My blog entries up to this point have been pretty sunny: I've rambled on and on about the kindness of the people here in Japan. They've gone out of their way to guide me by the hand when I've been lost on the subway. They've invited me into their homes and have cooked me delicious dinners. They've smiled and have tried to help when I've asked stupid questions in broken Japanese.
In short, they've taught me that kindness is universal, that there are nice folks all over the world. But yesterday I unfortunately learned that fear -- the dark underbelly of humanity -- is also universal.
My poor little car, still recovering from the mountainous road trip adventure this weekend, broke down again in the grocery store parking lot yesterday afternoon. The battery is dame (bad), but it just has to hold out for the 18 days I have left here in Japan, so I'm not motivated to shell out the yen required to fix it properly. Instead, I'd purchased a pair of jumper cables after this weekend's adventures in auto repair, so I was prepared to remedy the problem. I just needed to find someone’s car to use for the jump.
Now, this scenario may sound familiar because I had to get my car jumped in the same grocery store parking lot this fall. An extremely kind man went out of his way to help me, and, in doing so, reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of humanity.
So I anticipated that I'd have no problem finding someone willing to help me this time around. But I was wrong.
I sat in my car, turning the key in the ignition, listening to it attempting to but failing to turn over. My car was parked between two other vehicles, with people sitting in them, ostensibly waiting for their respective spouses to finish their grocery shopping. Hearing the distressed sounds my poor car was making, they both looked my way. They must've known that I was having car trouble.
I dug the jumper cables out of the back seat, opened my door, and walked to the car parked on my right. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the driver’s seat. The windows were rolled up, but the car was running. I waved, smiled, bowed a little and mouthed a friendly "sumimasen" (excuse me) while holding up the jumper cables.
She looked at me. I almost didn't recognize her expression because it had been so long since I'd seen it.
She locked her door, put on her seat belt, and drove away, leaving me standing in the parking lot, jumper cables in hand.
I was surprised at her reaction, but somehow unfazed. I walked over to the other car, the car parked on my left, and repeated the procedure. This time, the grandfatherly-looking man sitting in the driver's seat just stared at me blankly through his window. Then, wordlessly, he started up his car and moved it to another parking spot.
I was starting to feel a bit defeated: I was actually scaring people, and couldn’t figure out why. It was 4 o'clock on a sunny afternoon. As I was coming home from work, I actually looked presentable, dressed in slacks and a blouse. This had never happened to me.
After I approached a third person – a woman walking out of the store, bags in hand, who sharply told me that she didn’t have time to help me before hurrying away – I gave up. I was at the breaking point: I threw the jumper cables in the back seat, grabbed my bag, and left my car in the parking lot (a friend helped me jump it later that night). I walked the 15 minutes back to my apartment, my eyes burning with tears of frustration.
I'm different here in Japan. But my story is no different from those told to me by friends back in Chicago, who have been harassed by police for no apparent reason, refused help when they've had car trouble, or eyed suspiciously when they're walking through certain neighborhoods at certain hours, just because they look a certain way. The blonde woman in a supermarket parking lot in rural Japan is the Middle Eastern man in the security line at the airport, or the African American talking the CTA through the north side of Chicago on his way home from work, or the Mexican immigrant denied service at a restaurant because “we don’t speak Spanish here,” even though she's speaking perfectly good English, just with a hint of an accent.
So I walked home in their shoes yesterday. I got a small taste of what some folks have to go through every day of their lives. And I'm grateful for the lesson.