Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Vulnerable Days

Some days, this is where it's at

If I could change one thing about life in Japan, it would be "to not be stared at". Sometimes living here is hard: I can't read much beyond elementary school level, I have to "do as the Romans" in some situations when I'd prefer to act like an American. But it really isn't that bad...the one stressor I'd like to go without is the "oh look a foreigner" phenomenon.

I remember the day I got off the plane in Japan and my first impressions of my second home, still fresh because they are the source of this stress. I think it was that first day in Osaka station, during the evening commuter rush, that I thought, "Wow, everyone here is Japanese!" it sounds silly but it was funny to me to see so many hundreds of people who seemed to have the same hair color, build, height and the same uniform (suit pants and "cool biz" white shirts for summer). Of course after a few days out and about, differences became more apparent: there are fat people, short or tall people, old and young, rich and poor, frumpy and fashionable, just like in any other country. However, I also realized that all of them--from the crusty brown construction workers covered in dust and plaster to the bleach-blonde girls tottering around in stilettos, from the genteel lady in a kimono to the wobbly old man with suspiciously stained trousers to the perfectly put-together mom pushing a stroller--all have more in common with each other than I could ever have with any of them.

The homogeneity makes me stand out. As a matter of course, I don't fit and I don't belong. I'm very different. I'm from Overseas and Outside. Everywhere I go, I feel the stares and glances. Sometimes I hear the remarks "oh, a foreigner!" "Hello!" or get on the train and suddenly all the conversations around me are about learning English or going abroad or mother-in-law's crazy idea to host an exchange student. These things have not changed since I was an exchange student, and remain the one thing I can't seem to get used to.

It was so bad when I lived in Kobe, in a tiny suburb where I seemed to be the only foreigner, I would go hungry rather than leave my little safe room to face it all and buy something to eat from the supermarket. Some days were too vulnerable, my shell felt too fragile and thin for all the needle-like stares and remarks, and I understood the feelings of 引きこもりhikikomori ("the withdrawn") the shut-ins who refuse to leave their rooms and go out in Japanese society. There was even a point I burst into tears in my boss's office, trying to explain why I couldn't make a happy face for our clients every day.

At that time I often had strange dreams of wires and needles. I seemed to be stuck full of needles, each with a wire attached, and faceless Japanese-speaking figures are slowly pulling on the wires, pulling me apart little by little. Or I saw the inside of my own body, on some kind of X-ray or scan, and tangled with my natural flesh and bone were wires and strange bits of twisted metal, more tangled than all the telephone wires and antennas that clutter the Japanese urban skyline.

Kyoto is better; in the area we live in near a major station I see more foreigners (granted mostly Asian) than I can count on one hand every day. My weird face is nothing to write home about so I don't feel the stares quite as much. Still, I complain to my husband whenever we arrange to meet somewhere and I have to wait for him. I hate waiting in a station or intersection or other public place, standing still and stationary while others are all moving, a conspicuous target for every glancing eye. It makes me paranoid: when I overhear snatches of conversation on the train "how strange..." "that kind of person..." oh no, what if they're talking about me?  

The funny thing is, my Japanese husband can also experience this with me when we go out together. If we speak English, people around us start talking about us. We've heard some pretty funny comments that way. He's always surprised: "Do I look Chinese or something?" but I suppose people think he must not be Japanese when he speaks English and that's it's safe to comment away in a language different from the one we're using.

It is hard to explain the stress of this kind of environment. When you are purposely looked at and sometimes discussed, everywhere you go, every day. Even going to the supermarket or standing in line at the bank, you're always aware of being watched. It's not loud or aggressive, it's not people looking at you with anger or hatred or telling you to go home--things some people experience in other countries or even in their own countries, punishment for the crime of being different. It's a small, niggling discomfort that builds up slowly and silently over time, a snowfall of tiny weightless things that can grow heavy enough to break a roof.

