The air was smothering, and I could already feel sweat creeping down the center of my back. I stood on the train platform weighed down by a bookbag and fashionable clothing, while all around me slender Japanese women dodged the sunlight with delicate parasols and long sleeves. The cicadas hadn’t emerged yet with their summery drone, but the land beyond the train tracks was lush and green, and the bump of a cold drink hitting a vending machine tray seemed to announce that summer had arrived in Japan.
I was just a few months past my one-year Japaniversary, twenty-six years old and slowly losing myself in the Land of the Rising Sun. I had never been a conformist, but in Japan I was Different with a capital D, a queer, gender-fluid American who preferred collared shirts, jeans, and comfortable shoes to the flirty dresses and heels favored by every other woman on the streets of Tokyo. The pressure to be The Same weighed on me like the summer heat, and before I knew it, I was pushing aside everything that felt natural and straining to fit a mold that had been made with someone else in mind. I squeezed my feet into ankle-destroying heels, traded my comfortable clothes for ultra-feminine skirts and blouses, stressed about my weight, and went on dates with Japanese men, who with their lack of aggressive masculinity were the closest thing to butch lesbians that heterosexuality had to offer.
On June 12, 2009, I boarded a train, followed proper train etiquette, kept my eyes down and my phone switched to Silent Mode, and tried to pretend that I was blending in. I told myself that if my clothes and manners and speech were Japanese, then perhaps I would be viewed as something other than a gaijin, an “outside person.” I was wrong, and it was an education in racism, whether the politely smiling racism of Japan or the more invasive, life-destroying variety we prefer in America.
I left Japan after four years, and my recovery was slow. Years passed before I rediscovered myself, and even then, I clung to sepia-toned memories of my time in Tokyo.
And then, finally, something changed. I looked in the mirror one day and saw myself looking back, and the past few years snapped into focus. I watched a young person costuming herself in someone else’s life, and I saw both how futile and how cowardly that had been. I remembered being a little girl climbing trees and going on fearless adventures, and I wondered what she would’ve thought of the painted face with its fake smile and careful, mask-like modesty.
On June 12, 2009, I walked through the oppressive Japanese summer and wished I could be everything I wasn’t. I looked in the mirror and saw not enoughs—not thin enough, not feminine enough, not fashionable enough, not straight enough, not Japanese enough. Today, I look in the mirror and see cropped hair, a pleasant face with a square jaw, and a body that looks eminently comfortable in a cotton shirt and jeans from the Men’s section at Target. I see me, and it’s enough.
T.J. Baer is the author of two novels, Talking About Fungus (2007) and Following Grandpa Jess (2013). Her short stories have been featured in Flash Fiction Magazine and Harpur Palate Literary Journal, and she is currently working on an LGBTQ fantasy novel series that features a magical transgender vegan as its central character. You can read her ramblings on writing, food, and queer-related matters at tjbaer.com.
If you’re in search of worthy causes to donate to, T.J. highly recommends The Trevor Project , a group that provides life-saving care and support to LGBTQ youth. Visit www.thetrevorproject.org.