This Too, Shall Pass; Bullying and Racism in Nagi no Asukara

Nagi no Asukara - 04 [720p]_Oct 27, 2013, 6.11.13 AM

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.

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5 responses to “This Too, Shall Pass; Bullying and Racism in Nagi no Asukara

  1. I wouldn’t consider what Asakura has been saying as “You must shake hands and apologize” as much as I would think of it as “I gain nothing from starting a blood feud”.
    Were we to accept that some people just don’t think about what they’re doing, and no amount of convincing otherwise will reach their ears as anything but ‘moralfaggotry’, it doesn’t make sense to keep trying, with the aim of reforming the bully, of his actions without appealing to authority(which in both Asakura’s and the real world, isn’t the most effective way to reform somebody).
    I can understand not holding out your hand out of an ethics code; the belief that it just shouldn’t be done when the person holding the hand out isn’t at fault, but then it comes with the inclusion of pride: “Why should I hold my hand out when I’ve done nothing wrong?”. That’s a fair feeling to keep, until you find out that the flames have all died out and you’ve been looking a pile of ashes all this time. It’s easier to just let it go.
    tl;dr bigots gonna bigot; it isn’t worth it making provoking them unless you can steal their moral high-ground from them, which usually doesn’t end well because they get bitter over that too.

    I say all this though I never really do it: my answer to bullying is to be as belligerent as possible, yet to always be aware that you’re the bad guy too, which doesn’t really absolve anything, but hey…

  2. I personally forgot about my high school years; although I wasn’t bullied, I had a miserable time there, and I never felt like part of the crowd – at least, now the crowd that would discriminate against others based on some arbitrary criteria. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been very introverted and self-critical, and I can’t forgive myself for “wrongs” I perceived myself to have done; perhaps I simply internalize a lot of negativity around me, and blame myself if I think something went wrong.

    Looking at this commentary, I don’t know what to say about the series – do they really present a good message, or is there a more reasonable way of dealing with bullies? Kinda makes me think of how superficial depictions of bullying in pop culture can be – cartoonish bullies and villains (e.g., the bully in ParaNorman; Snidely Whiplash) come across as caricatures, and don’t really address the issue with any seriousness. It’s difficult to present the issue in any work, and I, for one, don’t really enjoy seeing such characters as described in the show act so mean and not think about their actions.

  3. When I heard Tsumugu saying “they are nice people deep down”, I got so angry, and I wasn’t bullied as severely as you (I’m sorry you suffered alone :( ). It was like he devalued how hurt the others got as a result. The girl’s answer reminded me my usual self. And although I know that people aren’t black and white, there are things that I simply can’t accept. I may recognize someone’s skills or good points, but I won’t accept him/her as a ‘good’ person if (s)he acts and talks harmfully towards others and/or me. Were you to ask me about forgiveness, I’ll tell you I don’t know what the word is supposed to mean. In the sense, that the painful events are registered there, and sometimes even a sorry doesn’t do much; it doesn’t erase the memories. Then again there are times I think that these experiences toughened me up, made me who I am -though obviously I could do without them or fate could find better ways to do this. So after years of the events and when the person isn’t anymore in my life I can look back and not feel grudge. But is this forgiveness? I doubt…

    As for the friend request, I’m of the humble opinion you better keep out people you don’t need, and have repeatedly harmed you. If he’s changed, he should have contacted you face-to-face to sincerely apologize- or at least pm you with an apology (which I would still consider cheap and I’d have no way to see his expressions and emotions, thus I couldn’t tell if he is honest). People who take for granted your forgiveness are entitled pieces of shit (sorry for the swearing)

  4. I got above average grades as a kid and played the piano well enough with a private tutor. If anything, all the stereotypes that were truly associated with me ended up being positive reinforcement. My mother, worried about the possibility of bullying, went as far as to not teach me the family language so that I wouldn’t have an accent (though many of my other Asian friends speak fluently in both English and their family language, so the impact is questionable).

    I was quite lucky to have been the target of misguided jeering, rather than any insults that specifically referred to me or my heritage. I’m Vietnamese, you see, and that particular ethnicity passes under a lot of people’s radars, especially when it comes to the “guess what Asian this Asian is” game. Even then, with kids being young and ignorant of Geography, most of the insults catered more towards Chinese people rather than myself. “Ching chong ding dong” doesn’t apply. Eating pets also doesn’t apply. Playing ‘Chopsticks’ on my piano every single damn time people visited also didn’t elicit a violent or visceral reaction out of me. By the time people became old enough to discover the existence of Asians other than the Chinese or Japanese variety, I already learned to take a whole slew of verbal insults in stride, sometimes beating people to the punch when it came to lowering myself. It never did, however, escalate into physical harm.

    I once, however, got beat up by a kid who took the same bus home in middle school. The circumstances before the fight are unimportant, but suffice to say I ended up with a face twice its normal surface area and both of us got suspended because lol zero tolerance sucks. When we both got back, he came up to me and said that his buddies were congratulating him for kicking my ass, which disturbed the shit out of him and maybe, just maybe, made him question his terrible attitude. He did regret getting into a fight with me, and I was the same. We became kind of awkward but comfortable buddies for the bus rides home that year. I don’t really know where he is now, but I’m thankful that the incident was squared away properly.

    Maybe it’s the same for your bully. Time does change people, and in some cases bullies really don’t realize that what they’re doing is bullying, and have not considered the amount of trauma they may have incurred. If you ever find it within yourself to accept that friend request, it’s important to at least talk about it and see if they remember and, most of all, if they regret doing it.

    • I wish their was an easy mechanism here (and, to a larger extent, in real life) to thank people for writing/express your appreciation for great comments and sharing their stories. But, since there isn’t, I’ll leave this here instead and try and add some of my own experiences to this.

      Being half-Chinese/half-Caucasian, I was lucky enough to avoid much of this type of racism by being able to recourse to my “whiteness” to downplay my Asian heritage. But I can still remember the times when some of my friends experienced this much stronger/intense discrimination and racism, especially my Muslim friends post-9/11. But, as they would be the first to tell anyone (they’re absolutely incredible), we must all forgive and try and do our best to make the world a place where it doesn’t happen.

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