Gaijin are so introspective. We love to talk about ourselves and are equally fascinated with our own uniqueness as that of our hosts. We can talk about cultural assimilation and share our gaijin badges of honor for hours. There are even diagrams plotting out the stages in one’s career as a gaijin; all of them inevitably start with the green wide-eyed newbie and after a series of radical ups and downs, end with the jaded expat, derided by all for any number of things from bitterness to condescension to having made the choice to settle here forever. At any point along the gaijin spectrum, really, you open yourself up to criticism and who best to judge you but a jury of your peers: other feckless outsiders.
As someone who is fresh off the plane (FOP), you can make all kinds of rookie mistakes: declaring Akihabara is cool, squealing over “crepes” (in quotation marks as they certainly are not) in Harajuku, exclaiming breathlessly to coworkers how damn friendly everyone is.
As a mid-termer (3-6 years) you are open to snarkery from both the FOPs and the gaijin who have been here longer. You either don’t speak enough Japanese by this point, have been teaching English for too long or you’re a little too enthusiastic for someone who has been here for more than a couple years.
It is the gaijin who have been here upwards of 7-10 years who are equally revered and ridiculed for their decision to make Japan a long-term destination. You can be infantilized for being so thick to have stayed here so long by the mid-termers who silently pat themselves on the back for having an escape plan and stared at uncomprehendingly by FOPs who are both afraid and confused by the Japanese-speaking foreigner who seems perfectly at home here, possibly even paired off with a native and contributing to fighting Japan’s population decline.
As a gaijin, no matter what you do or how long you’ve been here for, other foreigners from a myriad of backgrounds will have reason to find fault with you. Maybe because you remind them of themselves or of who they are fast becoming.
This isn’t always apparent if you surround yourself with similar-level gaijin. As has been long documented, I don’t hang out with many people (something that becomes painfully obvious when I am asked as a favour to contact “all” my friends here), least of all bright-eyed FOPs. To be fair though, I don’t know any “lifers” either, at least not in Real Life. I myself fall in the grey zone between mid-termer and lifer (you can’t blame me for creating a grey zone for my own selfish purposes), a fact I have become increasingly more insecure about. I have even considered lying about my gaijin age. The way I see it, everything is samurai and geisha up until around the five-year mark. You basically get a free pass until that point to fluff around and soak up the local culture, eat good food and bang some locals. Saying you have been here for four or five years is relatively safe – you’ve got some gaijin chops but haven’t been here too long that you lose all credibility. You see, it’s all about having gaijin cache and every time you meet a new foreigner you can assess the other’s based on some simple questions.
It’s terribly difficult to strike a balance. You can’t have been here for too long but you must have a command of Japanese. You shouldn’t like manga but you do need a working knowledge of some aspect of Japanese culture that gives off the right amount of cool and seems somewhat effortless. If you’re a guy, you probably don’t want a sexless nagging wife and kids, but rather an attractive Japanese companion who can hold her own in conversation but isn’t “like those bitches back home.” If you’re a lady, likewise, you probably don’t want a salaryman husband who exhibits a general tendency towards long hours and treating you like his mother, but rather a good-looking Japanese man with a hint of samurai who treats you as his equal and knows his way around under the hood. Basically, dear readers, you want someone who is Japanese but not too Japanese. It’s a delicate fucking balance. You like Japanese food but aren’t trying to prove something by eating natto, which would only serve to impress Japanese people, something you could more easily achieve by simply picking up a pair of chopsticks.
Now that I am a bit past the golden five-year mark, I am noticing with some horror that I am slowly turning into a lifer in others’ eyes, particularly FOPs (but what the fuck do they know, right?). As of late, I have found myself face-to-face with a slew of FOPs and what’s worse, many of them are here on a short assignment of less than two years. They are all so, like, thrillllllled to be here and to eat crepes in Harajuku, party at Feria and take weekend trips en masse to the countryside. When I let slip that I don’t think every single thing is perfect here and receive pitying looks, I want to yell at them that I’ve put my time in, it’s been great thanksverymuch but that you must be an idiot with blinders on not to see some of the downsides. My favorite though, and what inspired this vitriol and possible self-loathing is the look I get when these FOPs find out how long I’ve been here. It’s like they’ve come across a golden unicorn that can poop out endless 10,000 yen notes for them. When this happens, I then have to frantically qualify my existence here in Tokyo and explain that my exit plan is in motion. I also want to inform them that there are lifers much worse than I, that I look like I’m on a month-long holiday compared to some of these other gaijin. Blink. Blink. Some of these FOPs can’t fathom how someone would come here and manage/want to build a life without an expat package. I haven’t even given birth to a child half of this country and lately I am feeling like the peculiar oldie at gatherings to whom no one can relate.
A spinoff from this is when you tell female FOPs that you are dating a local. And then prepare to be charmed by comments such as “I’m just not attracted to Asian guys,” “some of the guys here are so girly,” “I need someone taller than me and buff.” Yes, I must cop to having had reservations about the local men when I came back here, a notion I was quickly disabused of. Equally humiliating is being asked for advice by FOPs on how to date here when the only pool they plan to swim in is the foreign one. Well, gee, I don’t know, I was snatched up by a local pretty early in the game, but good luck cracking on to the foreign guys who already drowning in Japanese pussy. I get it, I do. It has got to be supremely frustrating when your potential dating pool shrinks to the size of a water droplet (I feel the same about my friend pool), but I can’t summon a whole lot of sympathy when the advice-seekers are looking at me like I just got off a 10-year stint on a deserted island and can’t remember how to use a knife and fork. I wish I could take my own advice and make some more Japanese lady friends but I’m afraid that ship has sailed.
This post probably hasn’t inspired feelings of kindness in you, dear readers, I have probably offended those of you who are gaijin. Hell, I think I may have offended myself. But my time here as a gaijin has been weighing heavily in my mind the last few months, as I tally up what I have and haven’t done, what I maybe should have and what I kind of wish I had. And to plan going forward what I want to do. There are some days when the sheer foreignness of Tokyo catches me completely and utterly by surprise. I’ll be sitting on the subway or walking down the street when it suddenly hits me that I live in East Asia and that I don’t look much like the people around me. I would never use this word in speech but there it is: delightful. It’s a delicious feeling to be taken by surprise like this, when so often I am swearing at people in my head or walking around like I own the place. I’ve never really fit in, no matter where I go, so it shouldn’t come as such a shock that I find myself straddling the middle ground here. If anything, I think I am increasingly disconcerted at how my own impressions of Japan have changed in many ways and not changed in just as many.