NYC250 cover image See all stories from issue #250, January/February 2016

Finding My Place
I fit in better here than in my own country
Kristine Hoessel

Moving to the other side of the planet was a big change for me. When my father first told me that we were moving from our home in Japan to New York City, I thought I misheard. Although he is from Wisconsin, he had moved to Japan when he was a teenager. Now his company was transferring him to New York. I wondered what it would be like to live in a place I had only seen in movies and on TV. All my friends told me it was full of art and music, and the food was amazingly good. They were sure I was going to love it.

Saying goodbye to my maternal grandparents was difficult, but I was not sad to leave Japan. I was ready to live somewhere new and have new experiences. Although my city, Fukuoka, is clean and safe, I wanted to live in a more diverse culture.

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A big reason for this is that since my father is European-American, I look different to Japanese people and many do not see me as one of them. They often said, “Wow, you are so good at speaking Japanese!” Even after I explained my family background, they categorized me as a gaijin, a Japanese word for foreigner.

A lot of people looked at me as if I were an alien—in stores and libraries, on public transportation, or when I was riding my bike. Curious teenagers would whisper, “Wow, look there, gaijin! Do you think she’s ‘half’?” My brother’s name is Julius, and whenever I called out to him in public, people reacted to this unfamiliar name by staring at me. These strangers did not intend to be mean, or to bully me, but it made me feel like an outsider.

Sometimes in winter, to avoid people’s comments and stares, I would hide part of my face with a red scarf and yellow cap. Even though I was born in Japan, I felt like I had no place where I fit in.

I often shared my feelings with my family. My father went through something similar when he first moved to Japan as a teenager because he looks more “American.” He did not speak any Japanese and he got stares from people. My brother did too. I once asked my father, “Why don’t they acknowledge that I’m Japanese even when I say I was born and raised here?”

“It’s just the lack of cultural diversity in this country. Try not to let it bother you.”

I wondered if it would be the same when I lived in New York.

Apple Pie and the Shins

While I was getting off the plane, with Frank Sinatra’s “New York New York” playing inside my head, I thought I would adapt to this new country easily. I kept telling myself that even though English is my second language, communicating with people would not be a problem because I had studied it for almost 10 years. (Although my father was a native English speaker, I was not taught English until I was 6 years old because he did not want to confuse me.) And thanks to my dad, I was already familiar with American culture. I have always liked western food like beefsteaks, lasagna, apple pie, and cheesecake. I love bands like Radiohead and The Shins. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of my favorite movies.

However, as soon as I went down the stairs to the subway, the colorful images I had of New York collapsed with a smash!

Despite having an understanding of the language and culture, I wasn’t prepared for the difference in the environment. For instance, how was I supposed to know when to get on the subway? In Japan, trains came on time according to the timetables at the stations, and delays were rare.

And why were the streets so dirty? I rarely saw trash on the streets in Fukuoka, but here, empty plastic bags flew over the sidewalks. What is so difficult about throwing them in a garbage can? There’s one on every block! This was not the city I had seen in movies. Everything seemed to be dirty and unorganized. I was shocked.

I had also never lived in a neighborhood where everyone likes to have a party on the weekends. My neighbors below me played music all day and night, sometimes until morning. This affected my ability to sleep well. In Japan, even though people like to party, they do not make a lot of noise at night. When there are loud neighbors, residents in the apartment usually inform the owner and they are asked to move out.

image by YC-Art Dept

I had assumed I would start school as soon as I got over my jetlag. However, since it was the middle of the semester, I had to wait until the new school year started. That meant I had to wait five months.

“What am I supposed to do every day if I can’t go to school?” I asked my brother. He had come to New York once before so he was familiar with the city.

“Go outside and explore. Observe the people living here. You’ll go crazy from boredom if you just stay inside.”

Free to Be Me

Once outside, I told myself to keep my eyes off the littered streets and look up. There was more to see than crumbled plastic bottles on the sidewalks. I walked from the Financial District all the way up to Columbus Circle.

The combination of old and modern tall buildings looked so strange to me! I had never seen these two types of buildings close together before; in Japan, all the buildings are modern. I liked this unusual sight. And I was amazed by how artistic the people were. I saw people drawing on the streets with chalk or sitting with a sketchpad, and others playing instruments and singing.

I also noticed the diversity. I saw a Chinese man eating next to an Indian woman, a French girl talking with an African-American boy, and an old white lady sitting next to a Mexican man. People dressed and acted so differently from one another, and they had the freedom to be themselves.

No One Stares at Me Here!

As I was walking around, I realized that no one was looking at me like people did back in Japan. They did not seem to care whether I was gaijin or not. I thought this might be the place where I could feel free and comfortable. I felt out of place in Japan, even though my nationality is Japanese. The question I asked myself before I left Japan popped up in my brain. Will it be the same when I live in New York? No, it was not the same at all.

After that, I went out almost every day to explore and observe the people. I also loved listening to everyone talking. Being able to hear at least five different languages in 10 minutes is something that I think you can only experience in New York City. This made me want to learn more languages besides Japanese and English.

Now the only things I miss about Japan are my maternal grandparents and observing the night sky. In Japan, most nights I would set up my telescope on my balcony to look into the mysterious universe. But in New York, the lights are too bright.

I try not to get annoyed with the train delays anymore, using that time to read a book or listen to music. And I’ve since moved to a new apartment where there is less noise, although I have also gotten used to having loud neighbors. However, seeing people throw trash outside the garbage can still bothers me, and I believe it will continue to bother me no matter how long I live in New York City.

Once I started to go to school in September, I was able to make many friends who came from all around the world. My school is specifically for teens who have recently come to this country. Since all the students are immigrants, looking different from one another is normal.

Now that I am living in a new country, I fit in better here than where I was born.

People here don’t find it strange when I say that I am Japanese. The cultural diversity in New York City enables me to be myself and feel confident.

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