Teaching In Socks

Just because we’re both foreigners doesn’t mean we’re friends
April 16, 2010, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Japan, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

Gaijin (pronounced “guy-gin”) is the informal word for foreigners in Japan. Boiled down to it’s literal translation “gaijin” means “outsider”. Because of it’s context, it’s a word you don’t hear coming from the mouth of a Japanese person unless either you have done something excessively offensive, or if they happen filled with some pretty heavy prejudices. In polite conversation its considered more appropriate to instead use the word “gaikokujin” which means “foreigner” in a more literal, less slanderous sense.

Like other words of it’s ilk, the word “gaijin” is used frequently amongst the group of people it’s intended to offend.We call bars that foreigners frequent “gaijin bars”, certain cities have “gaijin networks”, and we ask each other if they know any other “gaijin” in the area.  I’m not exactly sure why this word was appropriated into the foreigner lexicon. It’s inception could have been an instance of the oppressed (relatively, obviously) seeking to dull the verbal weapons of the oppressor (again, relatively) by co-opting their vocabulary. The usage could have been the result of a collective attempt to try and sound more native, by using a bit of Japanese slang. Maybe it’s a hip-hop thing; Rappers sound cool tossing around the n-word, and thus foreigners wanted to sound cool by dropping their own forbidden fruit in casual conversation.

I tend to lean towards the third possibility, but maybe that’s just self-fulfilling colloquial historical revisionism because I like Wu-Tang and Lil’ Wayne.

While many of us gaijin subscribe to the same vocabulary, gainjin interactions beyond that can be complex. When I see a foreigner on the street I am often conflicted about what to do. On one hand, I know there is a good chance that this person and I have the shared experience of being a stranger in a strange land. We could probably share embarrassing stories about onsen trips or the number of times we have been asked if we know how to use chopsticks. I also know, that there might be a chance that we speak the same cultural language, and I could always use more friends around me who get my Chris Farley references.

On the other hand, I didn’t come all the way to Japan to rehash the greatest moments of Matt Foley: Motivation Speaker (in a van down by the river!). I also don’t want to perpetuate the Japanese misconception that all gaijin know each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have been a shop where there happened to be another random foreigner and the shop keeper assumed that we knew each other. I feel like I’m always trying to avoid looking like I’m part of a great gaijin conspiracy.

As I mentally debate these two contrasting view points I often find myself either giving the other person the polite but subtle head nod (which never looks cool) or doing the very obvious “I don’t know you” cold-shoulder.  In retrospect, the deciding factor on which one I do seems to be whether or not I suspect the person of being a tourist.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being helpful. I just don’t like being caught in a situation where I am helping the hopeless, and if you’re walking around look like a tourist, then you are already lost beyond my ability to save you.

These past week I was playing pool with two gaijin friends, a Kiwi and a Brit, when a foreigner couple strolled in past us. As they walked by, the guy yelled, “People speaking English, that’s what I like to hear”. No one in my group replied. Internally, I sighed; the man’s accent was American, I was going to have to take care of this or it was only going to reflect poorly on me amongst my peers.

As predicted, within minutes the girl came over to our table are started asking us where we were from. We were polite, I asked her where she was from. “Orlando” she replied. “Which is great in Japan, because when people ask us where we are from we just say Mickey Mouse”. That is great, I thought. Really great.

In my experience, people from Orlando are particularly dangerous on foreigner countries. They are generally entirely uncultured, but completely oblivious to it. They assume that their proximity to a theme park that is visited by people internationally has put them on a some sort of cultural pedestal and clued them in to the secrets of proper international relations. Just because the restaurant you work in taught you how to say “My name is Renee” in their language doesn’t mean you are some preferred customer to come poke around their country.

The girl left  us alone, but over the next thirty minutes they kept finding reasons to pop back over to our table. It quickly went from”Where are you from?” to “Do you know any good hotels in the area?”, “where can I get wifi around here” to bumming cigarettes. Like I said before, I am happy to be helpful, and politely helpful, –we drew them maps and wrote down Kanji; however there are travel agents and an American Embassy for a reason.

As we left the bar, my friends lightly lamented about how a day dedicated to shooting pool and drinking beer became a tour guide symposium. I rued that this was another reason the terrorist hate us, and vowed to stick to the cold shoulder routine more steadfastly. Some gaijin are gaijin enough to be “gaijin”


Party Central
September 2, 2009, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , ,
Farewell to freedom party

Farewell to freedom party

On Sunday I attended a farewell party for one of the teachers at the Himeji branch of our school. It’s been my observation that in Japan–and especially in my company–it is strict tradition to have both a Welcome Party and a Farewell Party for every staff member.

There are also Parties in the literal sense of the word;  not group-email organized, laissez-faire, happy hour get-togethers that seem to be all the rage amongst modern Corporate America. In Japan there is sign-up sheet, a restaurant reservation, and weeks of advance warning.  Also, sometimes there are balloons.

