To grow up in Japan as a Black girl and never experience racism is something you wouldn’t expect to hear. But for Tiffany Rachel, this was her reality as she was born and raised in the Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, where she felt her differences as a Black girl from America amongst a sea of Japanese kids was never an issue.
“My family being from America was not a disadvantage, my hair being different was not a disadvantage, the difference in my physical features and appearance was not a disadvantage,” says Tiffany.
“Yes I might have looked different from my surroundings but no one told me there’s anything wrong with being different – because there isn’t.”
Tiffany was born to two Black American parents who moved to Japan in 1995, a few years before she and her brother were born. “They were English teachers in Japan and they taught at my school and several other schools, along with running their own business teaching English across four municipalities within the prefecture.” recalls the 21-year-old.
The Ibaraki Prefecture – the town Tiffany grew up in – is known for its myriad plum trees and Mount Tsukuba hiking trails, and the family of four lived in a small town within the prefecture where a community was fostered among the residents who all knew each other.
“We knew each other’s occupations and we all ran the town,” recalls Tiffany. “I attended a regular Japanese school, so speaking with my parents was the only opportunity for my brother and me to use our English. Therefore, it was a rule in the house to only speak English, in order to improve our skills.”
Growing up in Japan, the university student’s time was predominantly spent hanging out with her Japanese friends due to her parents’ intense work schedule. “My parents did a great job of managing quality over quantity when spending time with us. Every time I hung out with them it was a blast and they never made me feel like “mom and dad never have time for me”.
“As a family, we hung out on Sundays after church, went to restaurants, shopping, and just being with each other,” says Tiffany. “Also, as a family, we would visit America once every two or three years.”
These occasional trips to America would soon turn into a permanent move after the 2011 9.0 earthquake which hit Japan changed the trajectory of everything.
“Although I had experienced earthquakes before, that one was no joke. That along with other reasons, we decided to move to America. I was 12 years old.”
For a Black American growing up in Japan, the move to Charlotte, North Carolina proved to be a culture shock that she was not expecting and led to an identity crisis as her perception of blackness and what that meant to her was tested.
“I visited America several times and had a great time every time I visited, but living there was different,” she reveals.
“America has made me feel that because of the colour of my skin, that there is an obligation to live up to what ‘Black’ means on a daily basis, in everything and anything that you do. Which, I get, especially after living in the States for a while. But I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to live up to a particular definition of ‘Black’ that you don’t understand.
“It’s not easy fitting into a world you don’t understand. This goes for both language and culture. And it’s especially difficult when people won’t sit down with you and talk to you when you ask.
“And yet, in the midst of not understanding, people are constantly reminding you, indirectly or directly, in case I have forgotten or something, that I am black, and therefore XYZ,” says Tiffany.
It was here that Tiffany was confronted with the notion of blackness in different countries and how it’s defined and different in various parts of the world – an awakening which led her to embrace elements of what she perceived Black American culture to be.
“As a teenager, wanting to make friends, of course, I’ve had to form my expression in ways that were recognisable to others,” she states.
“But at a point, I realised that it didn’t matter how perfectly I formed my English sentence and it didn’t matter how many times I explained myself. It wasn’t about the language but it was about connecting to a specific culture within a specific vicinity, by everything else surrounding the language.”
After this realisation and 6 years living in the States, Tiffany decided to attend university in Japan and moved back there to study Academic/Business Japanese and Political Science at Temple University.
“From my childhood in Japan and my upbringing in America, I am really passionate about communication in general, but also specifically cross-cultural communication.”
For Tiffany, returning to Japan wasn’t without its difficulties. She had developed into a different person from when she left and that presented challenges as she re-adjusted to a way of life that she had not known for six years.
“Although I had a major identity crisis in America, in Japan, I have struggled with my identity coming back from America as well. After 6 years there I went from being conscious every second of every day of my skin colour and my gender and how that is an important factor to my identity and destiny to all of a sudden not thinking of it anymore. But, to me, it feels much more liberating and it brings me back to my childhood state of mind.”
While living in the US proved to be a pivotal experience, for Tiffany home is where the heart is – and that is in Japan.
“What do I love about Japan? Essentially everything. The food, the people, the culture, the atmosphere, the safety, the convenience – I feel liberated being here, and I feel at home.”
Follow Tiffany Rachel on Instagram: @tiffrichx