13 July 2008

Things I'm not going to miss in Japan

I had a conversation last week in church that really illustrates the foreigner experience in Japan. The conversation started when one of the older women from the church came up to me and Yoko and asked me what I wanted to eat at the going away party the church is having for us. Now, the going away party will be attended by mostly the older folks from the church and as is the case all the time, I will be the only foreigner there. This question about food has only two answers: I can say what I really want to eat or I can tell them to make whatever they want.

In this sort of situation, I always go with just saying what I know someone wants to hear because I know that what I want to eat is only going to perplex and confuse and probably reinforce whatever stereotype they already have about foreigners eating only junk food and not liking fish. And, most likely, even if I do say what I'd like, I'll get some bastardization of what I really want which will be worse than whatever it is that everyone else is getting anyway. So I answered, Oh, whatever you cook will be great. Anything is fine.

Yoko interjected with, 'Tell the truth. Tell her what you really want to eat. This is your chance.'
Not being able to explain to my wife what I just explained to you, I stuck to my guns, 'No, no,' I said, 'Whatever is fine.'
By this time the woman gave up on me and started asking my wife, 'What does he want to eat?'
'Curry,' Yoko said. 'He likes curry.'
This elicited the stereotypical reaction I was hoping to avoid — the shock and surprise and delight a stereotypical older Japanese person shows when they hear something new or exciting or strange.
'Really?!' she said, 'Curry?'
'Or hamburgers,' Yoko said.
'Of course, of course,' the woman said, jotting it down.
'French fries,' Yoko continued, 'You know, like a kids menu.'

It's hard to explain how this sort of situation feels, but I suppose it's much more universal and much, much greater for minorities living truly as marginalized minorities. For me, on a small scale, I hate being excluded and set apart in a way that brings amusement to others, especially when they don't realize it and are unable to realize how uncomfortable they have just made me feel. I don't like eating what you like eating and what I eat is strange to you and immature. How small and big it seems at the same time.

Or when we were walking downtown and ran into one of Yoko's coworkers who, upon seeing Naomi, said, 'Her white side is very strong, isn't it?' From my American perspective, this is just completely unacceptable, but in Japan, we have to smile and nod and say, Uh-huh and just accept that the person who said it is ignorant and pointing out their ignorance would just make them uncomfortable.

I don't mean to be one of the people who bemoans Japanese culture as ignorant and underdeveloped and archaic. The Japanese that I have met and interacted with have been by and large good-natured and cautious about racial and cultural issues. I will say this though — I am looking forward to being in a multicultural environment and I am looking forward to my wife and I experiencing this sort of exclusion together as opposed to one of us being a part of the excluding group.