Chaz Barracks, RC '11, SPCS '16, leads I AM MY LIFE, a project focused on teaching, promoting, and inspiring inclusive education through the power of sharing your story. Chaz's first piece he wrote for The Collegian prompted him to apply for and receive the Weinstein Summer Grant, which enabled him to study in Japan as part of this project. Republished below is his opening piece for his project. Follow Chaz's journey here

Not too long ago, I wrote this after I returned from living abroad. After that piece was published it received some positive online feedback, but most importantly folks reached out to me directly. They told me that they had identified with my message, and that they intimately understood my attempt to alert “the community” about some of the complexities we face being the “other” studying abroad.

From those inquiries a conversation started about experiences living abroad, facing alienation, loneliness, or isolation because of location and personal identity. My basic advice then and now (after research) is to do away with trying to fit in all together! From the dialogue I shared with those who read the piece, I realized something: I was not the only (minority) person who has a story, one that whether pleasant or unpleasant could be told to provide some “real-talk” perspective and education to students [and others] who will engage in endeavors abroad.

My experience has shown me that many students embark on study abroad with this BIG picture ideal that they are going to change the world or make such an impact on the community they study in that lives will be changed (especially in service abroad trips). When I encounter these overachiever-type students I feel like saying, slow down honey! You will probably at most change one life in Japan, and it may just be because you teach them the proper way to pronounce an English word.

When undertaking study abroad experiences in Japan [or anywhere] you should not make the mistake of thinking about how you will “change the world”, because most likely you will wind up doing things like learning the language just to fit in. It can be wonderful to learn the language, study the culture, and engage with random locals, but only do these things because you want to and feel it will add value to who you are. Have no expectations of what it will do for your current situation, or you may be in for disappointment!

Spend more time thinking carefully about how the community or the experience could change you, and about the ways that it cannot. For example, what talents, personality traits, or qualities about yourself do you want folks to learn about you and apply to the work you do, and what are some of the characteristics you don’t want them to see? What aspects of yourself do you want to keep from being changed?

By now you already know that going abroad is a chance to fully step outside of your comfort zone, enhancing the things you do well because you will have a chance to apply them to new and foreign settings. But you should know that it can also be about learning to embrace, transform, and accept the things you do not do well, in order to adapt to new and foreign settings. Integrating who you are, all of you, with a new culture takes guts, but that discomfort of facing up to who you are is a requirement for growing up, so why not do it abroad with people who you may never have to see again, in case you show a little too much.

As you read further about my work I know it may seem to shatter big dreams for going abroad, but someone needs to tell you that if you do not take the time from your over-excitement to do due diligence in preparing for where you’re going, studying the culture, reading up on complexities, and even engaging with a local international community in your home country, who can give you their real-lived experience as insight, then you could be setting yourself up for some surprise run-ins with walls; cultural walls to be exact.

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The “part two” of my article is to reiterate this notion of providing real tips [from personal experiences] to prepare students for study abroad endeavors, and is especially true for those representing marginalized populations. We cannot compare our experiences to the ones of our white peers because regardless of what the pamphlet tells you, studying abroad in places like rural Japan, for blonde haired/blue-eyed white privileged Bobby does not look the same as dark skinned and natural-haired or dreadlocked Evan. Some places (#Japan) are very much still white-washed (in less developed areas) and treat foreigners based on a very unconscionable ranking. From my limited experience with the culture, the stereotypes that I have encountered are that Blacks are scary, Americans (gays especially) are loud, transgender are only entertainers, only foreigners are gay, and mixed race American/Japanese known as “hafus” are to be bullied/alienated because “they are not full Japanese.”

There is still controversy over use of the term “gaijin”, which means ‘foreigner’ in Japanese. However, in the shogun era, foreigners were seen as “the devil” and then called “ketojin” (outsider), so let’s be mindful of not just the complexities but how far we have come as a global society, Japan included.

Odiously, there are still many issues that exist today concerning the treatment and acceptance of internationals in Japan, and how its cultural practices may or may not infringe on moves towards more inclusiveness of “gaijins” (marginalized populations). What this all proves is that schools who promote Japan as a study abroad opportunity need to stay informed, involved, and, most importantly, use their platforms to allow more room for dialogue (or stories) about such issues. This involvement through educational platforms is what makes change happen and last, for people of all backgrounds. University of Richmond [#RichmondPromise] knows that!

Speaking of platforms to educate communities on being inclusive, probably best to now tell you that I am writing this piece on my flight back from Tokyo-Narita Airport, after spending over a month in Japan. Why, you may ask? The concepts, ideas, and conversations I had about the cultural complexities I experienced on my previous two year stay in Japan as an English teacher on the JET Program launched a research project dedicated to the utilization of stories from international students/workers currently living Japan, as a way to access how inclusive it is there and analyze what our students [especially those from marginalized populations] need to know before embarking on study/work abroad excursions there.

After two years of living out of my comfort zone, facing alienation, yet still learning a whole lot about myself and a new culture, I am surprised that I have found myself back in Japan. At the same time, I am proud of my university for taking the leap to gain tools for dialogue around using real stories to help educate others on the challenges and gains of authentic cultural exchange.

While incorporating some humor and satire, I intend to use personal experiences [abroad], the good, the bad, and the bizarre, to inform my fellow peers that study abroad in Japan for us- LGBTQ, persons of color, first generation college students, and those of mixed race – may take some extra preparation when considering some of the cultural barriers between “foreigners” and local Japanese.

This project focuses on Japan, because this is where I lived the longest and experienced the most cultural difficulties. However, I still love the place!

Therefore, one disclaimer to make is that in no way is my work designed to steer you, i.e. the listener of the story, in the direction of a negative outlook on Japan. Never. The food is just too good for that! This project is based upon the real experiences and viewpoints of students and foreign teachers (myself included) who live/have lived in Japan for extended stays. Their experiences may or may not relate to you and your intentions for engaging within Japanese society but I believe that we all something to learn from each other’s story.

So, take what applies to you and make your own interpretations based on the stories you read and how it resonates with you. Your task is always to decide for yourself. However, utilizing an interdisciplinary approach, such as learning from personal stories in order to make an informed and educated decision about whether or not you will engage with a certain culture, gives you a chance to think outside the box. Learn to reflect beyond bullet points in a pamphlet, and assess what you realistically can and cannot conquer in a study abroad experience.

Without further ado, I present to you a view of Japan through the personal narratives of members of marginalized populations.

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