I was in a bathroom stall when an elementary school first year student came in to the bathroom.
“Who’s in there?” he asked.
“Who, I wonder,” I answered.
“Who is it?”
“It’s a mystery,” I said, shocked he couldn’t figure out who.
I was dumbfounded. He was a young teacher like me, but Japanese through-and-through. “I said it was a mystery.”
“You must be Hiroki-sensei.”
“Well, I’m leaving.”
I’d finished up, so I decided to leave the stall. The student was standing in the doorway, a look of confusion on his face. “Jōchō-sensei?”
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been confused for Japanese. Last week, as I was walking back to the middle school from the kindergarten, I said “good afternoon” to an old woman. My hood was up because it was snowing.
“Oh, hello,” she responded. “Cold isn’t it?”
“Where are you from?” she asked. “[The town near ours]? [The big city about an hour away]?”
“Where was I born?”
“Right. Perhaps [the big city about an hour away]?”
“I’m from Boston,” I say, pulling down my hood.
“A foreigner. Ah, my apologies.”
“No, no,” I said, continuing on my way, a little happier than I should have been.
Sometimes I beat myself up over my Japanese. And maybe the only people who think I’m Japanese are children and old people with hearing problems. But even then, when these moments happen, it’s like a weight is lifted. Some glass ceiling I imagined is no longer there.