Guest post by Tim Anderson, author of Tune in Tokyo, just $7.99 on Kindle.
Foreigners in Japan—gaijin, as they are called—face a fascinating array of benefits and hazards as they make their way through the country’s streets, karaoke boxes, noodle shops, company parties, game centers, and love hotels. So why not have a look at the best and worst of these? It’ll be fun, trust me.
Fun thing #1: You Have Automatic Allure
To make a splash when you are a foreigner (non-Asian) in Japan, just step out of your tiny matchbox apartment and onto the narrow street that you will get lost on. Folks will stare at you. Sometimes with genuine curiosity, sometimes because you are so weird and gangly, sometimes because they can’t believe how big your nose is. Get used to it. If you go into a shop, they will stare at you, often somewhat distrustfully, because you have those big western hands and feet and are likely to knock something over if you’re not stared at enough. When was the last time anyone paid this much attention to you in your home country? It’s probably been weeks. And you had to run outside naked, covered in Cool Whip, and screaming “I am the 99%” to get anyone to look at you. But in Japan? Just walk outside and wait for the eyeballs to land on your ungainly body. You’ll get used to the attention, you may start to believe the hype, and you’ll miss it when it’s over.
Bummer #1: You Feel Fat All the Time
This is a direct result of the immediately preceding Fun Thing. The longer you are in Japan, the more in tune you become with the natives around you. You get used to the tiny spaces, the crowds, the microscopic candies, the modest portion sizes at meals. And the more you immerse yourself in the daily culture of Japan, the more likely you are to think that western folks are just too damn large. My friend Rachel once caught a glimpse of some giant American slob in a store window as she passed by it, and she couldn’t help but ask herself, “God, who is that enormous beast?” To her shock, she realized that she was looking at her own reflection. I know how crestfallen she must have felt. I once nearly wept real tears when I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror going down an escalator next to a 109-year-old woman half my size. I looked like Frankenstein’s monster.
Fun thing #2: You Get Away with Things
One thing you will certainly get used to is doing things wrong, all the time, forever. Japan is a country of nuance and inborn cultural knowledge. You will misunderstand many things. For example, early on in my stay in Tokyo, I asked a class of mine what Japanese people eat for breakfast. (I wanted to know what their version of biscuits and sausage gravy was.) Most of the people had the same answer: rice and miso soup. I thought this sounded like a pretty good way to start the day, especially in the colder months, so I started eating a lot of rice and miso soup. Thing is: I foolishly assumed that when folks said they eat “rice and miso soup” that they meant they ate them together, like in the same bowl. You know, like mixing your grits with your scrambled cheese eggs. YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DO THIS, ESPECIALLY IN PUBLIC. Japanese folks say that this is like eating dog food. But I was a gaijin, so folks expected me to do things wrong. It’s what gaijin do. If I were a Japanese person doing this, I would be an outcast and would be promptly banished from polite society (and my family would probably have to pay monetary compensation to anyone who was forced to witness my social crime).
Bummer #2: You Can’t Buy Any of the Awesome Clothes You See
Tokyo has awesome shops and you will just want to buy all those cool faux-leather jackets with the funky ‘80s collars and the T-shirts featuring adorable little guinea pigs and messages on them saying something like “Probably Not.” Stop what you’re doing. You will not be able to fit into this stuff. Your pectorals will poke through that T-shirt in a most unseemly fashion, your belly will rear its button, and you will not be able to negotiate one sleeve of that jacket onto your body. Shoe shopping is just asking for trouble. You will find all of this very frustrating, but get used to it. And take heart: because the Japanese diet has changed so much recently, there are bound to be more Big and Tall shops popping up. America is still really good at exporting obesity.
And, to end on a positive note:
Fun Thing #3: No Matter How Terrible and Downright Offensive Your Japanese Is, Japanese People Will Compliment You On How Great Your Japanese Is
Unlike the French, who are constitutionally incapable of giving you a damn break, the Japanese really appreciate efforts you make with their language, like when you say “hello, how are you?” or “That’s a cute kitten, where did you kill it?” I was constantly amazed at how the little squeaks of Japanese I was able to emit in my first months all received across-the-board wonderful reviews from whoever I was attempting to speak to. “One of the year’s 10 best!” “A wild, seductive, musical romp of a sentence!” Of course, this can start to feel a little patronizing at times, especially when you are studying constantly and trying to manage a coherent conversation in a terribly difficult language. But, when you get down to it, compliments are like cream-filled donuts: there can never be too many, and they can never be too big. So just suck it up and enjoy your donuts.