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The number one most annoying question to ask a foreigner in Japan - Scarlet Letters

Oct. 28th, 2012 09:33 pm The number one most annoying question to ask a foreigner in Japan

If you haven't been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

1. Why don't you like your country (and are you all this aggressive)?

Well now, do you see what you've done here? You've painted me into a corner, haven't you? Taken me for a Union Jack-waving, scone-munching, knife-and-fork-requesting stereotype with no mind or personality of her own, then kicked me into the nearest open pigeon hole when I refuse to conform.

I don’t hate my country, no. There are things about it I hate, yes, and miraculously you’ve managed to touch on most of them in the space of this short conversation. But they wouldn’t make me anywhere near as angry if I didn’t care.

I arrived in Japan wide-eyed and full of youthful hope, keen to prove that I was more than the sum of my gangly legs and comically large nose, to bridge the cultural divide and highlight the deep and abiding similarities in our souls. But I also knew that here, not saying was the flower. And so I tried to keep my mouth shut and smile, smile, smile – the only advice I'd received before embarking on my educational mission.

I was to be thwarted in my bid for silence. Mere days in to my new role, I found myself sitting on a stage in front of an expectantly assembled junior high school, trying to answer the question “Do you like Margaret Thatcher?”. The above is not the answer that I gave, but it is the answer that I wish I could have given. The answer that I did give was something mealy-mouthed about how Thatcher's policies divided people in Britain to this day (usually into opposite corners in which tables are upended and used as ad hoc missile cover), and that many people didn’t agree with them, myself included. But, I added, to soften the blow, that was just my opinion.

An awed hush descended. Seconds later, mutters broke the surface of the silence like tiny fish coming up for breadcrumbs. “My opinion... my opinion...” Yahari, said the headteacher, iken ga tsuyoi desu ne. As expected (being a foreigner), you have strong opinions.

It was a reaction I was to meet time and again, and one not entirely without reproach. There's a fine line between having opinions and being opinionated, and my very existence seemed to make waves even when my mouth was firmly shut. For the first time in my life, I was considered to be representative of something. I had become An Ambassador For My Country (Whatever That Might Mean). Everything I said was interpreted through a lens – Christian, opinionated, aggressive, mouth-frothing feminist, tea-sipping English lady – that I barely recognised, and had no intention of perpetuating.

But how to escape becoming my stereotype? People listened the hardest when I was most like what I was expected to be. When I tried to fit in, I fell flat on that comedy nose of mine. Every time I hit the stereotype wall I'd blame myself and my language abilities, and hit the textbooks harder. We local gaijin bonded over furtively exchanged textbooks, gathered in dimly-lit family restaurants to squint at flashcards battered and tea-stained with use, huddled together for warmth, protection and linguistic input at the town's premier (only) watering hole.

I soon reached the point where I could communicate day-to-day. There I could have stopped, but something wasn't right. I noticed one day that when I spoke Japanese my voice was high-pitched, exaggeratedly feminine, about an octave higher than it should have been. I listened more closely. My words, too, they were being spoken to order, to fill the space in the conversation as expected, not because they belonged to me. In short, I had lost my voice.

Clearly, I was playing a loser's game. I realised that if I was going to reconstruct myself in this very different culture, there'd need to be a core person there, and many of my values would come from my own culture. And that meant being more than a cypher, more than a brainless smile, more than a high maintenance ambulant steak. So began the mission to reconstruct Caro-chan.

I'm going to make a sweeping generalisation at this point, because it seems like everyone else is at it and I don't like to miss a par-tay. Britain is a nation that has fought tooth and claw for political representation. It has been ruled by the rich, for the rich, for centuries, and this has fostered an oppositional, them-and-us, two-party system where everybody knows which side they stand on. It's not only OK to have an opinion: it's not OK not to.

I was brought up to have an opinion on most things. I was also taught to be critical of things I did not agree with, with the possible exceptions of nine o'clock bedtimes and cod liver oil. I believe there is a damn good reason for this, and it is that the world does not tend toward fairness or equality; quite the opposite.

I understand that Japan has followed a very different path, its upper classes voluntarily dissolving their privileged position to establish a modern democracy. I also understand that they did so partly to pre-empt vile class consciousness infecting the minds of their citizens. I understand this because I've bothered to find this out, and kept my mind open while doing so. So the next time I give the wrong answers to the right questions, perhaps you could try listening before you make up your mind.

It's not aggression. It's not hatred. It's because I care.

And if it seems doubly shocking coming from a woman, you're getting just the shock you deserve.

2 comments - Leave a commentPrevious Entry Share Next Entry


Date:October 28th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
Hey Caro-chan,

I can totally relate to this from when I myself began learning Vietnamese (I'll give you three guesses to see if you can figure out who this is). I recall my own voice changing and becoming more feminine. I still have a sense that I use Vietnamese in a way that is not always my own voice, but more and more I feel a strange thing has happened, where I start to feel I am that voice, while at the same time the use of it seems reduced as well. At any rate, it doesn't matter. I am sure it can't matter that much even if you do speak with that nicey-nice voice in Japanese if what is heard are opinions within it that are, for their very existence, shocking.

The other strange thing I find is that I think this exists everywhere - either one way or another. To not have an opinion is also kind of an opinion in itself, in the sense that it is a choice, a stance of its own kind. I have this sense that wherever I go in the world, even in my home country, I will still get screwed one way or another for what I think or believe or don't think or believe. So I'm trying now not to hate it with a passion when I get asked why I'm 34 and not married yet by every Vietnamese who asks, because people are so mysterious even if they come across as either blandly homogenous or overly opinionated. Which is really kind of amazing and helps me to have a sense of humor about it. And since I am a student of Buddhism, I can also tell myself that none of this even exists anyways, not myself or them, just existing as my own mental constructs, and theirs, and then I just get on with whatever I was saying earlier and hopefully feel much better about it, hoping that somewhere the heart can peek through all the crap.

Best of luck. We miss you over here.
Date:November 1st, 2012 01:13 pm (UTC)
Very interesting comment - I never got very far with Vietnamese, but I suppose it's always likely to happen, especially if (like me) you mostly learn by imitating other people. My Japanese voice is now back within normal pitch confines, although I still really only feel truly comfortable with friends who have spent time outside the culture, or have some kind of outside perspective whatever the reason. I still get the bemused giggle, and the indulgent "ah, but she's a foreigner" smile from time to time.

I think it's possible to simultaneously feel the weight of a culture's stereotypes and expectations and acknowledge the individuality of the people within it. This series of posts was inspired by a particularly piranha-esque pair of middle-aged ladies who interrogated me about everything they could possibly remember that might be considered British, having successfully separated me from the rather dashing Japanese fellows I was talking to (by loudly enquiring as to whether I wanted to marry a Japanese man - that made 'em scoot pretty sharpish). They are at one end of the scale. I've met lots of people at the other. My students are all lovely and different, but incredibly good at getting on with one another, which I do love about this place.

I miss you guys too. But Vietnam was driving me crazy. I think you may have been my sole anchor to sanity.

Edited at 2012-11-02 12:51 am (UTC)