I finally got around to reading Baye McNeil’s book, Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist, published in 2011, and here are my thoughts. I don’t want to write a formal book review though, and I will stress that everything below is based on my own reaction to reading the book, which I’m sure will be different to your own.
I’ve dipped in and out of Loco’s blog, Loco in Yokohama, for some time now. Baye is one of the few bloggers out there who really writes – I’m not sure I would even count myself in that category most of the time, as I’m usually just punching out snippets of information and sharing photos. But Baye is different, and Loco in Yokohama is a blog about living in Japan that I would highly recommend. It’s not for the faint-hearted though! As well as excellent photos and stories about life as an English teacher in Japan, Baye touches on more delicate issues, such as racism.
And so, Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist was born, and I couldn’t not read it. I’ll start at the beginning (it’s a good place to start) – the cover is brilliant. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case you really can. JJ McCullough’s design captures the theme and humour perfectly, as well as the two main characters of the book – Loco, and the ’empty chair’. What the cover doesn’t reveal is how touching, sad, and thought-provoking the book also is. Don’t expect it to be a laugh a minute.
There are so many books available about living in Japan, and it would be easy to assume that Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist was just another one. I’ve read (or at least bought, or wish-listed) an awful lot of accounts of foreigners living in Japan. It was interesting before I lived in Japan to get an idea of what I might be in for, and it’s interesting now to compare my experiences with others. Some stories make me nod my head and agree (yes, I had that experience too!), others make me laugh out loud because they’re so full of stereotypes and border on the ridiculous.
However, Loco’s book is not like the others, not at all. It is set in Japan for the most part, and does provide an insight into living in Japan as a foreigner, but Loco’s experience is not something I can easily compare to my own or relate to. It’s not just a book about an American living in Japan, it’s a book about a black American living in Japan, and that’s one of the things that makes it different. While many people would skirt around the issue of race and not want to offend anyone, Loco Puts it right out there on the cover and says “look at me, I’m a black guy living in Japan, and I’m a racist”.
This openness threw me at first. Why was he declaring himself a racist? Did he really mean that he thought Japanese people were being racist towards him? Why was he living in Japan if he felt that way? I had a lot of questions and the book did provide some answers. Baye goes into a lot of personal history, talking about his childhood in New York, getting in with religious groups and gangs, and his time in the army, and provides enough background that you start to get an understanding for why race is such an issue for him, especially living in Japan (a country still much more closed than the US or UK).
I mentioned above the ’empty chair’. Baye uses the ’empty chair’ as a symbol of the way he feels he is treated in Japan. There’s the empty chair next to him on the crowded train or in the cafe, and it becomes this thing that he can’t escape. People won’t sit beside him, and he torments himself with possible reasons why (or plays a game where he imagines less offensive reasons why people decide not to sit in that particular seat). The empty chair is not a new concept to me. I’ve often heard other foreigners in Japan (or who have lived in/been to Japan) refer to the empty chair. In fact, quite recently a white, British guy who had visited Japan brought up the subject of the empty chair with me, asking me if I had found that people didn’t want to sit next to me in Japan. “No”, I said. “Not once.”
I try not to make any huge generalisations when I talk about Japan or Japanese people but, while in Japan, I never once felt like people were being racist towards me. However, I also tried my best to fit in and not stand out as the obvious foreigner in the room. I made efforts to communicate in Japanese (and was only bemused, not offended, when people insisted on speaking to me in English), and I learnt about Japanese etiquette so as to try not to offend anyone with my Western ways. I accepted from the very first moment that I was a foreigner living in their country, and that if anyone should be adapting it should be me. I also accepted that no matter what I did I would always be the foreigner, and would always be different to the Japanese around me. In a strange way, I guess it helps that I have dark hair – I don’t stand out quite as much as a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl might… or a black girl. People will, naturally, notice you if you stand out so much, so I guess I was lucky in that respect. But, as a large girl, I did feel that I stood out at times, and often felt like the ‘fat foreigner’, clumsily stumbling around, sweating and doing things wrong. I’ve been trying to work out why I never experienced the ’empty seat’ myself, and I think it boils down to my size. I was so conscious of being larger than the average Japanese person that I rarely sat down on a train, unless it was really quiet and there were lots of empty seats. Even now, in London, I don’t often squeeze myself in because I know how horrible it feels to have to be that close to a stranger. I like my space. In cafes too, I never experienced the ’empty seat’. I remember often visiting Starbucks at Nagoya Station and sitting on one of the bar-type stools, looking out over Nagoya, next to business men and women who would come and go, and sit next to me. Perhaps it’s not just a question of race, but also one of sex and size. Is a white British girl less threatening than a black American man? Of course there should be no difference, but it would seem that there is a difference in perception, in Japan at least.
Baye writes, “No child is born racist, I believe, but racist feelings have been within me since childhood. Or rather, they were uploaded into me and, like some kind of Trojan horse virus, were unleashed as a result of living here in Japan, and being overexposed to a people, in my opinion, made up predominantly of oblivious racists.”. One of the things that seemed to unleash his racist feelings in Japan was the Japanese tendency to use ‘we’, and to talk about the Japanese race as a whole. This was something I could relate to – I recalled many lessons where I was told “we Japanese do this” and asked “what do English people do?” (rather than “what do you do?”). I’ll always remember this conversation: “We Japanese have fish, rice and miso soup for breakfast. What do English people have?” I pondered the question, recalling how much bread and jam, and even cereal I had seen in the supermarket in Japan, but I knew what response my student wanted. “English people usually have cereal or toast for breakfast. Sometimes we even have a ‘fry up’…”. One of the things about teaching English is accepting stereotypes. It’s easier to learn about a culture if you base things on stereotypes, whether that’s right or wrong. So, in the lessons I taught, American’s liked Big Macs, English people liked fish and chips, and Japanese people liked rice. That’s just the way it was. So, am I racist too?
I’d never really thought that much about race before reading Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist. In fact, if I’m totally honest, if this book had been about a black American living in another country instead of Japan, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But then I would have missed out. Surely one of the keys to not being racist is to be able to see things through other people’s eyes, and reading Baye’s beautifully written, intelligent book certainly did allow me to see Japan in a very different way.
If you’re looking for a book about teaching English in Japan, this may or may not be it (I told you this wouldn’t be a conclusive review!). I think it could put some people off, despite the glimmer of hope at the end of the book, following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011: “I could see that Japanese were not permanently members of the cult of Different Therefore Dangerous. There was hope.” But I think people should read this book, and not let it put them off living in Japan, whatever their background. So what if there’s an empty chair beside you? It was the empty chair that gave birth to Loco, his blog and his book, I for one am grateful for that.
As a writer and would-be novelist myself, I’ve started a whole bunch of different stories that could become novels, many of them with hints (or strong whiffs) of Japan about them. People might buy them, hell they might even read them. But until I can write something even half as good as this book, I won’t be publishing anything.
I wanted to finish this post with the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from the hilarious musical Avenue Q, because it was playing in my head a lot while reading this book. While looking for it on YouTube I came across this fantastic Pokemon fan video version – enjoy!