Sunday, September 27, 2009


The other night, we were settling in to dinner at an izakaya in Hiroshima (which we visited when we had a few days off for Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox, which are, awesomely, national holidays) and I announced for not the first time how much I love Japan.

"I think I know why," Jonathan said. "I think you like feeling like an outsider."

I'm aware it's pretty tired and possibly narcissistic to talk about how I've just always known that I was Different. Like yeah, you are totally the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD who has experienced feeling out of sync with her surroundings. It's the same as the people at Sarah Lawrence who'd tell you, they just had that gut feeling ever since they were pooping their diapers in front of Fraggle Rock that they were meant to be writers. YOU DON'T SAY.

But anyway, yes, I've long been, at least in my head, a visiting alien who no one else seems to realize is an alien, and therefore really unfairly expects to function as efficiently and stoically as the natives. Probably this is partly self-mythologizing; if you ask me, middle school was two years of hellfire and torment, but Viv has told me she thought I seemed to her kind of socially successful.

Travel allows people who feel this way, I think, to have the surprisingly fulfilling experience of having their inner impressions of themselves, maybe for the first time ever, confirmed by the way they are perceived and treated by others: they are quite clearly running along a separate plane, minus the risk of being punished in some way by the dominant society for their failure to just suck it up and do what they're supposed to. It's really liberating but I wonder how much one really "grows." I'm not sure I buy the idea of using travel as a vehicle for self-expansion.

For instance, in Japan, I can (in fact, I really have no choice but to) indulge my frequent desire to be completely antisocial and standoffish. I don't have to interact with store clerks, waiters, the mail man more than through a few gestures and an arigatou gozaimasu. There's even a JET-coined phrase for the way foreigners can wantonly disregard rules: gaijin smash. As in, Oh, were we supposed to buy the train ticket back there? Well, I'll just gaijin smash my way through the turnstile! Looking so obviously different from everyone else (seriously, two children stopped what they were doing today to point and stare at my hair) means I'm not expected to know ANYTHING, and in fact, this cluelessness seems to qualify as fulfilling the JET Programme's goal of "grassroots internationalization." It's why they're reluctant to accept people who have spent a significant amount of time in Japan before: they want you to be as AMERICAN (or Australian, British, whatevs) AS POSSIBLE. And then when you do something culturally appropriate, like give omiyage after a trip, they're all like, "HOLY SHIT! YOU KNOW A JAPANESE THING!!!!!"

So, I'm not sure how much intrapersonal development is happening when I can basically just be as weird as I feel like being, since Differentness is already expected. It feels a bit like when you have a pint of Haagen Dazs or something that's calling to you despite the fact that you're kind of getting to be a fatass, and you tell yourself you can have a few bites and be satisfied, because you're an adult, you totally have self-control, and then you realize you're already halfway through the carton and then you're just like, Fuck it, I've gone this far, why not just KILL IT?

Anyway, here's a photo of us gaijin smashing our way across Miyajima island:


  1. Haha, you did have a lot of friends in middle school but that's not to say the inner life always matches the outer.

    I am trying to remember if I felt treated like an outsider when I was in Japan. I vaguely remember thinking "Wow, there are all of these Asian people here and I feel a bit homey." So as an Asian student, my experience may have been very different from your current as an American-looking teacher. Regardless of the gaijin smash joke, I think you may be under-emphasizing how flexible you've had to been throughout this whole process. I'm glad you're still enjoying yourself.

  2. I've heard it can be tough for Asian-Americans here, because based on appearance they're assumed to be Japanese, and then when they can't speak the language fluently people are like HUH??? But it sounds like you didn't really have that experience?

  3. Oh nah, it definitely wasn't TOUGH but there were certainly times when people would approach me speaking Japanese. I think if anything, the main difference is that during all times when I was not in a group with the rest of the students, I was relatively anonymous--people didn't give me a second look and assumed I was native. But I also think that regardless of what you look like, the Japanese are brought up to me much more outwardly helpful and accomodating than say, Americans. People would always help me when I got lost or mixed up on public transportation, for instance, and ALWAYS patient with my really really poor language skills.

  4. This is really funny and poignant.

    Perhaps I'm projecting a bit, but there seems to be an element of "gaijin smash" in an awful lot of social situations, regardless of culture or where you are in the world. I've certainly felt that living in different towns. But I think it's also necessary to have a 'f*** it, we're doing it live' type of attitude at times. You need that to break through and to enjoy yourself.

  5. You just BLEW. MY. MIND.

  6. Anders, that is a wonderful application of a Bill O'Reilly quote! Thank you, I plan to use that.

    Cristabear, how so? YOU SHOULD COME HERE! You might be surprised by how much you don't hate it.