Oddly enough, the person who summed it up best for me was my husband's boss, who has not himself ever gone abroad and been a foreigner. "I understand," he said, "She must feel nervous just taking out the trash in the morning, and going to the post office by herself is a big deal."

It seems to come in waves. After a while I get used to things, I decide to be a grown-up and decide to enjoy and to be bold and to stare back when I'm stared at, and I forget the staring and glancing and it's all normal and fine for a while: a week, a month, a year. But then suddenly a vulnerable day comes, and I want to hole up and be unseen and unmentioned for a while. A part of me hates myself for being this childish and weak, but I think once in a while a retreat is probably needed. Perhaps it's my heart's way of saying, "that's enough being strong and pretending like it doesn't matter for now. Make yourself a cup of tea and some pancakes, be refreshed." Perhaps I don't need to be bold and thick-skinned 100% of the time, and it's ok to declare a Vulnerable Day and rest.

I've heard from ex-pats of Asian descent that while they can sometimes pass for Japanese or don't stand out in a crowd so immediately, they have their own unique stressful experiences in this homogeneous culture. I'm sure it's no picnic either, but just once I'd like to see what it's like, and go to the supermarket like a normal person for once! 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why are AMWF (Asian Male + White Female) Couples So Rare?

From our engagement. I like the way our different skin tones look together.

A lot of the literature about international marriages with an Asian country seems to focus on the Western man+Asian woman kind of couple. And it's true, it's the kind of international couple you'll see around town the most often, both here in Japan and in the U.S. This little blurb is fascinating: in marriages where one partner is Japanese and one is American, American husbands outnumber American wives 6 to 1. Since I've gotten married I've wanted to know more couples like us where the husband is Japanese--I think that makes for a unique dynamic in international relationships--but they are few and far between.

There's even the phenomenon of the "Charisma Man"--the white man who, though an unpopular dweebish character in his own country, finds himself suddenly the most interesting man in the room once he moves to Japan and has no trouble getting dates with cute Japanese girls. There is no "Charisma Woman" equivalent, in fact the opposite seems to happen. Though I've yet to meet a Western girl in Japan who says "I have no interest in dating a Japanese man" plenty of Japanese men say that about Western women!

Why?

It's been discussed online ad nauseam already, but most of the discussion ends up being about physical attractiveness. I think there are a few main reasons there are relatively fewer Japanese man+Western woman combos than the other way around, that I've put into Cultural and Logistical categories. Physical reasons I think are myths. Yes Western women are often taller, curvier, and fatter than Japanese women (and men!), but we also have a lot of other factors attached to us when it comes to being a dating/marriage partner that I suspect overwhelm the physical aspect most times. We are different enough to be put in a separate category away from Japanese women. I don't think one can even say we "compete" with them as equivalent participants in the Japanese mating game. We're like a completely different ball-park. Also, dating is about what happens between individuals and it's hard to generalize about individual preferences when we're talking physical attractiveness. So I'm not really going to go there. The Japanese men who chose us, didn't choose Japanese women for (or in spite of) several reasons, I think.

Here the reasons I thought of:

Cultural

We have to compare the way Western and Japanese men and women are educated and raised, and the expectations they have about life. Because Japan is such a male-dominated society, there is a lot of social pressure on men. I think this makes them risk-averse in a lot of ways, and international relationships are seen as very risky endeavors.

If a man is lucky and successful enough to land a job at a good company, he's expected to dedicate himself to work there until he retires. He needs his wife to take care of everything at home and raise the kids because he really has no time to equally contribute to life inside the house. If he can't get such a long-term job, he'll feel he's not adequate to be a husband and may resign himself to being single and living with his parents while working. There is also the expectation, especially on oldest/only sons, to be responsible for his parents' care when they are old (retirement homes and nursing homes aren't popular options here). Marriage means different things for men and women in Japan. For men, you're bringing a new daughter-in-law into your family. For women, you are leaving your family to join your husband's way of life. Since there is still a strong expectation in Japanese culture that a married woman's role is primarily "homemaker" (not breadwinner) she actually has more freedom socially. There's not as much pressure on her to be as successful as a man in the workplace, perhaps allowing her more leeway to do things a little differently, like study abroad or *gasp* marry a foreigner.

