I will never forget the first time I traveled to Japan for work, as it changed the way I saw the world and myself in it. At the tender age of 24, I knew it was going to be an adventure. It sounded like a cool thing to do. So exotic. Having grown up in Montana and attended college in Arizona, my international travel experience spanned no further than the border towns of Canada and Mexico – an excuse to buy chotchkies and be “of age” before my time. When I stepped on the plane to Narita, the last thing I expected was that it would change my life – but it did.
As a white female, I got my first taste of what it felt like to be a minority. I remember taking the bus from Tokyo to Kamakura, to see the giant Buddah, the gorgeous hydrangea (ajisai) gardens, and indulge in sweet potato ice cream (that was purple!). When I boarded the bus, I went to the back and took the only available seat next to an elderly Japanese woman. She looked at me, terrified, and immediately got up and moved to the middle of the bus and stood in the aisle. She would rather stand, than sit next to a me.
When I arrived at the station in Kamakura, there was a massive group of uniformed school girls, in their short pleated blue jumpers, starched white shirts, long white socks and pigtails. When they saw me, it was as if a rock star had arrived, as they crowded around me, touched my hair, and took a million photos. “Cheezu!” they’d say, giggling, holding the peace sign up and smiling broadly next to the blond stranger from America. When they boarded their bus, they flew to the windows, all smiling and waving at me from behind the glass as the bus pulled away. I think that’s what it must feel like to be an animal in a zoo.
I remember walking through the crowed streets in Tokyo, attracting attention for how I looked – different – yet feeling incredibly liberated. As since they already saw me as “different” there was no “norm” to which I had to subscribe. I could just “be”. It made me fearless. I would try on my rudimentary Japanese words in different shops without worrying about making a mistake and looking silly. I would jump on the Tokyo subway, not having a clue how to get where I was going and trust that I would just figure it out. In my work, where I was delivering cross-cultural workshops at college fairs, I was relaxed, and confident, having the time of my life. Truly comfortable, maybe for the first time ever, in my own skin. No anxiety. No pressure. I could just be me. And I trusted that was enough. I felt very powerful.
It’s my definition of freedom.
I had the most wonderful conversation with a South African friend of mine I ran into on the Metro North train yesterday. He was telling me how he intentionally chose to attend university far from home – a school where he knew no one, and where classes were taught in his second language. “It was a chance to re-invent myself. I no longer had to fit into the mold of what people thought I was – what I fit myself into – the chess-playing-geeky-smart-guy – I could be whoever I wanted to be. It was freeing.”
My trip to Japan was the beginning of what I suspect will be a life-long-journey to hone that sense of freedom – the sense of freedom that comes from being comfortable in my own skin – from being my most powerful “me”. From trusting myself.
When I lead an open session of OnStage Leadership, more often than not, most people who attend have never met. I council my clients to send people who work together closely or have a reporting relationship to separate sessions. What I see take place, time and time again, is that sense of freedom people get, in the company of strangers, to be who they really are – powerfully. It’s extraordinary.
Why it’s more challenging to do this around the people who know us well, is indeed one of the great mysteries of life – yet I believe there is no greater aim. For only when we are able to bring our best, most powerful selves to our work, to our families – to our lives – are we truly…