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”


I admit, I have a crippling fear of looking like a tourist. I’m not sure if it’s the fanny packs, the stupid sunglasses or the complete naivety to their surroundings, but I know I dread being associated this dangerously curious group. When traveling,  I try to blend in as best as I can, however, in Japan, despite my best efforts this has it’s limitations. Short of wearing a mask at all times, I will always be immediately identified as an outsider (and let’s face it wearing mask doesn’t do much to ameliorate that situation either).

Strangely, one of the personal benefits of Kyoto was the abundance of tourists. To score points with the natives, all I had to do was be a bit more subtle than the loud, pushy Europeans at the next table. Also, for  three days, as I was surrounded by other caucus folk,  I wasn’t a novelty item.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the attention, but being one-of-a-kind goes both ways.

In terms of the city; Kyoto is a fantastic place. It’s rich, historic, nestled among mountains, and you can feel the connection to Japan’s past and the sublime surrounding nature. It’s abundantly clear why Kyoto is a big draw, and some of the ways the foreign influence has changed the city.

Some of the most picturesque and significant sights now primarily serve the visitor’s camera lens and not the people of Kyoto. I won’t lie, I wanted to get some of these places on record with my own camera. They make impressive images to show your friends and make them jealous–and why travel if you can’t make close friends question their own life-choices?  Also, while many of these places can feel like hostile tourist traps centered around a monument, one of the more famous shrines Kiyomizudera still retains it’s spiritual essence and and ability to convey awe. It might have been the large, imposing and menacing looking statues (not pictured) or the fact that the temple sits alongside an impressively high cliff.

Still, I wanted to get as much of a feel as I could of the real attitude of Kyoto, or what the native Kyotocan (Kyotian?) feels every day.  Fortunately, Kyoto has a lively cafe culture that I decided to take advantage of. In between temples, castles and shopping it became culturally necessary to stop for a bit and have a tea/beer. This was my favorite part of the trip. Often these places were of trendy yet humble, modern design, filled with young locals and piping good music through the stereo.  One of them also served bagel sandwiches, and opportunity I did not pass up.

The only time I felt somewhat out of place was when we went to a small organic tea house rumored to have the best chocolate in Kyoto. The house is run by a Japanese confectionist and his wife, who is from Vancouver. Despite the service being run by a white person, the set up was still very formal. No shoes, kneel on the floor and women wore a kimono. Towards the end of the meal, the waitress and began talking. She told me that she used to live in SOHO so I stared updating her about New York, and the changes in the neighborhood, She was quite friendly, but the entire situation made me nervous. Much more uncomfortable  then when someone tries to speak to me in Japanese and I can’t understand (aka all the time). I think what was so unnerving was that in the back of my head, I knew this women had gone through what I had gone through and so she more than anybody would not only  know when I made a faux pas, but perhaps she would even feel embarrassed by me, instead of for me. I’m fine with making a fool out of myself, but i hate it when I let the team down.

eat this, friends.

eat this, friends.

Fortunately for me, within five minutes she started babbling something about how children from the countryside in Japan have much “brighter eyes” because they’re happier, and painting her accent with a hippy tone. Thus, the tables turned  quite abruptly as my Japanese friend started looking at me with wide and confused eyes while I tried not to laugh. I did my best to pretend like this was a normal way to hear a person talk but as soon as we walked out the door impressions of her summer of love accent became the running joke of the trip.