How travelling helped me become more welcoming of others

Fortunes at Japanese temples and shrines are not always perfect. If one doesn’t agree with their fortune, they can leave it behind to change the course of fate. Photo by Brett Luft

Fortunes at Japanese temples and shrines are not always perfect. If one doesn’t agree with their fortune, they can leave it behind to change the course of fate. Photo by Brett Luft

I still remember the first time I saw a foreigner when living in Japan. It was in a cold, Aomori train station and I stopped in my tracks as I caught myself staring at a blonde haired man not much different than myself.

Luckily, the situation wasn’t as weird as it could have been, because I caught the other person staring back at me with what I imagine was the exact same expression I had. But it was an important moment in my life travelling the world, as it was the first time I realized I was a visible minority in a country far away from home.

It had been my first few months of study in Hirosaki, Japan, a small city located in the Aomori prefecture. I had grown accustomed to packed trains filled with Japanese people, and after a while I stopped noticing that I was often the only Westerner commuting and going about my daily life.

I had many foreign friends in my classes at school, but school life never really seemed different than it was at home, so I didn’t really overthink it. But at that moment in the station, I realized that I was living in a foreign world.

This realization was incredibly important for the growth of my personality while overseas, as it made me realize something: despite being a visible minority to those around me, I was never treated any different than the regular Japanese person.

This would consider to prove true during the course of my year-long stay in Japan. I can only think of one time somebody actually pointed out that I was a foreigner on the streets, and they thought I was in the United States military.

Outside of that one moment, people treated me normally. Strangers often spoke to me in Japanese, even though my Japanese was nowhere near as great as I wanted it to be. Children would speak to me, and everybody was incredibly welcoming.

What I realized through this time was that even though I was treated well as an immigrant, I couldn’t say that I would have experienced the same treatment if the tables were turned. If I was immigrating to Canada, I’m not confident that my process would be easy.

Would people treat me with the same respect that they treat a stranger that fits their description of a Canadian? Certainly some people would, but would the majority welcome them with open arms?

Spending time in a country as a foreigner was important to helping me understand how we can welcome others into our own society. I made a promise to myself that day that I would become more aware of how we treat immigrants in our own society.

The Japanese word for foreigner is gaikokujin or gaijin which literally translates to “outside country person” or “outsider,” but I never really felt like the outcast one might expect to feel while labelled “outsider.”

Instead, I felt like a regular member of society, and only realized my differences when I was confronted by other outsiders.

Sakura Pagoda – Temples and shrines are another way Japan accepts foreign visitors. When praying at a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, visitors can choose to pray to the Gods of their own religion. Photo by Brett Luft

Sakura Pagoda – Temples and shrines are another way Japan accepts foreign visitors. When praying at a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, visitors can choose to pray to the Gods of their own religion. Photo by Brett Luft