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too fragile and thin for all the needle-like stares and remarks, and I understood the feelings of 引きこもりhikikomori ("the withdrawn") the shut-ins who refuse to leave their rooms and go out in Japanese society.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! 


  1. Oooh, how I get you on this! Actually I've been meaning to write something or do a video about that since like a couple of months now, but somehow it's a very difficult topic to approach. When I talk about it to other people around me, some of them just don't understand or treat me like I'm an ungrateful child (because I complain about all the unwanted attention). I'm so happy I'm not the only one!

  2. Make the video! :)

    I guess some might enjoy the attention but for me it just says "you're different and other and don't belong here" which is stressful after a while!

  3. <3 <3 <3 This just makes me want to hug you.
    We got plenty of stares in Suley and lots of "Oh god, look at that foreigner! So white!", but we also had plenty of other expat friends and Kurdish ethnicity encompasses a wide variety of skin, hair, and eye colors. My little blond brother could never hide and got pinched on his cheeks a lot, but in a crowd me and my sister with our darkish hair didn't stand out as much as we could have.

    1. Unfortunately the only place I won't stand out is in a crowd of white blonde people :P not helpful in the majority of the world haha


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