t fully present when growing up in Tokyo. I couldn’t quite appreciate it. And I want to do it now. I love how Japanese people see beauty in the tiniest details.
“English was my better language. I wanted to go to the UK for university, but my parents had already planned to go Australia. I’m glad I joined them because I don’t know what I would have done without my family. My sister Claire was my rock.”
(An Inari Shrine in Usuki, Oita)
But being ‘different’ wouldn’t end with Japan. When Heloise moved to Australia after high school, people would still give her those crazy reactions when she told them that she’s from Japan.
“I ended up telling people I was from Bendigo,” Heloise says. “It’s easier to fit in in Australia. I’ve been here for 10 years now and feel most at home here. I love the huge landscapes in Australia. It makes you see how small you really are. That things are not such a big deal. It helped me to get the picture that it doesn’t really matter.”
Unlike Heloise, I spent five years in Australia and never quite felt at ease there. Despite all the challenges I’ve faced and continue to face in Japan, I’ve felt more at home here in than I ever did in Australia. I didn’t expect to feel this way about Japan – but it is what it is. And I’m actually happy here.
“I’m Australian now,” Heloise says. “But I’m happy to pack and go someplace new. Europe’s got the most attraction for me. I’m interested in going to France or Germany or Scandinavia.”
We go where we go and we find ourselves where we find ourselves. I don’t know where Heloise and I will wind up – but the old adage still stands. Mi casa, su casa. Come visit me anywhere, anytime.
“Doko kara – where are you from,” is a question I often get asked in Japan and everywhere else I’ve lived.
It’s an annoying question – but one that I no longer hate. After 29 years on this planet, I’ve finally found me an answer that everyone can relate to.
“Okasan no onaka ,” I respond. My mother’s womb.
People laugh. They think it’s funny. So be it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a look of disbelief. It’s an answer that satisfies everyone’s preconceived notions.