And now let's look at Western women. Most people here get their ideas of Western/white culture from movies. A white Western woman = the type who parades around in sunglasses and cleavage spilling out and shouts WOOO!! from the backseat of a convertible driving through Beverly Hills. If you're white you're probably also rich and living like the New York girls in Sex and the City. Seriously, that is the image a lot of people have of us…no wonder Japanese men assume they could never deliver that kind of lifestyle, or that we're just TOO MUCH. Do Japanese men prefer sweet little feminine women? I think they just prefer women they feel confident they can relate to. Yuya adds that a Western woman with her outspokenness seems めんどくさい (a pain in the neck) to date. Think of the communication problems! And a completely different culture and language! It’s assumed we won't fit well into the more rigid social and family structure that’s typical in Japan, so we're not considered potential marriage partners. I think Western women would also do well to consider how the Japanese man she fancies fits into all this and whether she's really willing to go through it with him. Being hitched to a Japanese man is not always a picnic.

There is also an unfortunate image of international marriages with Japanese citizens being rocky, stressful, annoying, and plagued with a higher divorce rate. Western women are so independent they will divorce you at the drop of a hat. My husband occasionally gets comments like that!

You've probably heard “Japanese men are too shy”. I think this is also a bit of a myth, the reality is perhaps closer to interested men resigned to thinking “She’s out of my league” (perhaps because of that lingering Sex and the City image?) and ask themselves, “Why confess my interest/love if she’s just going to reject me anyway?” Like all men, Japanese men have pride they don’t want to wound unnecessarily. This is why you hear stories of successful international dating relationships that started when the Western woman showed interest and encouragement before the Japanese guy confessed.

It seems to me that in general, Japanese men are serious about their role in life and at a younger age have a stronger sense of responsibility about dating, marriage, and family than the average American dude--perhaps this makes them risk-averse when it comes to finding a partner. I suspect it’s a by-product of an extremely male-dominated culture. There’s a lot riding on the man’s decisions.

Of course, not all Japanese men think this way or have such traditionally-minded families. In my experience it seems the Japanese men who do marry Western women are the ones who've studied or lived overseas, and/or have somehow lived a non-typical life a little off the "rail" of traditional Japanese society. My husband fits the bill: he studied abroad for a year in the U.S., he's a musician, and a Christian. Perhaps in general, there are more adventurous Japanese women than men, thanks to the male-dominated pressures of society?

Logistical

Another reason may be that in general, single foreign women don't stay in Japan for long. You have the single Western men who have been here for years, but I haven't met many female versions. "They'll probably go back home to their own country soon so why start a relationship?" This didn't stop my husband who asked me out only 4 months before I was set to return home to the U.S.

When we got married, a lot of people asked if that meant I'd become a Japanese citizen. Not many Japanese people knew the process of international marriage, but they knew it could mean giving up a lot (my family home, living in my own culture, even my citizenship) and that it involved a lot of annoying paperwork. The prospect of those things and the extra weight of the  responsibility involved (in Japanese culture again it would be on the man's shoulders) might also turn people off from dates with foreign women.

Another very simple, logistical reason one doesn't see many Japanese man/Western woman couples out and about, one that I read on a Japanese forum online, is not simply because we are fewer in number than other international marriages, but because of the long hours Japanese men put in at work. Perhaps we don’t see the Japanese man + Western woman couples so often because they don't often go out together. Come to think of it, the only time you'll find my husband and I out together is usually Sunday mornings when we go to church!

So those are my thoughts on why we're considered a rarer combination than "the other way around." Do you have any thoughts to add?