The attention earned just by being a foreigner was something I welcomed in my early days of living here. But a time went on I came to desire equity. Enough with the questions, enough with the staring, and for god’s sakes, enough with the patronizing. “Just think of me as a human,” I would suggest to others. “Yes, but in Japan. . .” they would start and then often say something either face-smackingly obvious or else applicable to people of all nations. “Yes, but in Japan it is impolite to be late.” I would meet others who would even go as far as to tell me what my own customs were. “I don’t really like eating big, fatty slabs of meat,” I would inform on the occasional dinner outing. “Are you really American?” they would ask, dumbfounded. “But you love hamburgers and fried food.” “I do?” “I mean Americans do.”
At stores, clerks would communicate with me by talking to the Japanese person next to me. Others would immediately whip out the ninth grade English after I’d asked them something in Japanese. Others would visibly panic at the sight of me or when I happened to not catch something they said. I never had this problem with clerks in America. “I’m sorry?” I would ask and they would simply repeat themselves. In Japan I would say “I’m sorry?” and they would freeze. “Oh my go, something’s wrong. How can I make this understandable to the lumbering water buffalo before me?”
In trains, teenagers would, with dependable consistency, look at me, smirk, and then whisper to all of their nearby friends that they ought to look at me and smirk too. Old, drunk biddies and their drunk husbands would spot me in and out of bars and point and gawk. “Hey, a gaijin!” Saucy bar girls would size me up and talk about me in audible tones. “What was that guy’s name again? I don’t know, let’s call him Michael.” “Hey, you should totally say something in English, the only language he could hypothetically be capable of understanding even though he lives in Japan and lots of white people don’t speak English, not that I’m aware of that or anything else outside my tiny, tiny, depressing little tatami room of a world.”
Well, they would literally say all that, but they basically said it. After awhile, all the special attention, all the unwarranted praise, all the idiotic remarks, every glint of condescension in every eye of every encounter–they started to get old. I guess that’s when I started thinking about going home.
The other thing is that being a social outsider, or at least perceived as one, I’m a prime target for Japanese derelicts and those with no friends. Crazy people, lonely housewives, and pretty much anyone that everyone else hates will latch onto me like ticks. Last month a suicidal girl confessed her love to me, called me out to stop her from committing suicide, and then spammed my phone for the next two weeks. Immediately after, I went to Rosetta Stone, which the local Buddhist faction is currently trying to bully out of business. The man they sent to do the bullying teetered precariously over the line of arrestably belligerent, and since I was the most likely one not to realize how much of an asshole he was (I did), he pestered me for over an our, smacking me on the back, yammering in incomprehensible English, and making me touch his Kannon charm, which he claimed was centuries old but then almost forgot on his way out. Afterwards, the other Rosetta regulars and Shin collectively apologized for essentially using me as a flak jacket. “It’s fine,” I said. “Disturbingly, I’m used to this shit by now.”
Last Friday, I met what I think was a very nice lady. I stepped off the train at Mizunami Station, walked through the gate, and felt a tap on the shoulder. I pulled down my headphones and turned around to see a cheerful native woman, probably in her early 40s.
“I’m sorry, are you in a rush?”
First reaction, right off the bat–Aw great, it’s some religious nut. “Yes, I kind of am,” I said. It was true!
“Do you happen to speak both Japanese and English?” she asked, ignorin the information I had just provided.
“Why, yes I do,” I said.
She removed her wedding ring.
“Listen, lady, once I’ve already seen the ring, the jig is up,” I almost said.
She thrust the ring at me. It was engraved with English poetry. “I was wondering if you could translate this for me.”
I translated it for her. It was a lovely engraving. “It’s quite lovely,” I said, and tried to be on my way. She followed me.
“So do you live here?” she asked. Then she asked fifty other questions, many of them invasive, at least for a complete stranger. The walk was getting long. Too long for it to seem plausible that she was still heading to her own separate destination. “This is quite a walk,” she gasped, adding to my suspicions. “Is your work close to here?”
“No! Still a long ways off!” It was true! “What about you?” I asked, putting her on the spot. “Do you live around here or something?”
“Oh, yeah, actually this is where I turn, so by! Thanks for the translation!”
“You’re welcome. It’s a nice ring.”
She scurried off. Was she really heading home, or had she taken the hint? “In Japan, people often communicate nonverbally,” I’m told.
Well, needless to say, I was relieved. But with that relief came shame mixed with despair. The lady’s reward for being outgoing and friendly to me was suspicion and contempt. It never crossed my mind that I was lucky to meet a person like this. All I could think of was that she probably wanted something. If she was a religious nut, she figured a gaijin would understand, because ALL gaijins have religion. If she was lonely, I was the naive gaijin who could be seduced. It she was a psycho killer, then I was the most likely person to not tell her to fuck off. If she was selling something, well, she probably would’ve brought it up sooner. Too much living in Japan has made me bitter, and now every angel just looks like a devil in angel’s clothing, disguised as a housewife.
Then again, she might’ve been a psycho killer.