Being different is a blessing

“Why did you move to Canada?” “How did you learn English?” “Where did you meet your boyfriend?” “Why did you quit a management consulting job?” These are examples of questions I have been asked during all sorts of encounters in and out of law school.

I was born, raised, and educated in Japan, and worked there until I moved to Canada in 2008. Japan is not only the world’s third-largest economy, but also a beautiful country with rich culture, democracy, and technology.

One aspect that haunted me about Japan — or Asia in general — however, is people tend to abhor difference. A Chinese proverb, mù xiù yú lín, feng bì cui zhi, says it succinctly: “The wind is sure to destroy the outstanding tree in the wood.”

Asians value conformity and harmony, which, I concede, are virtues in many regards. Nevertheless, the question of whether we should promote diversity or nurture a harmonious culture does not have to be dichotomous. Not only can we attain both, but I also believe it is the best way for any entity to thrive in the 21st century.

I had long thought it was shameful to be different. Being gay was especially a taboo. When I was a teenager, I almost took my own life because of my sexuality. Many of my gay male friends decided to marry women, succumbing to social, professional, and familial pressure. But I could not live a double life. So I came out to my parents. They were devastated by their only child’s confession, but gradually became supportive. They also advised me to move outside Japan to pursue personal happiness while striving for professional success globally.

You may have noticed the focus of all the questions is how different I am from others. Despite the differences, not only have I never encountered any form of prejudice at law school, but everyone has been more curious about me because of my rather peculiar background.

Due to these differences, lawyers’ questions during firm interviews were very different from those addressed to say a 25-year-old Caucasian, straight, male student with a BA from a Canadian school. I never dreamed I would actually be fortunate enough to have so many different attributes that pique interviewers’ curiosity.

The benefit of being different does not stop at interviews. When I summered at two business law firms — one in Toronto and one in New York City — most partners, associates, human resource professionals, paralegals, secretaries, and other summer students were eager to learn from different people, perspectives, and experiences.

Firms seem to promote diversity not only because they value it per se but also because it is actually good for them. For example, during my assignment to a competition case, I researched a recent ruling by the Japanese Fair Trade Commission in a similar case. Reviewing documents in a merger involving a dozen countries requires some understanding of cultural differences. When assisting a pro bono project for a transgender name change, I had a very honest conversation with a client based on my personal experience. Everyone has something to offer and that is how teamwork works at law firms.

At the same time, it is not easy for people with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and ideas to create synergy and achieve the same goal. It is somewhat ironic that Asians prefer conformity and harmony in their home countries, but as a minority group they become a “diversifying” factor in North America.

Last year, I learned the phrase “bamboo ceiling.” Some argue more and more high-achieving Asians who study at top law schools, perform well, and become associates at top law firms seem to face hurdles in making their way to a leadership role. Some attribute this phenomenon to a difference between obedient Asian culture and assertive western culture, others see it as a reminiscent of racism. Professor Kenji Yoshino of New York University, an openly gay Japanese-American, coined the term “covering” as toning down a disfavoured identity to fit into the mainstream.

What is the mainstream in 2013 and beyond? Diversity is no longer a trend but a reality just like globalization, which, in turn, inevitably accelerates diversification of the workplace. How many politicians, judges, law firm partners, and business executives were minorities, female, LGBT, and/or immigrants in the 1980s? Who could have imagined the legalization of same-sex marriage in the 1990s? How many Canadian law firms were targeted by global mergers in the 2000s?

There is no doubt that we live in a very exciting time and I have never felt more blessed to be different.

Yuki Shirato just graduated from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

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