Growing up, I always admired people who stepped outside of their comfort zone. Whether that was the person who went skydiving to conquer their fear of heights, or the person who decided to quit their corporate job to pursue their passion, to me, these people were all phenomenal in their own right. In my eyes, these were ordinary people taking on extraordinary challenges that pushed them to grow. And this summer, I became one of those people.
For a long time, I had this dream of going on a cross country road trip constantly pestering me.
Being raised in California and more specifically the Japanese American Community, I had been living in a bubble of diversity that I knew did not exist in other parts of the country. Although I knew that the United States was an incredibly diverse country, both culturally and geographically, I could not shake the idea that if I travelled through certain areas of America I would be singled out, and moreover be classified as an "other."
However, through some incredible opportunities within my professional career, I was able to make the leap to move to Atlanta, Georgia. This move was especially nerve-racking for me because I had never even been to Georgia. Hell, I had never really left California, let alone moved somewhere so far away from a community that I hold so dear. But with this move came enlightenment. Within a year of me moving to Atlanta, I had created a wonderful group of friends, excelled professionally, connected with my surrounding community, and fell in love with a city that I at first was afraid of, but now in part, can call my home. Atlanta treated me with grace. (There were some moments that reaffirmed my beliefs about being an Asian American living in the South...but that story is for another time).
When tasked with moving back to California for my work, I knew this was the opportunity I needed to take that coast to coast road trip I had always wanted to go on. Planning the trip was quite stressful, but I was lucky to have my good friend by my side the entire time.
The trip took a total of six days, with some days driving up to ten hours. We took the Southern Route headed on Highway 10, where we got to see some incredible places, like Savannah, Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and Houston, Texas. We ate incredible food and saw beautiful tourist destinations, but there were some lingering feelings of discomfort at each stop. Throughout most of the trip, my friend and I noticed a certain dynamic happening. When we interacted with the local staff or various individuals from the places we were visiting, they would not interact with my friend, and only interact with me.
To provide some context, my friend is Japanese American, with dark hair and strong, Asian-presenting features. I, on the other hand, am racially ambiguous. I am a mixed Japanese American, and at the time I had just bleached my hair blonde.
These interactions sparked conversations between my friend and I about identity, how we present ourselves to others, and what it is truly like to be an Asian American in a place where there are simply not as many people who look like us. Although we are both individuals with an Asian background, I was being treated differently than her. That was a fact.
She was being treated as an "other," while I was not.
This dynamic did not ruin our trip nor, do I want this experience to deter any Asian American from traveling to these parts of the country. However, it is important that we acknowledge and have discussions about these experiences in order for us all to learn and be more aware of racial biases. Emmanuel Acho asserted the idea that "proximity breeds care while distance breeds fear." I feel that this theory is true for most communities and individuals. I was afraid to travel to the South because I had never visited and had only preconceived notions of what it would be like. Although there is some truth to the beliefs I had, I also understand not everything is as you expect it to be. And with that, I can only assume the same systems of thought exist within the individuals we interacted with on this road trip.
I encourage you all to take that step outside of your comfort zone, whatever that may be for you. And I can guarantee that you will be proud of the person you become afterwards.