I recently travelled to Japan. As you will see in this post, I am still processing! One of the most powerful realisations I had deals with something which keeps cultures divided and perpetuates the lack of global humanity. I am talking about colonialism. Yes, I know this is a buzzword with negative connotations for some. I am cautious to apply this term because of its overuse by political extremists over the past 5 years. However, colonialism is the only word I can use to describe a subtle mindset which I became aware of.
I was brought up (and am still being brought up) in a liberal household. My parents were all part of the anti-apartheid movement during the late 80s. I went to a government primary and high school where people from different cultures grew together. I am now living in Metanoia, the most liberal residence at Stellenbosch University, where diversity is key. However, living in Japan has shed some light on this ‘colonial mindset’ that lies dormant, waiting to be activated.
Let me elaborate on what I have gathered about the colonial mindset. I believe it is rooted in the belief that a white skin is superior to any other type of skin. The explorers during the 16th century exhibited this mentality when they forcefully took land from indigenous people all over the world. The explorers believed that they were ‘cilivising’ the local folk by giving them western clothing, western ammunition, western livestock, western religion and western you-name-it. If the indigenous tribes didn’t agree, they were torchered and inferior. The world (at least the western part of it) was convinced that the perfect human being was a white westerner. Hold up. Seriously? This is a textbook example of racism. We’re not like this anymore, right? Explicitly I like to believe that society has advanced beyond the illusion of race and cultural difference. Implicitly, however, this colonial mindset still exists. Subtly. Very subtly. Whether you are white feel a slight superiority; or whether you are non-white and underestimate yourself. You might even be a non-white westerner, which gets complicated.
Subtle colonialism can easily be demonstrated through this example. I am a (almost) 20 year old university student. I see a Japanese girl on the subway, also 20 years of age studying at Tokyo University. She wears similar clothes, has an orange backpack and is sitting quietly – just as I am. Instead of pondering her humanity, as a westerner I thought ‘Ah shame. She’s cute.’ That Is It. Never mind how intelligent she must be to type at lightspeed in Japanese (a written language consisting of 3 alphabets and around 1900 characters). Never mind the complex task of navigating Tokyo via subway, bus and foot that she deals with daily. Never mind her success in the intensive school academic curriculum which got her to university. Nope. All of these incredible aspects of her person are reduced to ‘cute’ because she is not western. Actually, who do I think I am?
As a westerner in the east, I am completely out of my depth most of the time. The language barrier is surprisingly large. This is due to two factors. Firstly, few people speak are able to converse in English. Second, but most importantly, I am not able to speak Japanese. In the touristy areas, the subways are colour-coded and maps are around every corner. Navigation is much easier in these parts of Japan than in the local spots (which is where the magic happens). All the operations are planned and executed in Japanese. Yes – not English. And guess what! The public transport and logistical systems work MUCH better than any I’ve ever seen. As a westerner, I thought that something couldn’t ‘really be up to standard’ if it wasn’t processed in the English language. Again, who do I think I am?
As my trip progressed, I started noticing these signs of a subtle colonial mindset. I consciously decided to change my mentality; it is completely out-dated (not as if it ever was dated) and central to the cultural divide. How can we live in true harmony if we measure the worth of a person based on the external: language, accent, race, posture and nationality. I realised that to see humanity, you need to look beyond the external and focus on the incredible capacity that a person has. I started realising that each person is infinite. I looked around on the subway one day and saw every single person – student, pensioner, businesswoman, cleaner, artist, conductor – as infinite. By acknowledging the unfathomable potential in the eyes of every Japanese person around me I was able to break down the barriers of culture. I grasped the connection to people on a level that completely transcended the small-minded colonialist.
I aim to make this philosophy part of me in 2017.