This is exciting! I have the chance of a lifetime to share with you readers a small but significant part of my life when I was a young foreign student from Japan. And in the course of this short essay, I will try to spell out my way of overcoming racism in this country, which is hailed as a melting pot of cultures.
The story starts with my arrival in the States in the early 80s to attend college. That was when I had shiny eyes, no gray hair and no age spots! Actually, the US was not my first choice in terms of destinations for studies abroad. I decided to come here after receiving rejections from universities in Australia and Canada. I picked the countries that would give me some elbow room—psychologically more so than physically. Anyone who has lived among my people in Japan knows what I am talking about. When I look back on those early days here in the States, my thoughts immediately go to some of the very special people I met. Interestingly, with a few exceptions, those who left the strongest impressions on me were so-called “people of color” (a socially acceptable yet distasteful term). I come from a culture that tends to look down on people of darker complexion. As with many Anglos, so too, many Japanese who lack exposure think that they have little to learn from people whose skin is darker than theirs. Yet, it is my experience which tells me that the abundant life that Jesus talked about doesn’t have anything to do with mingling only with Whites—or Japanese—and copying their ways.
For example, I think of Danielle from Haiti. The reason why she is so memorable to me is because not only did we go through common struggles together as foreign students, but also because she was a thinker. She was educated in Paris prior to coming to the States, and she would nostalgically talk about how French students would enjoy engaging in intellectual conversations. I was also perplexed at the time as to why there was such a gap between conversations in classrooms and those outside. In short, Danielle and I had a common yearning for an academic environment, which we didn’t find at the time at the college we were attending in St. Louis (I later transferred to a state university, where the intellectual climate was much more appealing to me). Danielle was someone with whom I could talk about philosophy, society, God, etc., and she so often peppered our talks with laughter. We also attended a college ministry gathering on Friday evenings, which was led by an Indian couple. I still remember the delicious Indian curry they served us, which she and I devoured as we gave thanks to our God.
I also have a fond memory of Shade (sha-dee) from Nigeria, whom I met in an anthropology class at the state university, to which I transferred. She was a cute girl with big, smiley eyes. I knew she was younger than me, but I didn’t realize how much younger until a few years after graduation. I saw her picture and story in the university alumni magazine. Shade was introduced as the youngest student to graduate —16 years old! Well, we took the anthropology class a couple of years before our graduation, so she was probably 14½ when we sat next to each other in that big lecture hall. I was studying next to a teenager who had barely reached puberty! Our friendship was, unfortunately, rather brief due to circumstances typical of student life, but her faith and focused study habits left a lasting impression on me. One event stands out to me. I ran into Shade at the university library, where she was busy writing a term paper. I asked her what she was writing about. “Terrorism,” was her answer. What a yucky subject, I thought. This was the 80s; surely terrorism was around, but it was an issue to which most people hardly paid any serious attention. As I look back, I wonder if Shade had the foresight to see that terrorism would become one of the biggest global problems in the twenty-first century. And I also wonder if she had some practical suggestions to make for fighting terrorism at the conclusion of her term paper. She was the youngest person to graduate from college of whom I know, and arguably one of the smartest people I will ever meet. And her heart was bent toward peace – I wish I had asked for a copy of her paper. Imagine the magnitude of stupidity to dismiss people based on their color or ethnicity, and think of the possibility of what we might be able to do to help solve the world’s problems by exchanging ideas and eagerly learning from one another from different parts of the world!
The third person I recall is Shirley, a bubbly African American girl with whom I shared an apartment for a semester. The air was getting colder by the day, and I was still a few semesters away from graduation. I was very poor at the time, and she was an office worker, who graciously paid a bigger chunk of the rent so that we could live there together. My bed was a $20 mattress from the Salvation Army (somehow it didn’t occur to me to ask my parents for more money). I do not remember the reason, but after some time, Shirley had to move out of our apartment to live with her parents several blocks away. Still, she kept paying her portion of the rent so that I could continue living there. There was no heat in the apartment. So my strategy was to put on two pairs of socks as well as a few blankets over me at night in order to fall asleep. A Midwest winter night can be harsh. One day, I remember that Shirley came home and offered me a $20 bill. She said she didn’t need the money, and she thought I could use it for something. I was able to buy myself a warm pair of gloves without holes in them so that I could drive my worn-out car without getting frostbite. It was also Shirley who invited me over for Christmas that year because she knew that I had nowhere to go.
The last person I have space to introduce is Amy from Nigeria. She was also a student in the States, and we attended church together. I have several pictures of her and me taken on the day of my graduation from university. In one picture, she is putting her hand on my shoulder as we were in the procession with caps and gowns. A few other pictures show Amy in a dress and me in the gown smiling at the camera in the middle of the huge university campus. Yes, just Amy and me. My other friends were with their families because this was their graduation day as well. My family couldn’t join me until my wedding day, which was to come a few years later. Amy was my friend and a good neighbor, who walked beside me and congratulated me on my graduation day. I am very fortunate to have experiences with such special friends, who showed love to me during a very lonely season of life.
It is a privilege to introduce to you these special friends whom God placed in my path. Each one is unique, each one is a Christ-follower, and each one has left a profound impact on me, shaping me into the person I am today. When I read, “. . . and we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only (John 1:14),” it is difficult for me to separate my friends from Jesus their Lord, for he has manifested his glory in and through them to me. Jesus’ glory comes in many colors and hues, and so we miss out when we fail to see the rainbow of his glorious love. The first step of going beyond racism is to cultivate in our hearts a desire to get to know others of different ethnicities in all of their uniqueness and diversity, and an expectation that we will experience God’s glorious beauty in new and amazing ways through them.