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  • Diaspora Japan

Yasmeen Octavia (pt. 1)


So I guess just start could you introduce yourself?

My name is Yasmeen. I’m from Lynchburg Virginia. Lynchburg is a really small city. I want to say that people drive through it to get to Richmond usually.


So how did you go from Lynchburg to Japan?

I graduated from college and then after college I applied for jobs everywhere, and about 10 months before I graduated from college I was applying for jobs. Just putting my name out there. And there really weren’t any jobs available, so I got a job with AmeriCorps and I wanted to live far away and the first place that hired me was Seattle Washington. I didn’t know anything about Seattle, but it was far away and I wanted to get as far away from Virginia as possible.


And so it wasn’t Seattle at first. I was in Skagit county in northern Washington which is all reservations and areas of farmland where immigrant workers were, racist white people, and lots of fog and mist. That area of Washington is really beautiful: where Twin Peaks was filmed. That place is really beautiful. And you have all of these white people on land that was very obviously indigenous land at one point. Eventually I realized that Skagit County remind me a lot of Virginia so I moved to Seattle to be closer to queer people and activist communities. But I lived in Seattle for two years and then I couldn’t really find work in Seattle.


Why do you think that was?

I want to say it’s a combination of the fact that I was a little bit reckless with my activism, like I wasn’t secretive about it and it was really out there in the open. Didn’t think things like “oh, you shouldn’t do interviews with certain magazines.”


So around the time when Ferguson happened and there was just shooting after shooting we had a rally against police brutality and at that rally I had a big sign. Because one of the things that really bothered me about the black lives matter movement was the lack of inclusivity so I had assigned that talked about immigrants who are black, trans people who are black, women who are black, incarcerated black people, and all that and on the back it said “stop killing us”. And I think it was The Stranger magazine and they had a big picture of me holding that sign. And so they published an article and they omitted some of the things that I talked about and that escalated because it was on their page during a really heightened period of time.


In general the activist community was pretty toxic so I stopped interacting with that and just started doing my own thing.


Sounds exhausting.

Yeah and the whole thing with working where I was being expected to work all day into the night for little to no pay at one point my body just gave out. I couldn’t do it anymore. I ended up losing my job and I just couldn’t get another one. And one day, I think it was the summer, I was just like “I need to start applying overseas.“


What made you think of overseas as an option?

I had tried applying everywhere in the United States. I was putting out my resume everywhere, and I have so much experience, so I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being hired. And the reason that I mentioned the article before was that I think many people saw that and came across it and as soon as they saw my face they thought "we’re not going to hire them" because of this.


So what made you decide on Japan?

Well I had been about eight months without finding any work, so I started applying overseas to Spain, South Korea, China, and I think a few other places. So I applied and literally after a week I got responses. And I was just like, "Wow, why didn’t I think about this after college?" But I guess I wanted to make the United States work and be a part of a community, but I started to realize how people are being treated and the different levels to activist communities, like how dark-skinned people are being treated, if you’re fat, if you’re queer, or if your trans, you just get pushed the fuck out. That was just really disheartening because I felt we’re just not fighting for the same thing anymore. Just not at all. And I just wasn’t good for my mental health anymore.


I absolutely feel that.

Yeah, so I moved to Japan in September 2015. So that was my first time going overseas.


Wow, so you had to apply for a passport and everything?

Yeah, so that was wild. I thought it was going to be easy but I had to like give them all of this documentation like my birth certificate that I didn’t have and that my mom didn’t have. And so my mom had me at a young age, she was 13 when she had me, and she didn’t really keep track of that paperwork, so I had to go and find the hospital that I was born at and have them look for the paperwork. I have the documents now and they’re all like really old and look like they are worn and torn.


I was really lucky to find his paperwork because a lot of people like my mom are just like “I don’t have that paperwork. I won’t be able to get a passport.”


Especially a lot of black folks.

Yeah, I just remember like crying in the passport office and just being like “I don’t know what to do.“ I had call all of my schools, I had no money, I was living with a friend. And I knew this was my chance and I had a deadline and I had to do it or I was going to miss out.


I remember when I got it I was just like “This is done. I got it.”


And here you are.

Yeah, but my first mistake after college, well not even after college because I went to a PWI and then moved to a predominately white city. I should’ve known that you’re just going to have fewer resources in places like that, but I was still pretty naïve.


Or hopeful?

Yeah, hopeful.


Yeah I just remember when I landed in Japan, Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku island. The moon was blood red and I just thought “It looks like the flag! Oh my god!” I was just like “This is a sign!”


And that was when you first came to Japan.

Yeah. You know, I want to say that my first year here was just healing. Because before then it was just hustle, hustle trying to survive. Constant gun violence in my neighborhood and people, mainly women, getting shot on the corner near my apartment. Weekly. At places that I frequented. My whole household was gay and I felt targeted and thankfully nothing happened but it was a lot.

Yeah, just trying to detox all of that. I started making art again, forming hobbies for myself, and just really exploring.


But then my first job was at an eikaiwa and that was really horrible, like I was working from 7 AM to 11 PM. And like, I had a three hour break in the middle of the day but the commute from one school to another was an hour and a half so I really had closer to an hour break. And I was bicycling and taking the train in all kinds of weather.


Wow. How long could you actually maintain that schedule?

After a while I realized I needed to get the fuck out of here and that this was not sustainable. I’m a hard worker, and we normalize hard work and suffering and the things that we put up with but then you wake up one day and you ask yourself “Is this going to last?”


Like, if you don’t have time to sleep and eat and set aside time for yourself, that’s just not sustainable. I think Seattle taught me that. And not everyone agrees with me. They think that it’s completely normal to work your life away, and if that’s what success looks like to you and survival looks like to you, cool. But I didn’t move all the way overseas to be back in the same cycle. Especially for my mental health.


And something wild happened, they were trying to extort money from me so I switched jobs immediately. I went to labor office and they were like “You need to quit.” And thankfully I immediately got a job with another eikaiwa in Saitama.

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