Growing up, Candice Rowe did not travel too far from home. However, years later, an economic recession would have her looking for opportunities outside of her native Jamaica. Now she and her husband, Marvin, are navigating life in northern Japan while raising their preschooler.
Tell us your background story.
Candice: I’m from Saint Thomas Parish in Jamaica. We’re about 45 minutes from Kingston. I grew up with my mom, dad and my older sister. After my sister left, I got lonely so I found a boyfriend… Marvin.
After working for two years at an insurance company, my Japanese teacher from university kept saying I should go teach English in Japan. In Japan, I did not need a teaching certification but you need to have at least an undergraduate degree. After two years of not finding anything, I applied to the JET program, which is through the Japanese government. I was not accepted so I started looking for other opportunities to get to Japan. I’d only traveled within the Caribbean and to Canada — but I’m not a traveller at all. I hate flying. I hate airplanes.
I eventually got through with a private program that gets teachers to Japan. I was engaged by this time. I came to Japan in March, returned to Jamaica to get married in July and then went back to Japan. Marvin came a year later. I’ve been in Japan eight years. For Marvin, it’s been seven years.
Marvin: I was born in Kingston. It was kind of a hard life due to violence. But my parents sheltered to me. When my parents separated, my sister and I relocated to the area my where wife was living, which was a parish away. My mom remarried and I now had a stepfather and step siblings. I also now lived in the country, which is where I met Candi.We were friends for a long time and dated for about 10 years. I proposed a month or two before she left for Japan! We’ve been married for 8 years.
Candice: I was in Japan a year before Marvin came. When he came to join me, it was his first time on an airplane. And now, we’re live in Hirosaki. It is in the Northern part of the island in the Aomori prefecture area.
How did you end up deciding to go to Japan for work?
Marvin: It was an economic decision. At that time, there was economic recession in the world and Jamaica was really affected by it. Candi was selling life insurance. But because of the recession, people didn’t have that extra money to spend.
At first, she was unsuccessful, trying to find programs to take her to Japan, and she gave up. But then she tried about a year later, and then that’s when she was successful. We’re both teaching English at the same high school. I also teach English part time at a university.
What has it been like being Jamaicans living in Japan?
Candice: At first, Marvin didn’t like it!
Marvin: I had a hard time initially, because people see him and want to go on the other side of the street. In our culture, a man has to be working. Usually, the man is the head of the household, someone who leads most things. It was nerve wrecking to be in a strange land, not working and having strangers looking at me. When people were driving, they were looking back at us, especially at me. It was weird experience. I felt like I must be some animal in a cage. Then I decided, it may be it’s best that I stay home and then I go to the supermarket at night.
Candice: For me, I wanted to go out with my husband because I’d been here alone for a year. It’s a small town, so there’s few places to go. But he just wanted to stay in or go out at night. I had learned to ignore the stares. but because Marvin was new, it bothered him a lot.
When I first came, I was really lonely. I didn’t see many brown people. I remember seeing a Mexican guy on a train and I got excited because he was different. I was so happy about that.
I called my dad to talk about how lonely I felt. And my dad, said, “Candi, if you wanted to make Jamaican friends or black friends, you would stay in Jamaica.” So I told Marvin the same thing…”You would’ve stayed in Jamaica. Or in Tokyo where there are a lot of Nigerians! “
You have a young daughter. What was the experience giving birth abroad in Japan?
Candice: For me, I have to remember the things my mother and my grandmother taught me, because, there’s no one here to teach me to what to do. Many foreigners here have a parent come. Or if they are married to a local, they go to their hometown. For us, we don’t know what we’re doing, but let’s do it anyway!
Marvin: We had to deal with things we didn’t anticipate. The doctor doesn’t tell you the gender. We had to go a private clinic to get that information. Here, they don’t allow the husbands to be in the delivery ward as we were used to in Jamaica. We also had to oppose them on that.
Also, they usually do the C-section with a vertical incision, but in our culture it is not accepted, because women want to wear bikinis or swimsuits. So we had to really argue about that and ask them to change it. And they did.
