Noticing accents

I’d come home from international school, excited I had made a friend. I was puzzled one of the first questions my mother would ask was: What nationality is she? I had to think hard for an answer. I hadn’t thought to ask. But she wouldn’t stop probing: What color of hair does she have? Does she speak Japanese? What is her last name?
In hindsight, now that I am an adult, this sounds unbelievable. But I often couldn’t remember what color hair she had _ maybe it was brownish? black? The most important thing _ the only thing that mattered, and I was maybe 10 years old, 8? _ was that I had found this person who for some reason liked me and was now my friend. Why didn’t adults understand that this was what I wanted to talk about, not what nationality she was, or what color of eyes she had so we could figure out what nationality she was?
This may sound bizarre. But many people who attended international schools at a young age have the same experience. Of course, we knew that people came in different sizes and colors and had different preferences for what they liked to eat or do. But it was a mixed up blur of so many ways to distinguish people _ the tone of their voice, their laugh, their skills in coming up with games _ that big words like the Philippines, Iran, America, China, Zambia, whatever, were just tongue-twister that didn’t seem half as interesting as the other, more fun ways to tell kids apart.
This is not as bizarre as it sounds. Scientists have found that Japanese babies learn very quickly not to pay attention to the difference between Rs and Ls. That doesn’t matter in the Japanese language. For the same reason languages must be acquired early, a child learns what to pay attention to and what not to notice. The world is such a buzz of information, how we discriminate must be learned.
The innocent world, however transient or artificial, where nationality doesn’t matter, felt so comfortable that when I learned it wasn’t real _ or encountered cases when I had to finally face up to the fact that it wasn’t ever real _ it was painful. It was more painful because I had gotten a taste of that innocent world. If I hadn’t, I’d probably have accepted it with a shrug, the same way I wouldn’t know the difference between Rs and Ls. I can roll my Rs like a salsa singer.
In Japan, a nation that prides itself on being homogeneous and harmonious, horror stories abound of children of Chinese or Korean ancestry routinely being harassed by Japanese, stalked daily, beaten, taunted. And they aren’t even a different race.
Once acquired, the art of discrimination is something people thrive on, “ijime” that engrosses the masses.
I don’t know why being discriminated for race or ethnicity or sex hurts so much more than being discriminated for performance or personal choices, even looks, another genetically determined feature. But it does. It makes me feel so vulnerable, as though I have been stripped naked, and I can’t fight back. In Sociology, we learn race and sex are what we call “master traits.” That means other qualities a person may acquire, such as education or career experience, can never ever ever override what is predetermined about that person by race and sex. It is more important in society that someone is black or yellow or white or that someone is male or female than that person happens to be an astronaut or a gangster. Can you imagine that? To me, that is ridiculously bizarre. I want everyone to learn from that child who rushes back to tell her mother she just found a friend _ never mind what nationality she is.