Monday, July 31, 2006

Being a Gaijin

My initial taste of being a gaijin was getting onto the plane to go to Japan for my first job there. As I walked down the narrow corridor to board the aircraft, I felt confined and claustrophobic in a crowd all speaking Japanese. Despite my language lessons leading up to this moment, I could only understand the occasional word. It wasn’t only language. I felt different to everyone around me. I was suddenly conscious of my curvy figure and my dyed red hair in a sea of thin dark-haired people.

If you look at the characters that make up the word gaijin, it literally translates to “outside person”. The more correct, more polite term, “gaikokujin” - outside country person, is not as commonly used. While it is true that the term "gaijin" can be laden with racist connotations, it is not usually meant so sinisterly. It's more a reference to the person’s “foreignness”, their “differentness” in a mass of people who seem to conform in appearance as well as culture. Some days this means you feel like the single noxious weed in the rice paddy, other days, the beautiful flower that despite odds has managed to spring up.

There are days I just want to blend into the crowd. After an extended period in the country and some serious doses of denial, I sometimes convince myself that it’s actually possible. More often however, being a gaijin offers an amazing sense of freedom. The gaijin is regarded strange and different simply because they are a non-Japanese. This allows them to be as strange and as different as they wish. Many gaijin find themselves doing things and behaving in ways they wouldn't in their own country.

My first experience of Japan was living there for three years, working as an English teacher in a "conversation" school. During that time I lived in three cities, all in Gifu prefecture, smack-bang in the middle of the main island. The first city, Seki, was small by Japanese standards. It had a lot of rice paddies, some beautiful mountains close by and was famous for its swords and cutlery. Six months went by until I saw another gaijin in Seki. This forced me to learn Japanese quickly. It also allowed me to form a few deep friendships that I still hold dear to this day, years later.

After returning home for four years, I am now in my second stint of living in Japan. This time I have brought my new husband with me and am viewing my surroundings partly through his fresh eyes and partly through mine of experience.

I do think that men and women’s experience of being a gaijin differs, as does the experiences of those living in rural areas to those living in large cities, but many are shared. Japan is a country that is full of delights and amusements that have the power to distract gaijin from any bouts of homesickness and feelings of being an outsider. It’s a country filled with juxtapositions. While walking down an ugly, concrete street it’s possible to suddenly stumble upon a beautiful, tranquil, wooden temple with a cherry tree blossoming out the front. In summer festivals punk teenagers happily dance alongside old women dressed in their traditional, festive cotton kimonos, all to the same beat, all doing the same repetitive movements.

Japan is a country where everyone expects sushi, sake, gadgets, geisha, kimonos and karaoke, but it is truly so much more.

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