Assimilation is Not an Option

The way I see it, you run into two major types of foreigners here in Japan. On one end, you have the kids whose ultimate goal is total assimilation – I’m talking about all the guys named Seth who insist on being called Suzuki, the Jennifers who use the word “kawaii” like they’re getting goddamn royalties for it, and that one kid who wears an antibacterial face mask to the homestay dinner table. And at the other end you have the people who walk around in perpetual circle jerk mode over their own foreignness, endlessly repeating phrases like “big American penis” and “obedient Japanese wife” as a way to telegraph to everyone else on the subway that they only came to this country to be the popular kid that they never were back home.

Ok, so maybe that’s a little extreme, but I think everyone living in a largely homogenous society like Japan – a place where “just blending in” isn’t an option – can relate. Inside all of us is that dueling desire to ride the train without being stared at by children and the secret pleasure that comes the first time a group of high schoolers yells “helloimfinethankyouandyou?!” from across the street. Everyone likes feeling special, but no likes feeling monitored everywhere they go. It’s not easy to consolidate those two feelings when your physical appearance makes you a lightning rod for attention.

There’s this word in Japanese, “gaijin.” The literal meaning of its characters (外人) is “outside person,” but it actually means something closer to “foreigner.” And like the word “foreigner,” context is everything, meaning there’s a big difference between when Tanaka-san says she likes to meet “gaijin” so she can practice her English and when some turnt-up Kyoto grandma whips it at you between bites of fried octopus balls. It’s not necessarily rude by default, but, like the word “foreigner,” it’s a decent ready-made slur. I guess I should also tell you that there’s a more polite version of the word, “gaikokujin,” but it’s one of those words you hear more often on the news than on the street.

And as I said, though there are certainly those among us here who seem to really enjoy the spectacle of their own foreignness, for most of us, I think the fear of being seen as nothing but a gaijin is disheartening. Interest in Japan is a love that runs deep, so to feel like this country, so full of rich history, incredible food, and unfortunate hairstyle operations, is somehow closed to us on a fundamental level is upsetting. And so in our own ways we all try to push back, to find ways to prove that we aren’t just dumb foreigners, to prove that we belong here in someway. I’ve seen people deliberately learn slang from the regional dialect, or prep themselves to belt out some classic enka song at the next karaoke bar, and these things help.

At the end of the day, however, the most liberating realization I’ve had about hiding your gaijin-ness is simple: don’t. It’s better to be proud of who you are and where you come from. Rather than trying to erase your own cultural identity as a way to blend in, you should use the awkward stares and uncomfortable stereotypes as a way to break into and connect two otherwise distinctly separate cultures. Being different doesn’t have to pigeonhole you into always being a mere sideshow oddity. In my travels I’ve experienced again and again the unfailing kindness that complete strangers here show towards foreigners. Because of who I am, not in spite of it, people have gone out of their way to ask me questions, to learn about my culture, and my family, and my dreams. The vision of a xenophobic Edo Period Japan evaporates more and more everyday, and being someone with one foot perpetually on the outside isn’t a disadvantage, it’s a chance to engage in a unique way.

When I first got to Tokyo, I was pretty self-conscious about my Japanese. I had no trouble asking for directions or explaining that I did not want to patronize a brothel to a nice young man in the red light district, but I heard multiple times that I spoke too politely, to the point of sounding pretty feminine. And I worried about this. I felt exposed, like as much as I tried to get along smoothly, that I was always going to be the butt of jokes – here’s this random American guy who talks like a 60s housewife.

One night, my friend and I hit up this old bar in Shinjuku that had been around since just after the war. The bartender looked like she’d just stepped out of a time machine, with her long forties dress, antique lighter, and enka records. Halfway through ordering our second round of drinks she suddenly stopped me to say how much she appreciated my trying to learn Japanese, and how she wished young men these days still spoke so politely. I was floored. There she was, a woman born into utter chaos, with reason enough to resent some American like me. And yet, in that moment my shitty Japanese became the vehicle for connecting with a complete stranger born into a completely different world halfway around the planet. It was because I stood out as a foreigner, not because I was able to quietly blend in, that I was able to experience such a fleeting, intimate moment with her.

So I’ve decided: it’s time to be proud I’m a gaijin. And I’m not talking about ripping shots of Jack Daniels in an American flag crop top while screaming the national anthem. What I mean is, everyday I’m trying harder to use my otherness as an advantage, to let it become a bridge to something bigger than just ordering sushi.