Monday, 10 March 2014

A New Perspective on Gaijinhood

I accidentally joined a cult the other day. I'll write about that some other time... anyway, the reason I mention it is that during the cult meeting, I had one of those all-too-familiar "talk through the gaijin" experiences. If you've lived in Japan for any amount of time you will no doubt know what I mean. Here's an example from a Cub Scout parents and leaders drinking party a few months ago.

I chatted to one of the other mums for a while, then we grabbed our beer bottles and proceeded around the room to pour drinks for other people (that's how socialising happens at these things). Each person we approached did exactly the same thing: Ask the Japanese lady questions about me. As in, "where is she from?" "Can she speak Japanese?" "How long has she been here?" When I was new to life here I used to try to answer these questions and the conversations just went like this:
"Where is she from?"
"I'm from Australia."
[Ignoring me and continuing to ask the Japanese person next to me:] "Can she speak Japanese?"
"I'm talking to you in Japanese right now."
[Still ignoring me:] "How long has she been here?"
So, eventually I gave up and just smiled mutely while taking advantage of the free time to drink more. Japan has not been good for my liver. Anyhow, on this occasion it was kind of nice watching the other Cub Scout mum getting more and more irritated as the same conversation repeated over and over. A little sadistic, maybe, but I felt glad to see her frustration instead of having to explain mine to her.

So, back to the cult. The Japanese lady sitting beside me kept having questions directed to her instead of me, and I was sighing internally. Then the main culprit, an elegant old lady with immaculate silver hair, began talking about how hard dealing with school must be for me as a "gaijin". I wouldn't understand the system, or the requirements, or what to buy for my child. I must be having a really hard time. In fact, there have been quite a few things that have been hard. I am fortunate to have worked in the local elementary school system for four years, and that's got me through pretty well, but I still get completely flummoxed from time to time by things that the staff take so for granted that it just hasn't occurred to them to inform me of. So although what this lady was saying was to some extent true, it isn't necessarily true that just because I am a 外人 I'd struggle. I mean, there are lots of international parents in Japan who speak native level Japanese and never seem to find anything hard. I was sitting there raging in my heart and twitching to lash out when the lady continued:
"When I first moved here from Korea I had to enroll the children in school immediately, and I had no idea how to do anything. Every day I got something wrong and my children were teased at school because of my mistakes. Japanese people often don't understand how hard it can be for gaijin parents here."
And there it was. Her surname was Japanese and she spoke our local dialect, so I'd assumed that she was yet another Japanese person othering me and making assumptions about me. In fact, she was empathising and remembering her own difficulties as an outsider. It was me who had leaped to judge her, not the other way around. I was so wrapped up in memories of past frustrations that I hadn't seen the kindness she was offering me. When the meeting finished she squeezed my hand.
"It'll be alright," she said, "your child has a family and love. Everything else is just decorating."

A few days later, I was playing with Tiger in a park while a steady stream of school kids walked by on their way home. A little girl, about 10 or 11, saw us from the road and yelled "gaijin!" She came running over to us and collapsed in a smiling puffed out heap in front of me.
"You are a gaijin, right? You look like a gaijin."
"Yes", I said, "I'm from Australia."
"I'm a gaijin too! I'm from China, but I've lived here since I was in kindergarten. Bye!" And off she ran, back to her waiting friends.
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  1. This is a beautiful post! Thank you. I will share it with everyone I know if you don't mind.


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