If you’re an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) working in Japan, then you probably know that you’re part of an incredibly diverse bunch. ALTs hail from countries across the globe and also come from varying racial, social, cultural, and economic backgrounds.
However, if you were to trawl the web to read about the ALT experience in Japan, more often than not, you may find yourself reading stuff written from the perspectives of white ALTs. But for ALTs of color, teaching in Japan can be very different from their Caucasian counterparts—and they may find themselves facing unique challenges simply due to the color of their skin.
After posting the topic in three different ALT-related groups on Facebook and mentioning it in conversations with fellow People of Color (POC) ALTs, it became clear that being an ALT of color in Japan often invites questions and comments that would be considered pretty offensive back in our home countries. But of course, we’re not at home so we have to figure out the best way to respond and do what we came here to do—educate.
1. Do you taste like chocolate?
According to the responses I got, many melanin-rich ALTs have been asked by their kindergarten and elementary kids whether they’re made of the dark, sweet stuff. Some students have even tried nibbling bits of the ALT to find out for themselves (gotta love experiential learning, right?).
Students have also baffled POC ALTs with creative observations about their skin color such as “Did you get burnt in the sun?” or “Your hands look like my breakfast (toast).” Japanese students of POC ALTs also seem to think that dark skin is some kind on spray-on tan as many have been asked “Does your color rub off?” or “Can you erase the brown off your skin?”
One POC ALT I spoke with said that one of their students went as far as to associate dark skin with non-Japaneseness, asking, “Why are you black? Is it because you’re foreign?”
Now, you can’t blame the tiny tots for their ignorance. They are only reflecting the wider societal misconception that Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation where everyone apparently has the same genetic makeup (never mind the Koreans, Ainus, and other minorities who live here). With that said, anyone who is darker than the usual “Japanese” color is considered odd and apparently, a delicacy.
2. How long does it take to make your hair?
After questions of skin color, questions about naturally curly hair appear to run a close second. In particular, these questions are directed at POC ALTs who wear their hair in locks or braids.
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