Friday, June 1, 2012

Bless Your Little Heart

I've been following a discussion over at Locohama about gaijin clashing over microagression and racism. I read the article and watched the discussion, and it sounded to me like all of them were right. Which is confusing since they are making opposing statements.

I'm foreign in Japan. A few of my readers (hi Mom hi Dad!) have made the trip to also check out being foreign in Japan. And although I haven't considered this permanent, have not dreamed of spending the rest of my life on the island, I will admit there are moments it has come up in my mind, especially of late as I prepare to leave. Japan is so beautiful, and so friendly. Sometimes I look at the mountains and rivers and I don't know how to let them go. Same with the students. I think it takes a long time to get into a place, and even longer where Japan is concerned. They don't move fast in the 'accepting outsiders' department, but I really do feel like most of my co-workers, kempo folk, and students have some notion of who I am after working with me for as long as they have.

It may even be an illusion, but I feel like most of the kids in the JHS even see me as a person now, not just a diversion (although that too), and not just a foreign face. We're at a point now where all the JHSers were in elementary school when I arrived, so they've seen me push, pull, demand, relent, and instruct. They've seen me at my best, and in some cases at much worse, on sick days, running short on patience, and with a surfeit of good humor. Even though I try to keep it all professional, of course personality and personal place-in-the-moment leaks through. Some days I don't feel like going out to play at recess. Sometimes I bitch at the kids for not doing a good job at souji. Some days I just make faces at them in the classroom when I see them cutting up. Because I know them and their games, and even when I don't strictly approve, I am glad to see them play.

But like I said, these are the people I see every week, or every day. These are the teachers I've been bathing with, drunk with, and a couple of times bathing drunk with. These are the people I've learned to respect and even admire, to like and in some cases even trust. And that's kind of a two-way street, and that takes a long time. I'm actually pretty shy, terrified of mistake-making, and introverted, so I sort of get the whole Japanese slowness to warm up to outsiders.

When I meet strangers, it turns into the same old thing. As observed by many, Japan is a friendly place. Especially in the countryside, people are extra nice and helpful. This extends to a desire to feed you (which often turns into the quiz game Will You Eat It?), or show you some aspect of Japanese culture that you have probably never seen before. Because a tourist would not have. There is this friendliness that also pushes the assumption of your ignorance. Have you ever tasted this?

I've discussed this with many people before, about the manner and mien of some JETs we meet in the world. Some of them happen to have a greater than average amount of knowledge in Japanese language, culture, or other general stuff. As you know, I'm all about learning. There are people who I could just listen to all day long because they know so much interesting stuff. I like people who know more or different stuff than me -- they are the people I have something to learn from, and I want to do that because I'm a junkie, hooked young.

But it's all about the presentation. There is a different between the kind of person I could listen to all day, and the kind of person I want to punch in the face after ten minutes of talking with them. That difference is embedded entirely in my reaction to how they present the stuff they know (or believe) that I don't know. Whether or not I believe there is an assumption on their part that they are instructing me on something I know nothing about. It's especially funny when someone like this lectures me on an area where I do have some stowed knowledge or expertise; I tend to just let them go on, partly because for all I know, they do know more than I do about that topic, even if was my major.

But we have a general use term for the people who posture themselves as in a position to school you, rather than share, who assume your ignorance or inexperience or confusion or difficulty: we tend to react to them as douchey. It's a fine line, and I believe that most of those who fall on the side of douchiness are not at heart total jerks, but they are merely insecure, they have something to prove, that is that they know stuff, more stuff than you, and they have to exert their superiority. They don't even think of it as you NOT knowing stuff, they think only of the stuff they KNOW.

Like I said, it's a fine line, and one that I consciously avoid myself, lest I slip into that douchey know-it-all role too. There's the added bonus that I know there is always more to learn, and that you can learn it in the most unexpected ways or places from the most unexpected sources, it's true.

Anything can sound patronizing in the right situation. I'll admit that even as I was hitting the end of that Oita bike ride, the cheerful shouts of encouragement from fellow bikers and supporters began to hit nerves. "You can do it! Keep going! You're almost there!" Probably because I was by then into an irrational state where I could not maintain much emotional balance. Of course I can do it. I mean, everyone else has already. Almost there? But not there yet. Of course I'm going to keep going, what do I look like, a quitter?!

Well-intentioned gestures can be interpreted as anything.

You hear all the time about how Japan is "so homogeneous." What that means is, Japanese is a big solid concept. A kid asked me the other day, Emily, do you like Japanese? And I answered yes, before realizing I had no idea what he had really asked me. I hear the question as Japanese language, because that's what the word means all by itself to me (and I like language, so of course I like Japanese language too.. it's fun!). Japanese people would be "the Japanese," and any other thing would have the noun following the adjective "Japanese". Japanese food, Japanese music, Japanese art, Japanese whatever. The kid probably just meant "Do you like Japan?" but was a first-year and so it came out wrong.

The point being, though, that Japanese means all those things. It's a nation, but it's also a culture, complete with all the set of traditions and foods and language; it's also a race, and for most people, they all mean the same thing. A scion of Japanese people is heir to all that entails. We are us, this is ours, our legacy, which passes to you.

