One day when he was two or three years old, I took my oldest son to Arisugawa-koen: a large, beautiful 16-acre park in Tokyo with cascading hills, ponds, and wooded areas. Centred in a quiet suburb that was home to embassies and international schools, the park was full of nannies and their charges that afternoon. As I fed my son his onigiri, a nanny, who introduced herself as being from the Philippines, approached. “Is he yours?” she asked, indicating my son. I assumed she was curious as to why he looked Asian, so I explained that my husband was Japanese. She immediately followed up with a question and an offer: wouldn’t I like some help? Her sister was available for sponsorship and was a wonderful caregiver.
I explained that I worked part-time teaching at night, and stayed home during the day to take care of him; I wasn’t looking for live-in help. But she simply wouldn’t believe me.
No matter how I tried, I couldn’t make her understand I wasn’t in a position to hire. To her way of thinking, that I should be found in the middle of this affluent suburb indicated I was a company or embassy spouse, when in fact, I was a spouse of a different stripe: married to a Japanese citizen, and living in Japan for years.
She never did take me at my word, and in the end departed with a broad, cheeky smile and a lilt in her voice. “All right, all right,” she said. “But I know you need a nanny...or you’ve already got one.”
It was somewhat comical, and while I understood her presumption was based on my appearance and situation, I was a little unsettled that she couldn’t let go of it.
Back in Canada, I’ve found that people make assumptions based on my appearance, too. Sometimes people are surprised to find I’m a full-time college student. On campus, the kids I meet assume I’m teaching.
We all do it: assume people fit within “the norm” of the group we most typically represent; I know I have. While it helps categorize, it doesn’t allow us to discover who people really are, or where they’re at in life; the truth may lie beyond the norm, after all. But if someone is willing to share their story, I believe it's worth taking the time to listen. And to hear it.
Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.