Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nod

Do you know the nod? I know the nod.

I don't know if you can experience the nod unless you are a visible minority somewhere, for it seems to be a requirement that you are in an environment where your fellow nodee and you share the same minority looks, thus making it OK to give the nod in the first place. I think I initially read about the nod a long while back on GaijinSmash, penned by a fantastic and entertaining writer. It made me laugh because one of those inevitable conversations you end up having with other foreigners here is what to do when you see another foreigner. I realize this does make us kind of paranoid and narcissistic but that's the effect Japan can have on some of us.

I once had an older white man come up to me on the street in residential Nakano and ask if I thought there was anything strange about his appearance because people had been staring and pointing the whole day. Without a hint of anything I told him, No, you look completely normal to me. This man had cut his hair off with what I can only imagine were blunt scissors, save for a chunky patch of hair off centre from his crown. It also crossed my mind that this could be me years from now.

The conversation usually follows the same course, with people taking up different camps and talking shit about those in the other camp. Everyone wants to believe they are not one of "those" foreigners, the ones who think they arrived with Commodore Perry and thus can lay sole claim to the island chain. But doesn't this conversation make us just as bad, for we are obviously trying to show that we are "better foreigners," whatever the hell that means. Back to the conversation. Basically you start with one participant's experience earlier in the week, where they found themselves on a quiet residential road with no one else in sight, except for the figure of another foreigner coming down the road towards them. When they are far enough away to inconspicuously scope the other out, they do so, but when they get closer they begin to panic over whether they should make eye contact and nod, look straight ahead as if struck with a sudden case of tunnel vision or look at their feet as they share a square of sidewalk.

According to gaijin legend, if you pretend to ignore the fact that you and the other gaijin are alone together in this cruel Japanese world, you are one of Commodore Perry's original crew members. You supposedly like some kind of Japanese art or culture and have made it your mission to become Japanese and shun those around you with similar physical features who dare to breathe the same island air.

If you make eye contact or god forbid, say hello or NOD, you're showing yourself to be too friendly, practically like a tourist (or an English teacher) (no offence). How did we make it to this point people? I am at the stage where if I make eye contact with someone in public and we smile, I get a high that lasts for DAYS!

Don't even get me started on coming across another foreigner when said foreigner is part of a couple with one of the natives. People feel this unbelievable urge to check each other out, perhaps smugly thinking that the single foreigner can't get a date (the fact that they are simply alone that day not crossing their mind) or scoffing that one member of the couple isn't good looking enough to be with the other. Why has this kind of competition permeated the foreign community here? Does a similar phenomenon occur in other expat communities? There are of course, shining examples of successful gaijin, who rise above it all, and may we all be like that some day.

This brings me back to the nod (or does it?). My most recent story occurred a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood. Returning home from the conbini late one night I crossed paths with a foreign guy. Thinking he had to be a resident of the area to be walking around at that hour, my internal debate began. Should I look ahead and pretend not to have seen the huge purple elephant, or make eye contact but with a completely blank face so as not to give too much away? Should I smile and risk him thinking of me as a lonely white girl who can't get any and thus has to resort to giving men the eye on the street at night?! I compromised as I often do, which generally leads me to look at the other foreigner until I get fairly close, and then slowly avert my eyes with just the hint of a smile on my lips while nodding my head in a downward direction, to show I come in peace, I accept their existence on the island but I am not looking to get lucky. Who's paranoid and narcissistic now?!

I've now come to my last and possibly final point. It's laughable to think about the petty competition between some hetero foreigners here, the one that makes me wonder if I am friendly to a foreign man he will immediately think of me as jealous and desperate. There are some jealous and desperate men and women in the gaijin community, but I would tend to think that for the most part, the men are content to date Japanese women, and the women are content to date Japanese men, and then of course there are the supposedly rarer double-foreign couples, but no one ever hears about them (for that would ruin the stereotype). It's a shame some foreigners here have fallen into the trap of mocking the opposite sex for, what is it? The men being first class losers who can't find women outside of Asia to date them, and the women for being unkempt uglies who are forced to date Japanese men (who are of course, not real men) because the foreign guys won't have them. There I said it.

What I'd really like to know however, is how much of this competition and bickering is real. We've all heard of something from someone, or read gaijin forums online, but how much of this is an experienced reality for gaijin in Japan? We've all fallen prey to nasty thoughts about others at one time or another, but whether we let that affect our experience in the long term is more interesting. Aside from my occasional paranoia I am pretty comfortable with myself these days. Individual and coupled foreigners will always check each other out with their side vision, but I think (hope) a lot of that is simply recognizing someone akin to yourself, in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb. How can you not look?

Most recently, my "what I love about J-girls" post was picked up by someone on JapanSoc, and the accompanying blurb said: "They are annoying to foreign girls cause they are sexy and thin but even the jealous white girls like some points." I know the writer didn't mean any harm but it does embody one aspect of the "gaijin competition" above. Reading that, I had to sit back and ask myself, do I come off as a jealous white girl?! Do other foreign women come off as jealous from their remarks about our Japanese sisters? Probably. I of course feel the irresistible need to respond to this (and possible put my foot in my mouth at the same time). I have had some body-image issues in Japan, but these were issues I brought with me in my carry-on luggage, not something I picked up once arriving here. Aspects of some Japanese women frustrate me, not because I find them sexy and thin, but because I have a hard time relating to them as my fellow women. Some of this actually stems from the fact that we seem to have a different idea of what constitutes "sexy" a lot of the time. I like myself (feminist hear me roar bla bla bla) most of the time, so I apologize if I come off as jealous of Japanese women, it's not jealousy, it's so much more complicated than that. I say let's turn down the tension and maybe consider implementing an annual "nod to a gaijin" day. The next time you share some concrete with another foreigner and are wondering how to react, rest assured they have spent time thinking about the same thing.

**When I speak of foreigners above, I am of course referring to those tending to hail from Europe, North America and the South Pacific. There are thousands of other foreigners in Japan, some of which are not visible minorities. But that is a whole other story.


Interlunar said...

Hi, totally enjoyed your blog! Read through quite a few posts... look forward to the new ones as well. Are you on Twitter by any chance? Best, IL.

Orchid64 said...

Coincidentally, I wrote an article for Tokyo Journal magazine on this very topic in the most recent issue, though I did not touch on the whole competitiveness thing.

The important point when dealing with many other foreigners is that most of the sniping, anger, jealousy, competition, etc. comes not from anything real but from insecurity and ego problems. One of the reasons that people who come to Japan get a reputation for being losers in their own culture is that they are so often competitive with other foreigners of a similar ethnicity. It's the competitiveness that is a dead giveaway to character flaws and weaknesses, not the fact that they happen to have significant others who are Japanese. The whole "charisma man" stereotype has verisimilitude because Western men are so much more overtly competitive and vocal in Japan than nearly any other identifiable group of individuals, and the fact that they can be so obvious about it is an indication of a lack of strong character and social skills. Mature, self-assured people do not feel the need to extol the virtues of themselves or their wives at the expense of others.

If people in their own culture displayed the same level of petty competition as is often displayed here (and it is very real, though tends to be hidden in face-to-face relationships), they'd have few friends and find social acceptance difficult in their home cultures.

Corinne said...

haha, man that is a great description of the 'gaijin radar' we all seem to have. I still get sweaty palms when I come into close gaijin contact and there's nowhere else to look. Of course having a baby has helped a bit, I can just look at him to avoid awkward situations.

My husband always says to me "Go talk to them!!" if there's a foreigner nearby and I'm all like "Go talk to the fifty million people around us, they're Japanese like you!"
I'm ashamed to say I usually ignore just because i don't know what else to do.
I'm also guilty of sizing up mixed couples and rating their matchability, it's hard not to.

illahee said...

i'm actually pretty shy, and also have had negative experiences talking to random strangers (who just happen to be foreign). i tend to look away, and to be honest i don't really care how someone perceives me because of it!

RMilner said...

It's not a white thing or a black thing, it's a people thing.

When my wife was living in Europe she had the same gaijin nod dilemma whenever she met any other Japanese people.

She basically hated to meet Japanese people on the street.

lasamurai said...

I found your article fascinating. I've been reading your blog for a couple weeks know and I just wanted to say I enjoy your posts.

Danielle said...

Re: the Nod: You are right, you can't not look, you notice each other but you also can't not smile - it's rude, simple as that. At home in Australia, I will smile and nod to anyone who meets my eye while walking down the street and so I do the same when a fellow gaijin does so, here - it's only polite. However, there is no need to talk to that complete stranger nor even to give an apologetic smile because you are choosing not to speak to them. It doesn't take long to realize that simply being a foreigner in Japan is not enough in common to sustain any kind of friendship so there really is little point in becoming a gaijin-seeking missile on the public street.
Frankly the sheer number of foreigners (asian and non-asian) in Tokyo (in comparison to Nagoya, where I live) makes me wonder that anyone living there continues to notice foreigners enough for The Nod to be an issue!

