Interview: Ria in Japan
As a little girl, I remembered daydreaming about how my life will be in college. For many people, that world revolves around Greek life, tailgating and dorm life. But for me, the dream consisted of studying abroad. Classes outside by the Seine, learning Japanese at a café in Tokyo, sending my parents postcards from Italy – academia was my ticket to the outside world.
That dream however, still isn’t shared for many black students. The Atlantic noted only 5% Black-Americans students look internationally for their studies – this creates a huge domino effect within black communities in the U.S. and the world. Students lose out in learning essential cultural-exchange skills and job opportunities. Furthermore, in spaces where there are limited black populations, locals are forced to use media portrayals and stereotypes of black culture as a way of understanding black communities. Studying and living abroad are not only beneficial in terms of social capital, but can be better financial options, especially since the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2018–2019 school year was $35,676 at private colleges and $21,629 for out-of-state students at state schools. Choosing a school abroad in a country with a more affordable price of living can help black students save more money in the long-run, learn important communication skills and open up a vast array of lucrative jobs.
One thing that isn’t often noted – despite all the benefits of studying abroad – being a black international student/resident can be lonely. We’re pioneers in a new world. We have to represent and embody “Westernness” and “Blackness” towards an entire community. Depending on the country, there might be days or even months where you won’t see another person of color in the student and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) communities.
But that’s changing. Thanks to social media and the black travel movement, I’ve met and connected to countless students and teachers of color going abroad, such as Ria.
I’ve been a fan of Ria for a long time – she’s the personification of “black girl magic” – she can easily stop Tokyo traffic with her show-stopping headwraps and sparkling Caribbean smile. I had the chance to connect with Ria and hear for herself how life really is for a black teacher living in Japan.
Hey Ria! First things first - please introduce yourself.
Hiya, I’m Ria, a spunky twenty-seven year old Bajan gal, living and working in Japan for the past four years. For work, I teach the cutest preschoolers in an arts-focused school. And in my spare time, as an all-round artist and theatre lover, I volunteer in storytelling and theater activities for kids. Besides work, I spend copious amounts of time catching my life on Instagram and being wild with my friends in these Tokyo streets!!
I love this already. Why did you make the move abroad and more specifically, why Japan?
Well, moving here wasn’t the first move abroad for me. When I was twenty-one years old, I moved to the UK for my graduate studies and had an absolutely phenomenal year of growing and learning academically and otherwise. It was during this year that I realized that I loved being a global citizen and being immersed in other cultures and communities that weren’t originally my own, or even close to what I was accustomed to in Barbados. In a way, when you move to a new place, there’s this sense of freedom and adventure that makes you think ‘I can reinvent myself and my life into anything I want!’ And I love that!
My journey to Japan began when I was around six or seven years old at a dentist office. I was waiting for a check-up and read through a NatGeo magazine that displayed various sights in Asia – mostly China – and I thought: “That seems cool! I’m gonna live there!’ Then at sixteen, I saw a job advertising for teaching English in Japan through the JET program and I thought: “I want to get to Asia and this is how I’ll do it!”
Over the next few years, I started to develop a passion for arts. I wanted to use education as a medium for inspiring children to stretch beyond their immediate surroundings and to start viewing themselves as global citizens – I felt even more inspired to apply for a job with the JET program. So at twenty-two after my studies, I applied to JET, got in, and by an unbelievable stroke of luck or fate, I was sent to Tokyo – which is so rare for this program! Now four years later, I’ve moved on from JET but I’m still fulfilling all the goals and dreams that I’ve had since I was little. Overall, I think that my move to Japan was (and still is) about fulfilling and exploring this twenty-year dream of my childhood.
I’m sure seven-year old you would be very proud to see you today in Japan. So, real talk. What are the worst and best things about being a person of color in Japan?
I think being a black woman anywhere can be challenging on so many levels, but one thing I like about my experience so far as a black woman in Tokyo has been a sense of physical security that I haven’t felt anywhere else. I have hardly experienced any street harassment while here and physically I’ve not felt threatened or need to be constantly on my guard! It’s so bad when I have to leave Japan – it takes me a couple days to remember that there are certain places I shouldn’t walk alone or that I need to put on my “bitch face” in public to help deter unwanted attention.
