The “Gaijin Nod”

A friend from Venezuela, when we were in Prague, had a habit of making a small nod with his head toward fellow South Americans. An African-American friend from Detroit had the same habit in Germany.

“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.

Self-Hating Gaijin
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.

A Theory
People come to Japan for one of two reasons:

  1. The mix of philosophy, history, beauty, silence and humility.
  2. 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)?

Gaijin Complex
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.

Fellow ex-pat and musician/blogger/genius W. David Marx summed it up perfectly back in 2005:

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.

Oh, Expatriates
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.

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10 Responses to The “Gaijin Nod”

  1. Blue Shoe says:

    I think it is a common phenomenon, as you noted. At least you’re self-aware, though.

    I find myself feeling like that sometimes…I don’t want to be all buddy-buddy with someone jut because they’re foreign. I wouldn’t nod to a stranger on the street back home, so why should I acknowledge random white dudes here? But I also try not to discount people just for being foreign. I think there’s an important distinction. If I meet someone at a party or gathering of friends, I’m paying more attention to how well our personalities mesh, not whether they’re black or white or Japanese.

    So yeah, I think it’s kind of a natural feeling, but one that we should also fight.

  2. Claire says:

    Favorite post!

    Did you mean to have another footnote from “white*!”?

  3. owwls says:

    Yes! Just that “White” has become a race-neutral phrase for “English-speaking” and that seems weird.

  4. keiko says:

    Hi, new reader here. I thought you might be interested to know that I’ve noticed over the years, this exact phenomenon among Japanese expats in the US. This reluctance to acknowledge each other because.. not sure why. Maybe because they’re kind of American now. This doesn’t seem to apply to young Japanese who come here to “study” for a few years.
    anyway, I’m really enjoying your blog and really hope that the news is better soon for all in Japan.

  5. Pingback: How to Bow in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  6. Pingback: Expats, gaijins - —

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  8. Ar Bee says:

    I’ve just started reading this blog. I find the whole ‘Gaijin Nod’ or, rather, the ‘Gaijin non-Nod’ phenomenon incredibly annoying. So much so that when I meet new people here I invariably end up promising them that I won’t ignore them next time we run into each other.
    I can understand wanting to distance oneself from all the yahoos who get around here but I also find the culture of self-imposed-nipponification creepy and weird as well. I live in Japan. I like Japan. But that does not entail that I am allowed to scowl at every white person I meet, and assume that they are some nincompoop who just ‘doesn’t understand’. I find it patronizing and refuse to allow myself the indulgence.
    At home, I don’t smile at every single white person who walks across my path. But at home, I also don’t scowl at every white person whose eyes I make contact with. I don’t glaze over, stare off in to the distance and pretend I haven’t seen someone when I evidently have. And my default assumption when I make eye contact with a white person in my home country isn’t that they must be some kind of idiot. For me, when I walk around here and smile at people, it is for the simple reason that it just seems polite. And I shall continue to do so. On the very short list of things I really don’t like about Japan are scowly foreigners.
    (Sorry Owls McGee, this comment isn’t an attack on you. This blog is awesome. But this culture of foreigners’ rage really gets under my skin.)

  9. niafreu says:

    I know this post is old but it’s actually gold!
    I’m a french guy living in Quebec, Canada and I actually did the same at first. I didn’t want to speak to french people (from France) because I didn’t want to be part of a weird expat bubble. I often found myself bored at expat parties because basically I wasn’t in Quebec to feel like I exported my own country everywhere I went.
    Now that I am way more “integrated”, that I have a much better understanding of the country I’m in and the people living here, I can indulge myself into getting to know french people without feeling that I’m judged. Because I judged the french expat bubble, criticizing the price of wine, cheese and lack of common courtesy, etc etc.
    This is my new country and I wish to show to people living here that I understand them and I’m not another whining french guy.
    I Imagine that it would be even worse in Japan as perhaps the social rules seem to be more secretive..
    Really a great article about what our expat mind can be! (and I feel even weird by saying that as I feel it almost arrogant to say that I’m part of a group… yada yada)

  10. Donar says:

    Although I have never been to Japan, I think I understand you.

    That said, I identify more with cultural and linguistic identity than racial identity. People move around. It’s been like that since, well, pretty much forever. Even in the era of city states in Mesopotamia, I’m sure that people went to other places and began to identify with their new homes.

    Not to say that people don’t bring culture with them. My own family is like that. Although some my ancestors went to North America, they still live in a bit of a bubble. While identifying as Canadians, they behave and talk like Germans to some degree. None of that has caused anyone harm or prevented personal progress in any way.

    On top of all that, people just need to relax. So what is someone identifies with a particular group? So long as this isn’t causing damage to anyone, there shouldn’t be any problem. If anything it seems to help people with their personal development.


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