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Overcoming gaijin-ness


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
An interesting article by Samuel Tincher, a Japan-born American student who shares how he coped with being a foreign student enrolled at a Japanese school and all the expectations and assumptions that came with his appearance and nationality.


Japan-born American finds freedom in not playing the part

[...] Assuming I could not understand them, kids would shout to their friends that they were in the same class as the gaijin (Japanese slang for foreigner), ask me in their halting English if I could speak Japanese or use chopsticks, and sometimes even touch my skin or hair. My response was always the same: I was born and raised in Japan - just like them - but to American parents.

My appearance and nationality came with a unique set of expectations. It was a given that I would outperform all others in traditionally Western sports, ace every English exam and possess expert knowledge on all U.S. trivia. It often came as a surprise when I performed well on Japanese language, history or culture-related exams, or knew how to write a word that my classmates could not. When another student scored poorly on a quiz or exam, it was because they lacked focus or were unprepared; when I did, it was because I was a foreigner. This never angered me, but on some days I couldn’t hold back the frustration. I wished I could be perceived as the same as everyone else.


[...] These experiences taught me a broader lesson about who I was. I realized that no matter what environment I was in, people were going to make assumptions about me, and I shouldn’t let those dictate my behavior. This realization freed me. Until then, I had been compelling myself to meet expectations or prove others wrong, basing my actions on what others expected of me. Now I was free to find and follow my own ambitions.
Hoe many years have I been trying to tell everyone that it is very liberating not to spend your days being a gaijin.....?
I like Mike Cash's response to this stuff. Apparently it goes like this:

"Oohhh you speak such good Japanese!" or "you use chopsticks to well!"
"Yes, it's because I am a genius".

Sarcasm like that works pretty well, since it confuses them and puts them on the back foot.

But this guy should take the good with the bad: you can use your foreignness to your advantage too. Pleading ignorance, getting away with behaviour that Japanese couldn't because "oh it's just because he's a foreigner". Etc.

I feel sympathy for one thing though: that he had to go to a Japanese school. I thought western schooling was stilted and regimented enough. But Japanese schools, Jesus... And they don't even get the independence perks of western universities if they go: they just look like "extended high school". When I went to university the smart kids would compete on who went to class the least and still got in the top percentage of results. In some Japanese university's they still have roll calls...

Edit: speak of the devil! beat me to it
I feel the same way about people who rag on the English industry in Japan. I wonder if they spend a similar amount of time hating on piano teachers or cooking classes. I can just do what I can, and not worry about bitter foreigners trying to create a hierarchy of decency. I came to terms with the Japanese chopsticks use as compliments a long time back.

Zen study was a hobby way back when, and occasionally it comes up in a conversation, and the common Japanese statement is that I know Japan better than Japanese. There’s a polite chuckle, and I just say that it’s an interesting part of Japanese culture that Japanese don’t care much about these days. Same with shodo, which I studied for a while.

I don’t know how long expectations affect people. As a newbie in the country, usually a young adult, of course there’s a lot to prove, but that would be true anywhere. Once you decide that you’re sticking around in Japan, hopefully you’ve decided to take things on your own terms and don’t worry about what people think so much. With my in-laws, occasionally I forgot proper Japanese manners, like with chopsticks, because I couldn’t care less, and that’s embarrassing, because they’re now my family.
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