Golden oldies

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.

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27 thoughts on “Golden oldies

  1. Kathryn says:

    OMG I became jaded so quickly! Now you tell me I should have been all starry eyed for at least another 2-3 years! Do those diagrams include the gaijin who go home and then have to deal with the level below the FOPs? Every time someone tells me they went to Japan for a holiday and the people are soooo polite I want to scream NO THEY AREN’T! THEY KNOW YOU ARE TOURISTS! Then there are the people who have never actually been to Japan but know all about it.

    Chicks who don’t want to date Asian guys (fools!) – tell them to go for European men. I got chatted by more guys from non-Asian, non-English speaking backgrounds in Tokyo than anyone. My cyncial side says it’s because they are way down the food chain for Japanese girls – Japanese guys have home ground advance, dudes from English-speaking countries get the rest and the Europeans are left in the cold. My less cynical side says it’s because I’m a hottie!

    • We may need a new diagram for returnee gaijin! I have to bite my tongue when people are exclaiming all kinds of freaky shit about Japan when they find out I live here. Maybe we can retaliate by making up crazy and unbelievable stories about our time here?!

      • Kathryn says:

        I think the best was a guy who told my sister that people in Japan are so polite they never get drunk. He’d obviously never been to Japan. Oh and another “friend” who said eating babies was rife in Japan. Like the birth rate isn’t low enough already.

  2. Ms. Flâneuse says:

    Reblogged this on diary of a flâneuse and commented:
    I have been following this gals blog for years and years. Realistic viewpoints of living in Japan AND she’s hilarious. We must always remember that no place is perfect and make sure we don’t romanticize the idea of ‘living abroad’. I can relate to a lot of what she says.

    • Thanks for the reblog and sticking with me as a reader, I’m flattered! I didn’t even know you could reblog stuff on here! It’s so easy to romanticize, I am guilty of it myself when I daydream about other cities around the world.

      • Ms. Flâneuse says:

        Yes, and I’m contemplating a move back to Japan after almost five years away and it’s a very timely reminder. I agree with everything you say, except the use of the word “gaijin” all the time. 🙂

        • Are you of the “gaikokujin” camp?

          • Ms. Flâneuse says:

            Yah, I’m one of “those” 😛

            • princessofsound says:

              No judgment, I am always curious to hear reasoning from the other side, especially since the voice of one particular guy over here seems to overpower the others.

              • Ms. Flâneuse says:

                Well, it’s like this: I know that no matter what you call a word, intent and context is everything, in every language. I have heard many Japanese people, with no “evil” intent, use the word “gaijin” innocently, with no clue that it might be offensive. The word, in it’s literal sense, is just “outside person” and lets face it, no matter how good your Japanese, a foreigner in Japan is always going to be an “outside person” or “outsider”. But I think the word is largely deemed as derogatory, emphasizes the exclusivity of Japanese culture, not to mention the xenophobia and it’s something that the country should get out of the habit of using given that they are going to need to up the immigration soon or at least start having more babies!

                From Wiki: “…though the term may be used without negative intent by many Japanese speakers,[2] it is seen as derogatory by some[5][6][7] and reflective of exclusionary attitudes.[2][3][12][25][31][33]
                “While the term itself has no derogatory meaning, it emphasizes the exclusiveness of Japanese attitude and has therefore picked up pejorative connotations that many Westerners resent.” Mayumi Itoh (1995)[4]
                The term is avoided by mainstream Japanese media whenever possible.”

                I also find a lot of foreigners (and I’m not including you in this-because I don’t know you! 🙂 like to throw this word around a lot as if they are aware of the connotations, but are “above” any of the judgement contained within. This is hard to explain, but you must know of these “apologists” who make excuses for racist behaviour in the country and let you know how much more “Japanese” they are than you. I think you have to have lived in Japan to know what I’m talking about so I’m probably going to piss off some other readers here 😛

              • Jeffrey says:

                Might his given name begin with D and his family name begin with A?

  3. Michelle says:

    I once met a woman, who really told me japanese rain is way more cool than german rain. O.O People are so weird.

  4. I just passed the seven year mark and, seriously?! Yeah. The “does this mean I am now here for ever do I really want that?!” internal debate is raging. Doesn’t help when most of my foreign friends have kiddies and family now anchoring them here and I’m not quite there yet… Sigh.

    As amusing and thought-provoking as ever! Good to hear from you!

  5. Love your post! I’ve been here 18 years and it still hits me once in a while that I’m living in freakin’ Japan, yo! I have a house (+ land), wife, son, cats, car and a job that I love. The cool thing about living in Japan is that I can remain blissfully ignorant of current events, politics and local customs if I choose to do so. Plus, I can ignore all of these in my home country too. Cultural limbo rocks.

    • Thanks for commenting! I feel humbled that a gaijin of your level is reading (srsly). It’s pretty awesome to hear from someone who has settled and is loving it. I agree that being a borderless gaijin has the perk of tuning out whenever, although I do sometimes feel like a bit of a philistine when I’ve tuned out for too long!

  6. kamo says:

    “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.”

    Yes. This. And far from finding this offensive, I actually found it a little disconcerting how much of it, well, reminds me of myself and where I am now.

    I guess that means I should try to find some faults in it then. Give me a minute…

    • Thanks for stopping by! If others are finding fault with you, you’re probably doing something right! But yes, there seems to be some intense competition among foreigners here…why are we all so “get off my island?!”

  7. toforward says:

    re: the last paragraph, I so understand this feeling. I am about to hit the 5 year mark soon and most of what surprises me is how normalized life here has become for me– go to work, come home from work, eat dinner, watch TV etc– yet also interspersed with all the interesting/challenging and yes delightful things about Tokyo and being a foreigner here. More and more, it becomes harder to dredge up strong enough feelings toward Weird Japan to blog about, though. No more fucks to give about how many sauces they give you at McDonalds.

    Ladies who don’t want to date Japanese men crack my shit up. What is even the point. I sometimes get stuff like, “You’re married to a Japanese guy?” Well yeah, who else am I suppose to go out with here? If you haven’t noticed, this place is crawling with them and– let’s face it– it makes things easier.

    Though just as I feel like I’ve “leveled-up” by being married to a native, I’m also aware of the fact I’m not part of the gaijin mom brigade (happily, mind you) which seems to make up most of the married, long-term Western women here (at least the ones who blog?) Proving, yeah, we gaijin really do love to quantify everything and compare ourselves to each other.

    • Ms. Godzilla says:

      I could not agree more 🙂 And I am happy to see that there are other long-term female residents married/coupled with Japanese guys who don’t feel the need to reproduce like rabbits!

  8. skv012a says:

    i can definitely see exactly what you mean in this whole thought, and for that i gotta give Japan its proper credit- it attracts quite a few outsiders via samurai unicorns and then breaks them in pieces with the reality of that particular Eastern society.

    I’m planning on flying over for an indefinite period of time sometime this year, but my main attraction is that to me, Japan is the lesser of my other environmental evils I could choose to reside in. That and I’m willing to wrestle my theories of using my gaijin status to my advantage and progression of the lucky people i’ll befriend rather than otherwise.

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