RESET ASKS MOVERS AND MAKERS TO SHARE THE PLACES THAT HAVE SHAPED WHO THEY ARE
JAMERA - MOVER AND MAKER
New York - Tokyo
Jamera left her country to find a place where she felt safe. This is a narrative that we typically associate with migrants who are fleeing war zones. It's not one that we associate with the United States of America, the 'land of the free' with the star-spangled banner. Through her story we're able to see a different perspective, one where the American Dream is overcast by America's current reality, and where she had to seek overseas to experience true freedom. She tells me about her year living in Tokyo, visiting Taiwan and getting a taste of liberation.
Where did you grow up and how has that shaped who you are today?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and I was blessed to be brought up during a time where Hip Hop and black culture thrived in America, but particularly in New York City. While I’ve had the chance to live in different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I’ve always found each neighborhood full of community and everyone just looking out for each other. Whether the neighborhood was “bad” or “good” didn’t matter because there would always be that neighbour on the stoop looking out for all of the kids who knew everyone. That was my sense of home at the time.
As New York City is the melting pot, I’ve always considered each community to be the spoon that stirred cultures together and connected them in ways I wouldn’t see anywhere else. Growing up in New York City, I had a chance to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures. As kids, despite our general ignorance of life, we were bombarded with lives different from our own and as a result we learned to adapt and live and grow with these differences. With the ease of public transportation and a push from family members who were naturally curious and eager to learn as well, I was able to explore communities outside of the ones I lived and studied in. These trips to museums, historic landmarks and more laid the foundation for my hunger to learn and experience other cultures.
What led to your decision to leave America?
I decided to leave America because I was exhausted, and overwhelmed and frightened of what was happening in the US. So many deaths at the hands of authorities meant to protect my community led me to thinking… “why America? Why stay in a country that has never accepted me?” It was also my passion to see more of the world that ultimately led me to living abroad in Japan. I had dreamed about living abroad and I was so blessed to have the opportunity to do so in Japan, which may be the safest country for black women. I liked that Japan had a culture that was so different from the western world. Where I grew up on individualism, Japan is very much a homogeneous country. Where I was taught to be expressive and encouraged to be free, I found Japanese culture to be more restricted and controlled. I thought it’d be a great experience to have and it was.
As your first overseas trip, how did you feel being by yourself in Tokyo for the first couple of weeks?
I am very comfortable with being alone, but on that flight to Japan, I was full of so many emotions. Excitement, anxiety, fear, and determination were one of the many emotions I had, but one emotion that really took over me was shock. My move to Japan was honestly the first time I realized I could do anything I put my mind to. I worked hard and fought back on so many negative moments and worked toward my goal to getting to Japan. Once I landed I was so proud of myself and just happy to be doing something different. While I was alone, I felt confident and prepared to face anything and that’s really all you can be in those situations – firm, and resolute and ready for what’s next.
What were some of the biggest cultural differences you noticed while there?
For Japan to be really innovative and seen as a “tech machine”, the tech systems used within the systems of Japan are very old. When I was working in schools, you couldn’t bring your own computer to prepare your work assignments. You had to stay and use a spare computer at the school. You couldn’t use email, or dropbox to send documents. It all had to be shared via USB and the computers weren’t connected to wifi, you had to be connected to ethernet cables. And if you questioned it, you would be told that’s just the way things were there. I also took notice of smaller cultural differences like the garbage. Japan is such a clean country and I love that they are very mindful about waste and they have a very strict system in place when it comes to handling waste, so much so, that there aren’t garbage cans on the streets. If you buy something you will have to wait until you pop into a convenience store (conbini) or wait until you get home to dispose of your garbage.
It can be really nerve-wracking as a black traveler wondering how you’ll be received in other countries. Was this a big concern for you and how was it once you were there?
Oh, I absolutely worry a lot about traveling as a black woman because in some cases, one wrong stop in some distant place could be life or death. This extreme notion may be because of my growing up in America and honestly to this day I am more willing to travel to any part of the world than I am in America because I don’t think it’s as lethal. I’m thankful to all of the other black travel bloggers/ and vloggers, Facebook groups, and websites that allow black travelers to speak open and honestly about their experiences abroad. These resources really served as a guiding light for me when I decided to move to Japan. I was initially concerned of how I would be received in Japan and if it would be anything like what I was hearing in China (I definitely don’t have the capacity to deal with strangers grabbing and poking at me). I was so relieved to find out that it’s definitely not the case and the Japanese are way more (maybe overly) respectful of your space. This however changes during the morning commute. No one is safe then.
Tell me about Taipei! What was it like and how did it teach you more about Japan?
While I lived and worked in Tokyo, I didn’t feel like I was really living my life until I went to Taipei for Christmas! It was a solo trip that I had so much fun on. I learned a lot about the culture of Taipei on walking tours, stuffed my face with fried squid and fresh sugarcane juice at the night markets, and got stranded on the outskirts of the city. My trip to the city of Jiufen, Taipei also taught me more about Japanese culture. Since anime is a large cultural aspect of Japan, when I visited Jiufen, I learned that it was the inspiration behind this very popular anime film called Spirited Away. Despite living in Japan, I wasn’t informed on anime culture or any Hayao Miyazaki film (besides Ponyo). After watching the film once I returned from Taipei, I was able to see what parts were inspired by Jiufen and the beauty of the film made me appreciate Japanese culture even more and it made me feel closer to it.
How did Asia affect your outlook?
Living in Asia gave me the opportunity to see that there are places outside of America where you can just live and be free without having to worry about being killed in police custody. While there is danger everywhere, I felt for the first time, free. People were mostly curious and so friendly and once they got used to you, they were like “meh”. I was less joyful about coming back to the States and even entered into depression, but my time in Asia gave me the courage to think of all of the other places I could travel to and live abroad. I would love to have the opportunity to live abroad again and travel has become my energy source for sure.
What would you advise anyone considering long-term travel or a move abroad?
Do your research, be open to new things, stay alert, have fun and document this moment! If you’re considering moving to Japan, I would highly encourage you to watch YouTube videos. There are so many expats living in Japan and documenting their experience online and that helped me so much when preparing for my move. I would encourage you to practice your Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana (Japanese writing system) before the trip. The book “Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners” by Timothy G. Stout was really helpful for me. Once I got to Japan, I also searched for free Japanese classes in my area, if you have the time, I would absolutely suggest taking a class in conversational Japanese while in Japan. It is not an easy language AT ALL. For community, I loved using Meetup to connect with local expats and Japanese who were looking to meet new people. As a black woman who blogs, it was also important for me to reach out to groups on Facebook. Whether it was a black women in Japan group or a creatives in Japan group, it really helped me to feel grounded and less lonely knowing there was a community I could communicate with and ultimately meet in person who understood what I was going through.
Last but not least, who do you become in unfamiliar surroundings?
I become more observant. While I like being watchful and mostly quiet, I would love to see myself be more intentional in putting myself out there and reaching out and sparking conversations. In Japan, I felt safer, so I was more confident even in these unfamiliar spaces. While I was exploring new places, I didn't feel a cloud over me so I felt like I could experience life freely and I was happier because of it.
Read more about Jamera’s life in America, Tokyo and beyond on her website The Muggle Chronicles. You can also read about her Japan experience in her article ‘At Peace with Myself: Being Black in Tokyo.’