NRI Voice: Tokyo Musings

Bhamini Jain, a pre-school teacher in Tokyo, feels that the city has been the cleanest and safest among all the cities she has lived.


Bhamini Jain, a pre-school teacher living in Tokyo, feels that her varied experiences in different parts of the world defines who she is.

After having completed her graduation in California, United States and spending a semester in France, the 22-year-old is now living in Japan. She speaks to Little India about her complex identity as part of the Indian diaspora.

Being an “Other”

The Soka University Campus in California, where I did my graduation in social and behavioral sciences, was a diverse space. My campus was a bubble in a distant land–it made my moving to a different country easier. However, being in the United States, in general, or France or even Japan, you tend to feel the otherness attached to your identity.

Japan is obviously a very homogeneous country–it is hard to become a citizen here and easier to get a permanent residence. You know you will never really fit in –at least when it comes to how one looks, no matter how comfortable you get with the place. You always stand out. For example, I would think twice about wearing red lipstick or the bright red coat a friend of mine gifted me. People in Japan don’t seem to do that and I don’t want to stand out more than I already do.

Since United States is a more diverse space, you would expect to see more diversity in the media. Except, you will see white people everywhere on the media– not even Asian Americans or Black Americans. It is not truly representative of the people that live there and it gets exhausting to see another white lead.

Other than that, it is fascinating and amusing to see the yoga culture in the United States. Growing up, it was something we did to enrich our lives and in the United States, it is approached like an exclusive workout. With things like beer yoga, it is interesting to see how elitist it has become, complete with a special yoga clothing line.

Although there is some amusement to be derived from this. Once, I overheard a person saying: “Namaste” and someone else responded to that with: “Oh yeah, that’s yoga language right?”

On Complex Identity

I was at the bar I always visit in Tokyo and I was approached by two men who asked me where I am from. When I said “India”, they immediately said: “Oh Namaste!”

My immediate reaction to that was to step out of a possible conversation. This is because it is a little difficult to explain that “Oh Namaste” denotes the fact that the only thing they saw was my being an Indian. It feels as if that one thing becomes all of you, even though that’s not how you feel. For me, it feels incomplete to say that I am from India because so much of the person that I became, that I am right now, also came from living in the United States and France. So, it feels incomplete to say I am from India, when as part of the diaspora, my identity became much more complex and inter sectional than that.

Fitting Into Indian Space

I also know that I don’t fit into the Indian space as much. My experiences are very different from my friends back home. They will talk about things that I cannot necessarily relate to, while they can all relate to each other. I will be the only one among them with a story they wouldn’t be able to relate to. It doesn’t feel nice to go back to that space where people are having to adjust to the kind of person I am in my circles. Where they are not being able to or not fully accepting of it either. It is not comfortable for me to feel like I am on the outside constantly.

So, I don’t feel like I am just from India. India is a part of me, but there are other parts of me that are equally important to me in my life.

Living in Japan

Of all the places I have lived in, Tokyo has been the cleanest and safest.  The public bathrooms are not gross–you can go in if you had a night out drinking beer and not just wait to go home. I can be walking home at 4 or 5 am. If I am stepping out in the night, I am not as conscious of my safety as I would normally be. Even when it comes to public transport, I don’t have to clutch my bag close to me so no one tries to snatch it–something I would do if I was in the Delhi metro. People in Tokyo don’t really care about what you are doing, so it gives me the kind of space to experiment, grow as a person, live independently and be responsible for my decisions.

I appreciate the timeliness here. For example, when I had a doctor’s appointment in Delhi for 9 pm, the doctor saw me at 11 pm. In the United States, you show up on time. In Japan, if you have an appointment at say, 10.30 am, they will be there by 10.15 am.

Parks are a part of everybody’s life here. It is not just to lend beauty to a city, people spend time there and many art events that are held in these parks. It is not weird to say, “Hey let’s go to the park and have breakfast!”. Parks here are extremely beautiful!

Although, it gets difficult to be here when you want to find a lipstick that isn’t obnoxiously bright on your skin. With Asian obsession with fairness, and people in general being pale in Japan, finding cosmetics to suit your skin is difficult and not part of their product line up.

How Being ‘Asian’ is Perceived

For people in the United States, Asians mostly mean the Japanese, Korean and Chinese. I have had people in America come up to me and insist that I was not Asian, but Indian. My response would be to point out  where India lies on the map of Asia.

However, it is interesting to see what constitutes “Asian” all across the world, right now. In Japan, Asian would be Thai food, Indian food, Vietnamese food.

Missing Out 

Born and raised in the National Capital Region in New Delhi, I miss the being able to walk out and being able to get something to eat. When I moved to America, that was the most difficult part. In India, you don’t see unending aisles of frozen food—which you will see in the United States, because they don’t seem to have a cooking culture. There are fast food restaurants everywhere but not as much street food–especially in California–which was weird for me.

I used to miss festivals a lot when I first moved, but since I have been living abroad for a while, I have gotten used to it. What I do miss is watching my sisters and cousins grow up, family weddings, friends’ weddings. You are constantly missing out on something. It is a price you have to pay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *