Saturday, 12 January 2013

Escaping the Foreigner Bubble (if you're so inclined)


Before I got distracted by New Year's nonsense, I was on a roll with three loosely related posts. Despite my best efforts, I got sucked into the Foreigner Bubble at first, and it took some time and a lot of effort to make my way out. Although I've barely been riding the progress train long enough to get a seat, I think I can share some strategies, if you yourself are currently sharing in my frustration. I'll be straight with you, this is probably all obvious, but it's also the closest I will ever write to a “five things you should know before you come to Japan,” so let's go.

1. Accept that, to some degree, being trapped in the Foreigner Bubble is inevitable

I may have come off as anti-foreigner earlier, and I'm sorry about that, because I'm not hating on foreigners. I'm hating on stupidity. In fact, foreign companionship can even be desirable. You may crave it, you may require it for your sanity. But even if you choose to actively avoid it, you'd be foolish to ostracize yourself on principle. All that'll do is cut you off from a host of opportunities you might have enjoyed.

More to the point, you probably need to learn to live with it either way, because you'll likely never escape it entirely. The sooner you come to terms with that, the less you'll come off as a standoffish tit.

2. Learn the language. In fact, learn the local hougen

It's called being a gracious guest. Lots of people speak English to varying degrees, but they shouldn't always have to. What's more, you'll be necessarily limiting the types of Japanese people you can meet as well as how meaningful your interactions will be. Try not to be shy about using it, either. At a bar or on campus and spot somebody who looks cool? Well, march over and strike up a conversation.

In fact, I'm going to take it one step further and suggest that you also learn the local dialect. For one thing, it's really really really really fun, but it has practical merit too. It not only demonstrates a strong attachment to the country and its culture, but ties you to the particular place you're living in, even when you venture elsewhere. It sets you apart from the Extended Spring Breakers. Just don't do this until you've mastered basic hyoujungo, or you'll piss people off. But when it's incorporated naturally into your personal rhythm, it's very effective. If Japanese is the secret handshake, your hougen is the spectacular super-special secret handshake.

If you have the misfortune of living in the Kantou area, there is no hougen to learn. Hahaha! That must suck for you.

3. Take her light

Be prepared that your transformation into Social Butterfly Alpha Gaijin Million+ Friends IRL is going to take time and work. You're going to run up against walls. Some people in your new group may even purposely ignore you or give you the runaround. Remind yourself that you're a cultural outsider and chrono-spatial newcomer, and just keep chipping away. Don't get worked up if things don't go your way to start, or progress at the speed you'd prefer.

4. Get over yourself

I might catch flack for this...

So, Japanese people staring. Honestly? I think it's our own fault. You frequent forums, browse blogs, and view videos mentioning this phenomenon, and when you get here, omg, they were totally right! Guys? Guys. Trust me, you are not that interesting. And when it does happen, remember that people rubberneck traffic accidents too. Let's stop complaining that ever since we tattooed an exploding dick on our face, people won't stop staring.

Also, by the way, sometimes people look at each other.

Extrapolating, drop your presuppositions and lose your sense of entitlement. Don't deny your past experiences, but try not to let them colour your current ones unduly. I've heard that Japanese girls are prudes; I've heard that Japanese girls are sluts. Both of them more times than I can count. Disparities in perspective should indicate a deeper truth. Try to get at it.

And by all means trade on your foreigner status – we all do it – but don't treat it like the keys to the VIP lounge. Show what else you've got that makes you special, and be prepared to put the work in if you're looking for lasting friendships; just because your uncle got you an interview doesn't mean you won't get fired if you suck. Respect is earned, and it's a two-way street. Enough metaphors yet?

5. Do everything

Make proper use of your time a philosophy of life. I don't just mean in terms of time management, although that certainly is important, but rather that if you're only going to be here for a short time, you don't want to be sitting on the plane and wishing you'd seen or done more. And if you're in it for the long haul, well, that's your motivation right there.

My point is, don't be dismissive. Seize every opportunity that hits your desk, even if you don't feel like you want to. There's something to be learned from every experience, no matter what it is. If a cultural event seems like it's going to be boring, go anyway and plan to just enjoy the crowd. Doing a slideshow on your home country is a lot of work, but maybe you'll meet some people there and end up expanding your social circle. And maybe you politely demurred when you got invited to the Celtic flutes show because that ain't your scene, but what you don't know is that after an hour everybody got cold and ended up going to this awesome new bar downtown, and you'd have loved it, and also if you'd gone you'd have gotten laid.

Trivia night, karaoke, hanami, shrine visits, bukatsu, community events, matsuri. Take any invitation. Put yourself out there. And if the opportunities aren't rolling in, create some. Ring somebody up and start making plans. Above all, keep trying, because you might hit your head a few times, but you can get in the door.

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