Candice: Marvin was actually arguing with the doctor while I was in labor. “I don’t want you to cut my wife that way.” And I could hear him asking, “How old are you? How long have you been doing this?” And this was after 32 hours of pain. I also remember my husband saying, “If you have to choose, I need my wife.” The doctor was rushing him. But he held firm onto the doctor’s arm. I remember hearing that as I was being wheeled out.
Marvin: You have to imagine I was very firm in my decision. Now that I’m used to my daughter, I could not make that decision so easily!
What’s life like raising your preschooler?
Candice: It’s difficult sometimes. She’s different and she’s visibly different because she’s darker like her father. I don’t think she knows she’s different yet. But she’s popular. Everyone knows her name and they always call out to her. She’s friendly. Where the difficulty comes in is when she will start real school. How are we going to help her with her homework? We can’t. We don’t really know Japanese to that extent.
Marvin: She is multilingual. Her first language is Japanese, more fluently than anything else. She also speaks the local dialect that is actually difficult for other Japanese natives to understand. She speaks that and English. And we’re trying to teach her Patois.
Candice: When she speaks, we have to tell her to speak English. Or we have to check dictionaries or call her friends to ask. We don’t speak Japanese well enough. Marvin and I, we are both from the same culture. So at home we speak Patois. To her we speak English. At school, we speak dumbed down English – a Japanese/English mix. We only speak proper English to her. We’ve got this language barrier between our child and us.
It is wonderful that you are encouraging your daughter to navigate all those communication skills!
Candice: We do need to encourage her to speak more English. But if she chooses to watch cartoons, for example, Japanese language cartoons are her natural inclination.
How do you work with your daughter in terms of her identity?
Candice: We took her on an American military base awhile ago and there are a lot of black people. But we don’t see them often because it is about two and a half hours by train. When we got on the base, she got excited. She started pointing at all the black kids. She saw this lady and started following her. But with her limited English, she was just following the woman. She recognized that those people look like her.
I also like that she makes me notice little things. The kids playing on the base — that’s different than the kids playing in other places in Japan. The kids playing on the base is what we’re accustomed to. It’s loud, laughing, and pushing. Just lots of contact. Kids touching kids and not being afraid. In Japan, it’s different. There are different ideas of personal space.
Marvin: I can say this, Candy is trying to instill a sense of pride and dignity and self-worth in our daughter from this young age.
[My wife] lets her know she’s beautiful and intelligent. All the things you want to instill in a little black girl. She tells her that she’s all that she needs to be.
That’s incredibly affirming. Especially since she doesn’t look like the host culture.
Candice: I want her to know, “I am beautiful. I am smart.” I got my friend to tell me the words in Japanese so she knows what I tell her. We went into an H&M store. We don’t have it in our area – and she went wild. There were all these pictures of little black kids and she got excited. She doesn’t see them and she was pointing them out.
How do you stay focused in your marriage?
Candice: For us, we’re Christians. Time for each other is the next thing. Our daycare is 24 hours. So, if we need to go out, it’s no problem.
Marvin: Just the fact that you’re far from your home country has an impact. If you’re back home, you may try to refer back to your family members. Sometimes that doesn’t work, because people could take sides. Here, we’re locked in with each other. We only have each other to relate to, so you have to make it work. You have to find a way to solve the problems.
Have you found your community?
Marvin: There is a black American teacher. He’s been in Japan about three years, but he’s returning this summer.
Candice: I’m the only black woman. There’s also a Nigerian guy. His kids don’t speak English. They are very Japanese. They are biracial. But we’re the only black couple in our area. We are very involved in the community, though. We’ve been at our school for six years, so we know a lot of families.
What advice would you give someone considering visiting or moving to Northern Japan?
Marvin: Come prepared. We’re from the Western world where people are used to individuality. Be prepared to see things happen in a set way, by the book.
Candice: Also come with an open mind. Don’t come expecting to see what you read about because that’s not all of Japan. That might be Tokyo but that’s not the only place. Go in the country area. Go off the popular track. We’re not afraid to explore the area. and not take out phones to video anything. We will just sit there and experience what’s going on around us. Be willing to do that. Be friendly. And smile a lot.