While I’ve never been a proponent of work-related functions, I do find something pleasant about a well-executed tradition. It’s first class of no class. The types of parties I experienced at my previous jobs–impromptu drinks at a bar around the corner or cake in a boardroom–weren’t terrible, but they were awkward gatherings, devoid of any sort of sentiment other than obligation and the thrill of drinks on the company tab.

The idea of making a big deal about both your entrance into and exit from the company seems logical and appropriate–it mirrors life; you have a party you barely remember when you get here and one you can’t enjoy when you leave.

Still, these parties in  Japan fill me with a modicum ofanxiety and trepidation. As a foreigner, participating in a Japanese custom(even if it’s just a party) with large groups of Japanese people always has the potential to be a terrifying affair.  As a stranger in a strange land you are always on the precipice of a international incident, and the more people that are there to witness it, the more loaded the powder keg is.

In the back of my head I always know the next move could be the one that sets it off. To avoid this, I try not to make any sudden movements and I try take good notes. In my quest to always be aware of my environment  I have begun to notice a rudimentary pattern of events at these parties:

1. Japan’s Fastest growing Quiz Sensation; How’s your English.

I don’t work in Himeji, so I don’t know any of the students at this party. It can be hard enough to start a conversation with a complete stranger, but as an English Teacher and representative of the company I have a responsibility to make friends without stressing anyone out about their English level on a Sunday.  So I have to make sure when meeting anybody to keepmy conversation in their realm of their English ability. This requires a lot of work:sticking to simple questions, keeping your statements concise, yet at a slow and well-enunciated rythym. Managing all of these things inspires a lot of nodding a smiling  as well.

This is difficult for me to maintain for more than fifteen minutes.  I start to feel like a cross between a amateur hypnotist act and prospective religious cult founder on a recruiting mission.

2. Monopolizing the Fluent speakers and burning them out.

Because of #1, when I find a student at an English level who I can carry on a reasonably detailed conversation with I tend to trap them into a conversation until I exhaust their mind.

On Sunday, I hit a bit of a gold mine: a former student at a pretty high level. This was great because a former student, limits the amount of financial damage I can do. Unfortunately for him, I also found out he likes soccer. I imagine that before the party he presumed he would show up, greet a few people in English, but conversely primarily with former classmates of his in his native tongue.  Instead, he found himself attending a football debate/inquisition in a language he probably hasn’t practiced in months.

3. The Foreigner Table:

No matter how great the effort to mix and mingle, inevitable the party starts to break into comfortable sects of conversation and the “foreigner table” appears.  God forbid any of  us bother to make the effort for the entire duration of the party to avoid the temptation of fluent conversation or to shun the chance to sprinkle obscure references and jokes into a conversation and where they have meaning. It either says something said or great about the human condition that I got a minor rush from being able to drop a David Brent line from The Office and watch it resonant with someone who had seen the show.

4. Can You use Chopsticks?

At every party, even as I am in the act of eating with chopsticks (or hashi as they are called) a students will ask me,”Do you know how to use chopsticks?” and then the group at the table will  marvel as nod and a crudely shovel a piece of lettuce into my mouth with two pieces of wood.

On one hand you have to applaud and admire the student’s effort and desire to instigate conversation. On the other hand, it’s frustrating because it is often the same conversation.

The worst culprit, by far, of these stock questions is “why did you come to Japan?”.

At face value, it’s a perfectly reasonable question. It’s probably even a good question. However, having been bombarded by it so many times, you want to make it into a person and berate it and tell it how ugly it is.

It’s also tricky because it’s not a question we would usually ask someone in the US. Let me rephrase that: it’s not we would ask because we want to know why you came to the US. We know why you came to America–same reason everyone comes–it’s awesome.  Have you seen how big the drinks are? Do you know you get free refills? You can infinity gallons of Diet Dr.Pepper for $1.50 (did you even make that much money in a month in your country? a year?).

Instead, we want to know what terrible unbearable condition caused you to leave your previous country–“was it political oppression? were you escaping a robot dictator? child labor? doglabor? do they make dogs work in factories in your country? awwww That’s terrible”.

Thus, despite being fully familiar with the question, I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a suitable answer. I could be honest, but being honest is boring–which highlights the other problem with this question: it’s begging for sarcastic answers .

Off the top of my head; “I came here to do Godzilla Research”, “I was fleeing an undisclosed zombie invasion that the government hasn’t made public yet”, ” I am a zombie invader”, “I’m allergic to Cheeseburgers and Freedom”.  Unfortunately, I happen to live in one of the countries (maybe there are many of them) where this brand of sarcasm doesn’t resonate and is in fact a spark waiting to set off that international incident I fear constantly.

Maybe next time I’m asked I’ll just I cam to Japan because I really like good Welcome and Farewell Parties. I think that will earn me some Japan points.


1. Over the weekend, the government shifted drastically for the second time in 50 years. It was probably my fault.

2. Someone stole my Wedding: http://mdn.mainichi.jp/photospecials/graph/gundamwedding/index.html