First of all, what's a "gaijin"? Well, if you have no idea, I'll let you in on the translation. It means "foreigner". To the Japanese, everyone who isn't Japanese is a foreigner. Actually, it's more like, anyone who doesn't LOOK Japanese is a foreigner. Having a few Asian friends, I can honestly say that they're mistaken for Japanese people all the time. Which can be a good, and a bad thing. It means that sometimes Japanese people will attempt to speak to them in fluent Japanese, and other times they're completely ignored as being one of the many. One of the most challenging aspects (and interesting) about living in Japan, is the fact that as a "gaijin" you constantly stand out. People will stare. It happens, a lot. They seem to have no problem just staring straight at you like you're a zoo animal. It can be unsettling, and at times annoying, and I suppose on the rare occasion it makes you feel special (in that weird sort of uncomfortable way). As a white female with curly hair, I find that most of the time I do my best to ignore the stares. If I was in my own city in Canada, I would guess that they just think I'm attractive. That's the confusing part in Japan, you lose all sense of whether you're attractive or not. People just stare. The irony is that Japanese people are commonly plagued with the fear of being stared at, yet they have no problem looking right at you with their jaw dropped. Yes, I am clearly white. Thank you for noticing.
So what happens when you so clearly stand out from the crowd? Many different things can happen (besides the staring). Sometimes people will be rude because of their ridiculous xenophobia (fear of foreigners basically). Rudeness is almost entirely unheard of in Japan. Japanese people are typically the most polite, most considerate (and most fashionably dressed) people there are. Honestly. I didn't realize that so many people could be so nice without anything to gain in return. It's just a part of their culture. That's why it's always shocking when someone is actually rude. It's like a cruel reminder that they're still human. Maybe they're not that much different than us after all. Canada is known for being a "nice" country. Canadians are definitely nice, but not at all in the same way. See, a Canadian will pretty much tolerate anything that's drastically different from what they know, because hey, that's their right to be different and we have so many foreigners that we're used to many, many cultures. The important thing to keep in mind is that not all Canadians are nice. In Japan, people are so unbelievably courteous that they would bend over backwards to help you, even if they're not used to anything different.
It is Japanese culture to conform to the group as much as possible. There are some youth that enjoy participating in some sort of counter culture where they dye their hair funky colours, but they still belong to a group. Belonging to a group is of the utmost importance, and exclusion is a death sentence. So when they see someone who's VERY different, it can be unsettling for them. Sometimes they're curious, but most of the time they try to ignore that anything is different at all. As though it's not even happening. Let's just say that Japanese people are the masters of passive aggressive behaviour. Now, I'm not putting them down in any sense. I appreciate how welcoming they are (generally speaking), and I know I've enjoyed the help and admiration of quite a few people. They just deal with people who are different in a very unique way.
Gaijin or not, expect to receive the best customer service you've ever received in your life. I'm not kidding. I don't think any country in the world can trump Japanese customer service. Example, if you walk into ANY store the first thing the clerk(s) will do is welcome you warmly and enthusiastically into the store with an "irasshaimase". Then when you're ready to pay and get to the counter, they'll often say "douzo" which is a type of "please" that denotes an offering, in this situation they're letting you know that you can come up to the counter with your items. Then they'll quickly and carefully scan all your items, and arrange them very precisely for you in a bag or basket. When you hand over your money, they'll say, "oazukari shimasu" which basically means "I will treat this as if it were my own". They make sure to count your money in front of you, and then count your return change so you can see exactly how much money was processed both ways. After all is said and done, they thank you with an "arigatou goziamasu" and smile. Holy crap, they really care. You almost never run into someone who isn't trying their damnedest to make sure you feel like the most important customer on the planet. On top of that, NO ONE expects a tip AND they'll force your money back if you try to leave a tip. They are expected to provide exceptional customer service to everyone for their regular wages. It's crazy.
A perfect example of exceptional customer service is when I visited an electronics store for a phone charger. I was carrying a heavy box and as soon as I entered the store, one of the staff rushed to my side and took the heavy box from me. He then proceeded to help me pick out the exact charger I wanted. I happened to pick the cheapest one, but it didn't matter. When we walked up to the counter, and no one was at that particular till, someone literally ran from stocking the shelves to turn on the cash register for me. He then processed my 450￥ item (about $5) and thanked me profusely for my patronage. Holy crap. Never in my entire life have I ever received such an exemplary level of customer service, particularly for an item worth $5. They make you feel like royalty every time. I don't think I can come back to Canada (or any other country) without thinking everyone is very rude and expects too much money for nothing.
Anyway, as I was saying. Being a gaijin gets you a lot of attention. Sometimes people will attempt to speak English with you, even if it's a few words. Other times it will garnish you some odd behaviour. For example, I've had some women comment on my skin. One day when I was visiting a very traditional and authentic ramen shop for the first time with some friends, the woman who managed, cooked and ran the entire shop just had to say something to me. She came up to me outside after our meal and said (in Japanese), "I couldn't stop staring at your face. Your skin is so beautiful". She then proceeded to stroke my cheek with her hand. I stared at her wide eyed, completely surprised! I blushed and thanked her for her compliment. I just couldn't believe what happened. Another notable instance was when I moved to my apartment and was having my utilities hooked up. The Japanese woman handling the hooking up asked me how old I was, I told her "25". She was shocked. She then continued to compliment me on my beautiful skin. Apparently, my skin is appealing. Generally, they can't guess white people's ages and always guess too high. I was certainly complimented.
If it's not my skin, it's my hair. Sometimes when I'm teaching the students, they will lose it over my hair. They will repeatedly say, "kuro kuro" when means "going round and round". I have curly hair and they find it so interesting. They often try to touch it, and they laugh when I shake it around. I'm sure it's not just children who find it fascinating, but it's children who have no boundaries. Speaking of no boundaries...I'm quite well endowed for a woman, and the children don't fail to notice. They might comment in Japanese, thinking I don't understand, or if they're young enough, they'll try to touch them. I've had a couple of little girls try and grab them, or pat them. I just remove their hands gently and move away, distracting them with the lesson or a game. Yes, thank you children. I do have breasts.
When it comes to adults, my curves can intimidate and bring a lot of attention. Sometimes I dress up and that's when I notice a whole new kind of stare. Sometimes it doesn't even matter if their girlfriend is right there. Sort of surprising really, I guess they just chalk up to, "I was just looking at the weird gaijin..."...and the fact women don't have a lot of say in Japan. Let's just say, I'm a feminist and I walk confidently. I hold my head high and speak knowing what I know, and not pretending otherwise. Women in Japan are like shrinking violets - they behave so passively most of the time, that it depresses me a little. I'm hoping my confidence will rub off a little.
Anyway, let me sum up the gaijin experience. There are stares. There are odd, and sometimes inappropriate comments crossing social boundaries, and there are people who are super curious about you. Then there are the people who have no problem yelling at you because you're a foreigner. All-in-all, Japan will make you feel like royalty, and an oddity. Which is saying something, because Japan is fucking odd.
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