Monday, 31 December 2012

Foreigner Bubble


When you ask Japanese students what their goals are for the year they're about to spend in Canada, you will never hear them say, “I want to stay in my room, never use English and associate only with Japanese people.” Unfortunately, that's the attitude taken by a lot of expats who come to Japan, and I don't want to point the finger specifically at only English teachers because it's hardly limited to them. In a lot of ways it's understandable, because God knows we're put into a situation that encourages it. Constantly amongst our so-called fellows, sometimes actively herded into groups with them, inundated with negative imagery of the country and often with little or no language skills, it's no wonder that this ends up happening.

They're living in what I (along with probably everyone else) like to call the Foreigner Bubble. It's a magical realm cordoned off from the surrounding space, untainted by locals and their strange customs and their incomprehensible tongue. You have a few who will freely perforate its membrane, embarking on the occasional sojourn into the cultural wilderness, but they will always return to the warm womb that forms their transplanted home. A particularly aggressive local sufficiently masterful in the lingua franca of that domain may be cautiously allowed entry, but will never make purchase on the Bubble's inner sanctum, where the most legendary expats sit around homogeneously, drinking and talking shit about the world without.

I would say that most foreigners coming into the country fall into this trap early and never quite haul themselves out. In Canada it worked to my advantage, and there were actually stretches of days at a time where I was able to construct a fully Japanese environment up around myself. But I also saw what it did to the students, and to their level of English, and I knew going in that staying as far outside of the Foreigner Bubble was going to be a priority for me here. And I also knew that it was going to be a lot of work.

That's why it's nice to be in an international dormitory where everyone is at least united in their purpose, if in nothing else. Sure, the atmosphere doesn't exactly promote use of the Japanese language, but to come to the university you have to be able to at a minimum be able to read hiragana by the time you arrive, and the majority have been studying for two years or more, so if nothing else we're guaranteed to be amongst people who are at least interested in the country and its culture. Whatever their current ability to communicate, everyone would like for it to be better.

And to some degree, we all want to escape each other. It's simultaneously ironic and totally natural. Some mind it less than others, and are only too happy to skip off to whatever new site they've elected to explore that day, several of their ilk in tow. They've made friends among foreigners and see no problem, and of course they're not wrong. But others want to move away from that a little bit. I'd argue that I've taken a bit of an extreme approach, because I've been lone wolfing it up since the second I arrived, actively avoiding foreigners and usually striking out unaccompanied.

I'm pretty sure this has made me a couple of enemies, but nothing I'm too concerned with. The only ones I care about anyway are those who are some combination of 1) tolerable, and 2) skilled in Japanese (read: won't embarrass me in front of my friends). These are the few I'd actually choose to hang out with if given a choice, not only because we connect on some level but also because I'm reasonably confident I won't have to babysit them all night, or get roped into translating every single thing they want to vomit, or get pulled out of the main conversation so that they have somebody that'll speak English to them.

Yet every time I've had this conversation with somebody, we've agreed that we didn't come to Japan to spend time with non-Japanese, looking right into each other's eyes and tacitly acknowledging that we'd rather be with someone else right now, and nobody has ever been offended.

The problem is, Japanese friends are a little harder to make. There's some barriers in your way; language, whiteness, nobody is really interested in making friends with you, awkwardness, not knowing the best places to meet people...all kinds of things can put a dent in your plans.

But after a while, everybody has met a few people, and most met one or two Kyouto-jin friends at their home universities. Regardless of their source, these friends are hoarded like so much gold bullion in a mercantilist economy. They are hidden out of view, alluded to but never introduced, lest they become a viable target for another foreigner's friendship endeavours, thus (to mix metaphors) opening the floodgates of our own evil influence. In other words, we keep them for ourselves because we're trying to escape everybody else. Everybody is doing it, everybody knows everybody is doing it, and nobody has any hard feelings about it. In fact, trying to make friends with a friend somebody else has already staked a claim on is viewed as a grave breach in protocol, and quite simply not done. Maybe the injured party won't say anything, but maybe, say, an invitation to the next nomikai will somehow slip their mind.

When people announce what their plans are for the weekend, they may try to subtly indicate that it's a private affair and nobody else had better ought to go inviting themselves. They're coy with the where's and when's, too. As of now, I'm investigating a couple other student societies in addition to the aforementioned English Club. So far I haven't breathed a word of my results, and you can bet your bank account I have no intention of asking anybody else if they'd like to tag along. Fortunately, if you have the knowledge, the means, and a ton of tenacity, there's a lot you can do to escape the Foreigner Bubble.

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