Tag Archives: Foreigners

The problem with foreigners

She and I enter the elevator.
As always,
in Japan,
we move to the back
and slide like shoji*
into our respective spaces,
giving each other room
while saving the other
the embarrassment
of eye contact
in such a tiny space.
She then slides closer to the handrail
and places her hand over her bag.

I look around
but there is nobody else.
Just her and me
in our little pulley-boat.
I am the danger?
In my 40’s, a {mostly} sweet Canadian woman.
A Counselor.
A person who cares for others
for a living.

The metal doors open.
The woman explodes
out of the elevator.
Not very Japanese, I think.

An epiphany lands lightly.

The problem with foreigners
in Japan
is that there is no way
for the Japanese to know if
(and to what extent) we:
1. know the rules
2. understand them
3. are committed to following them.

This is not your garden-variety
about the foreigners.

In Barcelona,
locals would hush happy groups
of English speakers
even though the hushers themselves
were speaking much more loudly
in Catalan or Spanish.
They found us
(and our habit of speaking English in public)
To them,
we seemed like children.
Entirely too happy,
we were
seen as simple.
(And very poorly dressed.)
What I felt was disdain or contempt
at worst.


The bottom line is that we
(strangers, quite literally)
did not change the fabric
of daily life in Barcelona
for the Catalans.

The sweet life…
as embodied by tapas and cava
and the reverence for a long lunch
as well as the not so sweet…
bureaucracy and bad service,
these things
continue to thrive
in spite of
the arrivals and departures
of foreigners in Gaudi-landia.

In Japan,
I never feel contempt.
(The Japanese are much better
than Catalans
and Canadians
at keeping their thoughts
to themselves.)

What I feel
from the Japanese
is genuine concern
about the way they live their lives.
Japan didn’t get to be
the safest, most secure and courteous
nation in the world
by accident.

There is a code for behaviour for every occasion.
How to…
Enter and get off the metro. (Walk on the left, please.)
Greet people. (With deference. Bowing.)
Give money. (In an envelope. Always.)
Carry your umbrella when entering a restaurant. (Wrap it in plastic.)
Stand when waiting to use the ATM. (On the green foot prints)

At first,
I found these rules
A dirty, brown albatross around my neck.
(As an order-loving, type A Canadian,
I was actually surprised to feel this way.)

But the abundance of rules
brought out the rebel in me.
I channeled my inner James Dean.

Now it’s been ten months
(sometimes it takes months
or years to get the rhythm of a place)
and I am starting to get it.

They like Japan the way it is.
They don’t want it to change.
I get how they feel.

When DP lost his wallet
in a taxi,
it came back
with all the cash.
When I left my computer in a restaurant
my little silver machina was right there
30 minutes later
when I returned
wild-eyed and breathless.
The order and restraint
shown by of millions
of Tokyo train commuters
every day
is a miracle.
(The Pope
should show up
to see it.)

Most of us
love these things about Japan.
We appreciate
the Japanese way of life
and try to emulate
this behaviour
as best we can.
We also want Japan
to stay
and courteous.

But the Japanese are right.
Foreigners have different
We weren’t raised the same way.
We may not have been taught
to spot the dropped glove
and place it on the closest bench
where the owner of just one glove
will return and find the mate
waiting patiently.

Not very good at hiding our emotions.
So fixated on placing our own needs
before the collective.

We are unpredictable
in a country that depends
on predictability.

Please know that so many of us are trying.

*In traditional Japanese architecture, a shōji (障子) is a door, window or room divider consisting of translucent paper over a frame of wood which holds together a lattice of wood or bamboo.