trigger warning: racism, bullying!
I was only ten when I encountered one of my first racist bullies.
It was after school and I was supposed to head home for an Indian practice festival, when two larger boys came up to me, shoved me against my locker, and called me “dirty brown” before laughing and walking away. The next week, I was pushed down a stair. The month after that, bits of my lunch got stolen. I complained and complained to the point where my parents and teachers thought I was delusional, giving up on me. Who would listen to a kid who never learned from her mistakes? And so I silently took the blows and hits, getting bruises everyday. I learned how to lie. I learned how to wear a mask. I learned how to be silent.
Nagi no Asukara is not the first to approach racism – Shinsekai Yori did earlier this year – but Asukara is the first to take a look at it from the ‘others’ side. Of course, it takes place in a very different world. The racism here is not dependent on skin color, the type of clothing you wear on religious holidays, the accent and way you speak certain words. It does not rely on the idea of diaspora and loneliness, stranded between two identities you want to inherit, but can only choose one; the nickname your mother gave you, in her own tongue, to keep as a blessing, but is seen as a curse in the eyes of others (and yourself) instead. In Nagi no Asukara‘s world, you are either born with the shimmery skin of Ena, or you are human. It’s as simple as that. And thus, you are reduced to a default – the us versus them is less deep, less complex.
Manaka, Hikari, Chisaki and Kaname are all children that come from the sea, born with the unique Ena that allows them to live and breathe underwater. The problem is that they can only come up to the surface for a day or so at most before their Ena begins to dry out and they become dehydrated. Other than that, they are as human as any child from the surface. They have pure white-like skin, sparkling eyes and bright smiles. Nevertheless, they are treated like scum in their classroom. The first day they arrive, they are already objectified and treated as toys by the others. They are teased at, played pranks of, and isolated from the class as a result. Their culture is made fun of when Manaki is cursed by one of the Sea God’s manservants and their work is even destroyed. All of this sounds like a typical anime case of bullying, and in some ways, it is. There’s a lot of crying, the end result is the two groups shaking hands and moving on, etc.
And yet, there is something painful to really watch about these events unfolding. Maybe it’s because Manaka and her group are not targeted for falling in love with a boy, or because they grew up under a household that has bad luck. Manaka and her group are targeted simply because they live under the sea – because they have ena. And whereas bullying preys on the weak, here, Manaka and her group are frankly quite strong-minded, but still face racist remarks and taunts week after week. I was almost expecting our characters to give up in the fourth episode; to deny the assaults thrown at them and to render them invalid with silence. Who could put up with such torture? I certainly couldn’t.
But the exact opposite happened. Whereas I learned to simply blend in, Manaka and her group fight back constantly, accepting mistakes, living with bruises but living honestly. If one of their dishes crashes to the floor and the others deny responsibility, Manaka easily picks up the pieces and moves on. If someone tears down their cultural doll, the group decides to rebuild what is left behind. They do not remain silent and do not wear masks – on the contrary, they couldn’t be more proud to be who they are. Words make hurt their hearts, but they realize that the blood that courses through their veins will always be different and do not try to mask that. They do not try to adopt the customs of the surface people, speak like them, or discard their own heritage. They accept the human default and yet resist against it at the same time. It almost makes me envious of their spirit, as a girl who had to blend in with the crowd, struggling with her own cultural identity and self esteem all these years.
Despite this, I don’t know if I accept Asukara‘s message beyond its exposure of racism and culture. The idea that we must forgive and forget one another when only one group has really been the victim of so much suffering boggles me, and while I’m not the one to hold grudges, the fact that I “must” follow up on and shake hands with someone who has played such a large impact on some of the darker parts of my life makes no sense whatsoever. Asukara‘s positivity is remarkable and inspiring at times, but is it really within the oppressed and targeted to be the one to apologize, even with misunderstandings? Maybe in the world that this anime builds, yes. But in the real world, undertones are much darker, more complex. Asukara‘s surface classmates hadn’t breached the void of ignorance – in my case, my bullies were much more malignant and self aware. They knew they were pushing a brown girl down the stairs; pulling her hair, calling her names, staining her clothes and hiding her textbook in others’ cubbies. And they simply didn’t care.
One of the boys who was the first to target me friend requested me on Facebook the other day. His request is still in the box of undetermined, waiting, while I think to myself: does he remember what he did to me? Does he remember the suffering and instilled anger and fear he created? Or was it just like a passing memory to him – a simple wave that moved on in the larger seas of life? Do I forgive and press okay, wiping whatever bad blood was – and is – between us? Or do I continue to hold my ten year grudges with fair reason and judgement? There’s no easy answer here, and while Asakura has reminded me what is important, it cannot give me all the guides in life.