Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Gaijin Wave

It was lunch hour on campus, and I'd spent most of it in pursuit of a Korean textbook. The bookstore had directed me to a temporary sales stall run out of a big storage room, which required me to know the book's exact title and call number. I tried looking it up on my phone, but for some reason searching gmail crashes it, and thus ensued entirely too much time and effort expended on trying to locate a free computer. Unsurprisingly, the library and other public access terminals were all full to bursting, but in a flash I remembered that two of my academic classes were held in an out-of-the-way building full of nothing but computer labs.

I headed there posthaste, swiped my student card to get through the door, and headed for the first classroom I saw. The hallway was empty but for a lone middle-aged white guy standing near the door, snacking – a good sign, as it boded well for the interior. I peeked through the window on the door. Sure enough, there were only a couple of people inside, and I moved to enter.

“Well, hello to you too.”

The white guy. I'd barely even registered him.


Not the most elegant possible opener, I admit. But the tone of his voice had put my guard up. I'm sorry, should I remember you from somewhere?

His voice held the tone of someone explaining some excruciatingly obvious truth, his sentences rolled off each other without pause.

“Well it seems natural that when you see another foreigner you'd at least acknowledge them, I don't know, maybe you think that's weird, but to me it's just common sense.”

Weird isn't the word for it. More like stupid.

I know there are two different schools of thought on it, and the first one holds that if you meet someone with whom you share the clear camaraderie of being in a foreign country, it's just plain good manners to share a private, verbal high five. There is also, I think, a quite “we gotta stick together!” mentality, because Abroad can be a lonely place, no doubt about that. Besides which, there can be no doubt that we have some shared experiences – our reactions to the culture/food/porn, our struggles toward the perpetually receding horizon that is fluency in the language, our treatment by Japanese, etc. We don't automatically have to be besties, but it at least merits a nod, or a wave, or an interpretive dance.

Personally, I am of the opinion that there is absolutely no need for this, mainly because that is the only thing we have in common. We're both visible minorities, sure, but there's nothing to say that we share a country or even a language. We almost certainly have very different interests. We obviously frequent different circles, because otherwise we'd know each other.

90% of the time I'm not interested in your friendship, or your conversation, or much of anything else you have to offer, so why not go our separate ways? Look here, this is not me being a prick. This is me treating foreigners like anyone else I see in the street, on campus, or anywhere else. Whether or not I approach them is motivated by exactly the same factors: Do I know this person? Do I need them for something? Are they a hot girl?

In a way, I'm treating them exactly like the Japanese that surround us. Their merely being foreign is not enough reason to make any kind of distinction. They are part of the background, mere additions to the sound mosaic, human obstacles to sidestep when they stop dead in the middle of the fucking sidewalk because they don't know where the hell they are or what they are doing. If I don't have some specific reason to strike up a conversation or whatever I'm generally not going to just for the hell of it. To be frank, in the long run I think this is actually better for we non-natives. Our associates draw attention to our foreignness roughly 125,823,738 times per microsecond, so we really need no further reminder from each other. How can we ever expect to successfully integrate into Japanese society if we keep yanking each other out of it?

Actually, I lied a little bit just now. I am absolutely terrible for checking my phone when I see other foreigners. It's partly out of a desire to avoid boring conversations and partly because I want to make it clear that I'm not a daytripper. When I go sightseeing, I always know what time it is.

By the way, as far as I can tell people of the “say hi” persuasion can't stand we of the “What? Where? I didn't even notice” way of thinking. As far as I can tell, they believe us to be full of attitude, arrogant of our Japanese abilities, somehow thinking ourselves better than the petty riff-raff surrounding us. They're welcome to think that, I guess. Personally I don't really care what they think of me, which really is why I don't go out of my way to greet them in the first place, isn't it.

I imagined what his stupid American face must have thought of me, though. Probably that I was some arrogant young punk, believing myself better than he and his cohorts and far more involved in Japan than I really was, that a few chopstick compliments and easy conquests had gone to my head, that without the aid of him and people like him I would die alone and friendless in this exotically inscrutable hellhole. Wrong on all counts, fuckwit, and those are some pretty heavy judgments to be making on the basis of one conversation. Then I realised that I was doing exactly the same thing to him, and maybe he was a perfectly content and happy guy who was just having a rough day or was offended by my youthful haircut or something.

Really though, even if I had committed some unforgivable transgression, how fucking attention-deprived do you have to be to view this as a good use of time? Cause I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that this guy probably wasn't trying to let me in on the secrets of gaijin etiquette so much as file a grievance. I certainly hope he feels better about himself and his life now.

I wanted to say some of this, but I bit my tongue.


Not the best thing to lower his hackles, which is what I'd like to have done, because you never can tell just whose opinion of you is going to end up affecting your life. That secretary you were short with has the power to put your zoning application in one of two piles at her personal discretion; the guy you slap-fought at the bar three years ago ends up on your grand jury. But it's the best I could manage while feeling like I was being abruptly attacked for no reason, and also kind of not giving a shit. Unfortunately, now I'm probably just pissing him off.

“At least that's what all the guy I know think.”

I'm sure that's wonderful for them. Can I leave yet?

“Sure, I suppose that's an all right rule of thumb.”


“I'm going in now.”

I tried the door. Locked.

“It works better if you push it.”
“Ah. Thanks for the tip.” Asshole.

I bowed reflexively as I went in.


  1. I'll admit, I was like that a bit when I first got to Korea, but after I was situated, it faded faaaaaast. Yes indeed, we are both not local ethnicity. Great for us? I'm just buying groceries, dude, we don't need to stop and talk.

    A friend of mine described it like kindergarten. "You're wearing a red shirt? Me too! We're friends now."

    1. Lol! That's the perfect description.

      I consulted my Literature teacher, a lifer, and he suggests that maybe this guy is a holdover from a couple of decades ago, when foreigners were in such numbers that encountering another one really WAS a noteworthy and double take-inducing event.