Since the earthquake and tsunami have devastated Japan last Friday, I have had trouble sleeping, thinking about all the people, and animals, and towns destroyed. (Tsunamis are a re-ocurring nightmare for me, almost every week I dream of tsunamis, and of having to rescue loved ones against all odds…).
During this terrible crisis I have been shocked and saddened to see many instances of insensitivity and lack of compassion towards the human beings who are experiencing this unimaginable suffering. From godzilla jokes, ignorant historical references, and mean fat talk trending on Twitter this weekend, the internet has revealed an ugly, selfish, ignorant and hurtful side of humanity, a prejudiced and hateful side that chills me to the core.
When a tragedy of such epic proportions strikes, we must use it as an opportunity to come together as human beings regardless of our race, national identity, and religious beliefs, because we are all much more similar than we’d like to think. We think we are all so different, so special, so individualistic. But, as the Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska said so sweetly,
With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.
And yet, for the most part our social conditioning cultivates an othering process that stresses our differences rather than commonalities, so that most of us really start believing that we are different, if we’re Americans, we’re different from other nations, if we’re Christians, we’re different from other religions, if we’re skinny we’re different from overweight people, if we’re light skinned, we’re different from darker skinned people.
An image of ‘the other’ is created, cultivated and reinforced as a construction, as a defensive mechanism to prop up our identity crutches, our belief systems which are so entangled with our sexual, political, religious, ethnic and national identities.
In my yoga class on Sunday, the wonderful teacher Anya Porter spoke about the need to cultivate compassion and led us through breathing exercises designed to open our hearts and expand our abilities to love and have compassion and empathy. It was hard for me to understand that people need to develop compassion, cultivate it, grow it like a plant, because my own heart overflows with empathy and compassion, with too much of it, so it is hard for me to understand people for whom compassion doesn’t come naturally, whose hearts don’t ache when they imagine a human being or animal suffering, but this is why I am writing this post, to try and understand, and do my part to cultivate compassion.
I am lucky that my heart is open, and I am a passionate, warm, loving person, and I have to credit my multilingual, multicultural upbringing for that. Because first of all I consider myself a human being, a citizen of the world, and then I am all the other ‘identities’, an American woman, an activist etc. Though my mom is originally from Russia (now a US citizen), and my dad American, I was born in Tokyo and grew up in Japan until I was nine, when I left for Germany. When I was a little girl, I thought I was Japanese. I was vaguely aware that I had blond curly hair and looked different than my Japanese friends, but only adults seemed to care about those superficial differences. I spoke fluent Japanese, grew up playing with Japanese kids on the streets of Tokyo, and knew that we were the same inside. Same same but different, the difference being superficial and irrelevant.
When I was old enough for kindergarten, my mother brought me to the local Japanese one, because that’s where my friends were. They told her that they didn’t accept foreigners, and my mom, amazing and courageous as she is, smiled and said, you will accept this one, she is not a foreigner, then told me in Russian she’d be back to pick me up later, and turned and walked out, leaving me in a room full of Japanese kids, with the teachers unable to speak. I held out my hand in a peace sign, and started speaking Japanese to break the silence. Of course, by the end of the day, I was fully assimilated, very happy and welcomed by everyone including the teachers who embraced me wholeheartedly.
So yes, part of my heart is Japanese. I still feel it, though ‘genetically’ I’m not, though I don’t ‘look’ or ‘sound’ Japanese, though I am a US citizen. So this tragedy in Japan feels personal to me, and lack of compassion for the people enduring this pain dumbfounds me, because to me they are not ‘others’, they are my friends, my brothers and sisters, even though we look different, and even though I can’t speak Japanese anymore, and haven’t been back since then. And this is how I feel about people around the world, even from countries I haven’t visited or lived in. I just know that underneath it all, we are one.
It is only in the growing up, in the teaching and learning of our national histories, of our cultural histories, our identities, most of which are mythologized, constructed, embellished is it that we learn that we are this, and the others are that. And they are not like us. But they are, and we are just too scared to see it. Underneath all that social and cultural conditioning we are the same. Same same but different.
By the way, after going to a Japanese kindergarten in Tokyo, my parents sent me to a German school, though I’m not German. So all my schooling has been in German schools, in Japan, in Germany, and in the US. And my favorite subject was always history, and believe me when you’re half Russian half American sitting in a German history class talking about WWII when you’re grandparents were the Allies, your Russian grandfather fought against the fascist invasion, and your great grandparents starved to death in the German blockade of Leningrad and your friends grandparents may have been Nazis, you learn to be open-minded, to expand your understanding, and then you come to understand that we are all the same. No matter what we look like, sound like.
We are raised differently, and it is our responsibility to develop this awareness, to understand this is a construction, a facade. In order to develop as human beings, we have to break down those walls of prejudice, of sexism, racism, ageism, fatism, of hatred, ignorance and prejudice. Whenever we see or hear prejudice or injustice, we have to speak out. This is our responsibility. This is how we can cultivate compassion. Staying silent is being complicit. Sometimes people don’t even realize what they are saying, how hurtful it could be to someone, how mean it is, how ignorant and selfish, so it is up to us to point out the light outside the self absorption, the light and love that connects all of us, whether we want it to or not.
And please, if you haven’t yet helped Japan, please donate by texting RED CROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to help those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.