“It’s the brother nod,” he explained. “It shows that, you know. I’m a brother. He’s a brother. I just like to say, hey. I got your back.”
Years later, in Japan, I find myself conflicted over “The Gaijin Nod.” The small moment of eye contact and tilt of the head that says, “Hey. I, too, am not from here. And I have your back.”
The sentiment seems absurd in Japan, where crime is low and intolerance of foreigners (white, western foreigners) seems confined to random acts of appreciation for an adequate use of chopsticks.
But it’s foreign to me, as a white dude, to identify with race. It triggers a defensive mechanism – the knee-jerk reaction to avoid the nod. Saying “Hey, you’re white*! Let’s be friends!” runs against all the sensitivity training I’ve ever had. In any other context we’d probably hate each other.
My desire to high-five every foreigner on a train is matched by my revulsion to the idea, and so I have to confront a stupid psychological condition: My nagging delusion that other people just don’t “get” Japan the same way I “get” Japan.
This, I acknowledge, is the douchiest trait I’ve ever had. But it swells up when I see loud groups of whiteys crowd into a train shouting, eating and cutting in line. The volume level of nearby foreigners directly correlates with my self-righteousness. I get all white-knight, and my princess is Japan. I don’t want to be reduced to the stereotypes those guys are producing.
So I sell out my Western-ness, as it were, and bow politely, let anyone older than me have dibs on seats, give the conbini cashier an “arigato gozaimasu” instead of a mere “arigato.”
Call me Uncle Tom-san.
People come to Japan for one of two reasons:
- The mix of philosophy, history, beauty, silence and humility.
- The hot women and totally crazy anime, porn and nightclubs.
Is there any wonder that these two groups would find themselves in a civil war, with quiet nerdy kids with OCD on one side and guys who get off the plane screaming “Kabuki-cho, bro!” (and then, inevitably, end up speaking better Japanese because their rapidly acquired Japanese girlfriends teach them)?
Of course, the OCD, high-functioning autistic expats aren’t purely awesome, either. It’s not like I’m enlightened because I’d rather read a textbook on Shinto than go to a Soapland. We’re just quieter and get ulcers instead of angry. But we also lean toward obnoxious cultural, historical and linguistic pedanticism.
All foreigners with interest in Japan hate all the other foreigners with interest in Japan. The Colonialists all like their ex-pat buddies and pubs, but the Japanese-speaking foreigner contingent is in constant battle with themselves, vying to prove linguistic abilities, obscure knowledge, and depth of societal penetration. I call this the “gaijin complex,” and I’m only finally finding my way out of it now after a long period of affliction and convalescence.
What’s funny is when I see guys who are at meetings for our jobs – the same job I have – who refuse to talk or make eye contact with other foreigners. When they do, it’s shifty-eye city. “Look, sorry, I’m just way more integrated than you, and it’s kind of embarrassing.”
I have not reached this epic level of Gainjintensity because I’m too dumb to use the language. As a result, I can’t whip out my Japanese Language Proficiency Test score in casual conversation, or name-drop 16th-Century Feudal Warlords (OK, actually I can) or proper Shinto etiquette for shrines (OK, I can do that too).
OK, I do that stuff. A lot. That’s kind of my point. I’m kind of a douchebag.
In summary, being a foreigner in a homogeneous country requires some girding. The isolation and the need to express yourself through reductive language amplifies the weirdest parts of your personality. You ramp up the fundamentals. You’re treated as a celebrity so your personal eccentricities become overpowering. Suddenly, Theodore from Dallas becomes Texas Ted with a lone-star state belt buckle, cowboy hat and tasselled shirt swinging a lasso around on the way to the ramen stand.
When the most common traits of expats are either quiet nerds fostering passive-aggressive rage, high-stress business types fostering toxic arteries, or high-energy party animals fostering nothing at all, you are bound to create some seriously weird people.
By and large, the expat community is also filled with plenty of cool people with a taste for adventure and a bizarre sense of humor, with all the awesome side-effects that spill out of that.
But like any isolated culture, it can create a feedback loop that does weird things to your personality. Some of those things are alright, some aren’t. But check in, every once in a while, to make sure you’re OK with what it’s doing.
Click “more” for footnotes.
A note on the header image:
This image is from Okinawa Soba, a Flickr user. The caption is grand, and I hope they won’t mind my repeating it:
This fine-looking chap from England stopped into T. ENAMI’S relatively new studio on Benten Street back in 1895, and had this “native” portrait of himself taken as a memento of the trip.
No doubt he used this fine albumen print to impress everyone back home that he lived like the locals while chasing Geisha girls all night, and even knew a thing or two about how to hold a dainty paper parasol — just in case he was caught in a heavy downpour.
As any IMMORTAL GEISHA will tell you, his kitsuke is above reproach, and must have fooled even the locals into thinking he was a descendant of Samurai, and a member of the new Japanese Parliament.
When asked by the Police if he had any connection to these two guys, he was highly offended that anyone might think he had anything to do with a couple of hillbilly barbarians from the uncivilized former colonies known as America.