In the US, for example, America is a nation. But races and cultural legacies are something else. You can be a child of German and African descent, practicing Hinduism against your parents' wishes if you want. We fracture on all kinds of lines in America, beliefs and traditions and religions. We belong to groups that fall under the umbrella of being American. Because America is just damn big, and it's populated by people from all over the place, and it would be ludicrous to expect that Americans could have anything in common with all Americans other than their national affiliation to the country they live in. This is why anyone can look American to me. And if you aren't American, there is a process by which you can become one (I will admit up front that I have no idea how this process works for whom).

I'm aware that there is a process by which you can become a Japanese national, and that it's really difficult. But there is no process by which you can become Japanese. And this is why people are surprised to see you, a foreigner, participating in their cultural stuff. You may spend a very long time learning and taking in Japanese ways and customs and abilities. You may speak better Japanese than your fellow townsfolk. But a stranger meeting you for the first time has no idea that you aren't a tourist on a two-week vacation.

And the tendency so far is to assume that you probably are. There are questions you get used to answering. That "where you're from" isn't necessarily where you live now, it's where you were before Japan and more specifically, your racial descent. That "how long you are staying" is how many weeks, not years. It's not an overt aggressive speech act. They aren't trying to drive you out of the country; they're glad you are here to see their wonderful culture. Take lots of pictures and tell your friends about it when you get home.

Why would you stay? You aren't Japanese, after all. And bless your heart, that isn't your fault, now is it? You just happened to be born not one of them, and that's just how the ball bounces.

Okay so there is a presumed superiority inherent in that sensibility.

It's not your violent, hateful brand of racism, but it's still othering. You don't have to hate on someone to make them feel small. Sometimes being nice will do it. You aren't to be blamed for your not being Japanese, so who could hate you for it?

I'm not quite comfortable calling this aggression, although I also think it would be irresponsible to pretend that the compliments on your Japanese language or chopstick wielding ability aren't galling and some days totally wearing. It's gotten to the point that I don't even want to have the conversation with foreigners about it anymore. Yeah yeah, so someone told you your Japanese was good after you only said "Good morning" and you stumbled on the syllables, and you wanna bitch about it? I don't want to hear it anymore, you wear me out as much as they do.

But we do have to acknowledge the double edge of that sword. If you're so quick to compliment, your compliments become meaningless. The only real compliments I've gotten on my Japanese language are the times someone mistook me for Japanese when they weren't looking at me (by phone, or looking down at a clipboard as I walked by and spoke). They're only trying to be friendly and make conversation with these things, but occasionally the ignorance is astonishing.

America must be a scary place, what with everyone carrying guns all the time, and all that. But, on the other hand, girls in America are really tough and all know martial arts so they are probably okay. You get questions like "What do Americans/Westerners/foreigners think of such-and-such?" And you have to field that shit. And all you can do is say, "Well I don't know, Margo. But as for me..." and give your own opinion, stressing that it's just yours, not America's official position. And hope that over time they meet enough foreigners to being to see the pattern that there is no set pattern.

I've occasionally heard summations of an American way of doing things that were startlingly on target. I don't even remember what it was about (probably sports day), just that I explained how we did a thing compared and contrasted to how we were doing it at my school. One of the teachers laughed and said, isn't that just so American. To be so concerned with the final outcome, the bottom line, efficiency. And when I thought about that later, I thought, aren't most of my frustrations with the office mostly a matter of inefficiency and time-wasting? Maybe she had a point.

Still and all. It's a bit of a fix. Japan is incredibly welcoming and friendly, but it's a place where you will never been seen as one of them (unless perhaps you look like them). People who stay permanently or long-term have to find a way to fight that, or rise above it, or bottle it up until it causes their internal organs to explode. It takes a lot of energy to buoy up that kind of thing some days, and it can really wear you down. Maybe the answer is just to have a good support network, to get to know the people you like, to participate and to be involved. Yeah you won't reach everyone, but you'll slowly make a deeper impression on the people who have to deal with your shit and who get to be impressed by your poise and bravery on a weekly basis.

I say maybe, because that would be my go-to answer, and if it didn't work I'd have to try something else.

There is no quick way to make "the Japanese" see you as anything other than "not Japanese." Because for every co-worker you vehemently school, there are a hundred people who have never met you who might see you tomorrow and stare. But one day, maybe some of those hundred will all have a friend of a friend who is Japanese-not-Japanese, a person of non-Japanese descent who nonetheless is perceived 'Japanese' in behavior and language ability and cultural understanding.

But that's all missing the point. The point is to be a person, not "Japanese" or "not-Japanese." There's nothing more frustrating than standing in the void and shouting, I'm a person! I matter and have feelings! Some would rather not shout. Some would.

There are people in Japan who know that I'm a person. There are many more who don't and never will.


  1. This is so money. Japan is losing a wonderful teacher.

  2. If those Japanese who know you have formed an idea of what an American is based on you, I'm afraid they have an unnaturally elevated view on who the typical American is. What I mean is, I'm glad you're representin'.