Insights from an outsider – Love Letter to Japan

End of Intermission. Part Two.HelpIntermission

End of Part Two.

Part Three, later that evening:

What is it like to come to Japan as an F.O.B? Hopefully you can appreciate the irony of that remark, is it still racist if it’s backwards?

I guess I had a couple things working against me when I arrived, but on more reflection (part 1 here), I have come to believe that the country you immigrate to has just as much of an impact on how your stay there will be. Japan is an extremely unified nation, which as an “immigrant” can be a positive and a negative. Please bear with the poor comparison of myself living abroad to that of an immigrant. I know it is not the correct usage, but I haven’t decided what else to call myself. This is my first time living outside my native country, suffice to say my observations about its effects on foreign residents are heavily biased by my lack of living anywhere else to compare it with. Be that as it may, I have traveled a bit, and spoken with many folks who live and have lived in countries other than Japan and the U.S. Therefore, with this amalgamation of opinions to draw on, I offer these insights from an outsider.

Growing up in America… Growing up in California (the most diverse state) and attending one of the most diverse universities in the country might have given me the impression that such diversity might be equally common in other nations. Wrong. You have only to travel to neighboring states to learn that this is a naive assumption. Head to Europe and you will see some diverse cities, but you are still in the “West.” Nothing can compare with traveling to the East and realizing how truly outnumbered you are. Japan has a particularly low level of foreign residents, while the total number of foreign born residents is relatively high (2.4 million people) the percentage of the population among Asian countries is second only to China in terms of the smallest percentage of total residents. Only 1.5% of the country to be exact. This is by design. For better or worse, Japan has managed to stay extremely unified: one people, one language, one culture.

Foreign born residents as a percentage of total population.

Foreign born residents as a percentage of total population.

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 6.13.09 PM

The effect of this on the foreigner living in Japan is one of immense pressure to conform. I have traveled to many countries, always trying my best to respect the ways and values of each culture, but I had never experienced the acute awareness of my bumbling “otherness” until I arrived in Japan. Even after eight months, I am still learning about customs that I should or should not perform. I think the constant awareness of one’s “otherness” makes the foreigners in Japan try so hard to assimilate. We are all speaking Japanese (or desperately trying to), conforming to Japanese habits, investing in Japanese media and entertainment, and generally doing everything possible to win the respect of the very people with whom we will never truly fit in with.

Why stare at me when you have this to stare at…?

I have also never felt so physically out of place in my life. Just walking down the street every day is guaranteed to attract stares. I’m not sure if the blonde hair even matters, I simply look so different. Don’t even get me started on trying to buy dress shoes. There is something about being a foreigner here as well that makes it perfectly okay for random Japanese people to stare at you for an hour while eating dinner, or to drunkenly approach you and ask personal questions. I understand now that this is part of the job, but it doesn’t mean that I always enjoy it. Some days I rudely ignore passers-by because I don’t want to know whether they are staring.

This is of course worse when you live in a tiny town like I do. I wonder if people here could ever get used to my presence. Even in the large tourist areas like Tokyo and Kyoto, places where you’d think the residents are used to foreigners, you get stares because you realize they are also tourist attractions for Japanese people from small towns! You can try to tell yourself that it’s a positive thing, that you are like a celebrity, but even celebrities tire of the limelight.

even the foreign teacher in the textbook must assimilate

I don’t think the desire to conform is a bad thing. On the contrary, the pressure to assimilate has worked wonders for my Japanese language skills, given me a plethora of new things to cook in the kitchen, as well as created some wonderful relationships with the locals. I admire Japan’s ability to stay so unified as a nation, and to have a say in who they let live in Japan and how those people should behave.

I only know that in my case, I have chosen to assimilate not always because it’s truly what I want, but because it’s too exhausting to do anything else. I find myself using more and more Japanese in the classroom because it’s easier, but that defeats the purpose of my coming here to teach them English. When you see how resistant the students (and even the teachers) can be to using English, it silently pressures you to revert to their ways. The government wants you here for the very reason that you’re foreign, but then once you’re here they try to chip away at your otherness, undermining their own plan to promote English.

It should be clarified that I am speaking on an institutional scale, not a personal one. All the Japanese people I have met are more than gracious about my lack of Japanese, highly accepting of me as an individual, and very open-minded about the world in general. Possibly the best thing about being a foreigner in Japan is that no one will ever be rude to you, because they are rarely rude to each other.  I suppose my point to all this is that I have never thought so much about immigration until I tried it myself, and I never thought so much about my own country until I left it. If these are the natural outcomes of living abroad, I say bring it on, and perhaps maybe this should be a requirement for all people who want to hold political office…

2 comments on “Insights from an outsider – Love Letter to Japan

  1. […] Insights from an outsider – Love Letter to Japan ( […]

  2. […] For more in-depth analysis of this potential identity crisis, read about my experiences here and here. By bringing a foreigner into the classroom, Japan hopes to create enthusiasm for communication, […]

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