On the other hand, this place really sucks when it comes to blindly accepting cultural stereotypes and expressing a healthy curiosity in someone who is either visibly not Japanese or not the universally accepted white standard of beauty. I’ve had to battle ideologies of being the “bitter” or “aggressive” black woman in professional and dating spheres. I’ve had to deal with random people touching my hair or my ass not out of maliciousness but out of unbridled curiosity and I had to used these moments to check and educate them. But honestly some days, I’m not that patient and I go off on people because I feel that in this day and age of social media and globalization people should know better and do better to respect my rights to physical space!
When you need a good American/ West Indian food fix, clothing that fits, hair services, etc. Are there places you know and can recommend?
American food is trending everywhere and there are so many popular fast-food chains and American food joints here in Tokyo! But West Indian food and seasonings are hard to come by. Every now and then there’s a pop-up or food truck but the majority of joints that claim to do West Indian dishes are Jamaican dishes that never taste really authentic. As a result, I stick to getting my West Indian food fix from close friends that throw house parties or at international festivals where this one Jamaican rasta daddy comes through with rice and peas, jerk chicken and curry goat!
For clothing I shop at the mainstream stores like H&M, Zara, F21, etc., but online shopping is great for finding fits made for people with more hips or booty. Also if you’re into vintage and second-hand shopping, Tokyo is the place! Everything is so well-kept and of high quality! You’ll find it all specifically in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo.
When I first came here, I was about twenty pounds heavier and could hardly find things – it was quite frustrating. So I started working out for health reasons and lost a bunch of weight that has made shopping here easier for me. But over the years I’m seeing more stores carry XL and even XXL, which I see as a step towards more clothing inclusivity for the BBW sisters who are here or who want to shop here!
For hair and skin care, I’ve been doing my hair since I was 12. I braid, twist, reloc and shave all by myself. So for me finding products is the real struggle. But Room 806 in Roppongi has a good selection of products for black hair and skin. Online stores like Iherb can get you the good natural stuff like shea butter, cocoa butter, etc!
Also I love these social media communities like Japan Napturals and Black Women in Japan (BWIJ). These Facebook groups are lifesavers as people share tips, recommend hairdressers, and even share product hauls they brought in from back home! Also people with access to the American Navy base and their stores are friggin angels for offering to buy useful products for those who don’t have that access.
What advice would you give other people of color who are interested in living in Asia?
I’d say never be afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone. We have been conditioned to think that so many experiences and spaces are not made for us. And truthfully, they haven’t been. But we have to consciously reject that and claim our right to move freely and be free wherever our heart decides.
Life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine but it’s not all storm clouds either. It’s the good and bad experiences of life that expand and enrich our lives and by extension the lives and culture of our people. I’ve been so heartened by the increase of black people in Japan as both migrants and tourists because we are creating spaces for those who come after us to be whoever they are comfortably. In Asia, there is so much potential for cultural, business and personal enrichment for black people and we definitely need to tap into that that!! When you come here, you’ll see that it’s not as bad as you expected in some ways, and in others ways it’s better than anything you could have hoped or dreamed.
What are three packing/traveling essentials you recommend for anyone wanting to visit Japan?
Your moisturizer – cause you ain’t living unless you stay moisturized.
Google Translate app because Japanese is hard. While a little goes a long way, sometimes you’ll need more than that!
An openness to a revisit. I’ve known quite a few brothas and sistas who have come here and just keep coming back! (P.S if you plan on returning, check in with the connections you’ve made and bring small tokens of love from back home for those of us who live here. A sista I met two summers ago revisited and brought Reese’s Cups and toothpaste as gifts for my friend and I!) We’re a global family so do whatever it takes to build and maintain connections wherever you go!
These are awesome tips, thanks Ria. Where can our readers find you?
I’m such an Instagram fiend! So follow me at @riathereal on Insta, shoot me a message and let’s be friends!