As to the "gaijin competition" issue: You only need to watch the "fresh meat" foreigners upon arrival as the old-hand gaijin scoop them up and impart their knowledge about "how to live in Japan as a foreigner". It's usually meant well, as a help, but there is definitely a kind of Facebook-like desire to 'friend' i.e., become the 'local expert' for as many new gaijin as possible. In my short time here, I've seen people's time in Japan made or broken depending on who managed to become their well-meaning 'expert'.

As for the 'jealousy' stuff - treat that with the compassion it deserves - it's a defensive response. Unfortunately there are a lot of foreigners here in Japan who's default state is defensive because they know their reasons for being here are dubious. I had wanted to come to Japan all my life because of a fascination with it's culture and I assumed that that was the reason all people would come here but the truth is that the majority (not all) of foreign men that I have met here (that were not ITCs with no choice) came here for one, overarching reason: to date Japanese women. More precisely, to date an IMAGE they had of Japanese women. Let's face it, picking up your whole life to chase a porn fantasy is something it's fair enough to be VERY defensive about.

And before the 'she's just jealous of the sexy, Japanese women' cries begin - I arrived in Japan with (and am leaving with lol) my Aussie husband so I've been watching, unbiased, without preconceived notions, from the sidelines. The truth has been appalling and, frankly, embarrassing. Luckily, my experience of Japanese women has been that under their perfectly applied, baby-doll make-up they are mostly strong, determined young women, perfectly capable of handling their foreign boyfriends - for better or worse!

But I'm clearly just racist against caucasians, right? LOL

Kyle M. said...

I've experienced The Nod as a Japanese American living in the U.S. There are so few of us hanging around, it's unusual to actually meet one out in public. And we can always spot each other -- at least the California ones.

Ironically when I'm in Japan I don't experience this at all because all the other gaijin screen me out as Japanese and don't notice me. The Japanese, on the other hand, peg me as gaijin as quick as I can peg a Japanese American. And so it goes.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Interlunar: Thanks for coming by! I'm not on Twitter and am sadly behind in that respect. Truth is, I can barely find time to update on here these days and I'm not sure how successful I would be with a Twitter venture!

Orchid64: I'd be very interested to read your article and will see if I can find a copy of the recent issue! Also, just to clarify, I don't mean to say that foreigners with Japanese partners is a giveaway to character flaws, simply the way this pairing off is talked of and sometimes flaunted between foreigners interests me.

Corinne: Your baby comment made me laugh, what a great idea! For the time being I will have to make do with rumaging in my purse! I size people up all the time - I love people watching and mixed couples hold a certain fascination for me, although I do the same for Japanese couples too...I don't know what I'd do without my snark and judgmental side!

illahee: I'm shy in that way too, I generally wouldn't ever go up to someone on the street and start talking to them, but I kind of secretly admire people who can :)

RMilner: Interesting! Did your wife have an aversion to it because she didn't know what to do? Or she didn't want to feel obligated to interact with them simply on the basis of sharing a nationality?

lasamurai: Thanks! :) Do you have a blog? I will check it out

Danielle: While there are a lot of foreigners in Tokyo I am often the only (visible) one in sight on the train and on the street. Obviously this doesn't apply to Roppongi, Hiro or Juban but they only make up small pockets of the city. Interesting point about grabbing people fresh off the boat, I have not noticed that before, although I have never been in a position to meet lots of new foreigners on a regular basis. When you say the truth has been appalling, are you referring to the dating scene here? I'm curious to know what you think. I dated around when I was on exchange here but for the most part have been tied up.

Kyle M.: Thanks for commenting. You do occupy that spot here where both the Japanese and foreigners think you belong to the "other side". It's so interesting to watch how people peg each other based on first impressions, both here and back home. Whenever I am out with non-Japanese Asian friends here, servers automatically defer to them, even when my Japanese is better. How do you spot Japanese Americans here? If I can't hear anything, body language and clothing tends to be a giveaway for me both for Asian Americans and other Asians in Japan.

Danielle said...

What has been appalling? Not so much the dating scene (which I have only watched from the sidelines, as I said) as the attitude of many of the Westerners I've met here, particularly the male.

Obviously there is the blatant sexism and disrespect for women in both speech and action that simply would not be tolerated back home, and we're by no means ahead of the curve in Australia!

The thing that has embarrassed me most has been that many Japanese seem to have the opinion that Caucasians have no etiquette or sense of honour. For example, the overwhelming piece of advice that I was given by Japanese when I first arrived was that the Japanese take promises very seriously so I should try to do so when I'm here, too. I was appalled. Why would they assume I didn't take promises. or even just my word seriously, too?

At first, I worried that it was because they felt their own culture to be superior, but it's not. While taking advantage of the fact that foreigners aren't expected to stick to every convention the Japanese are, it seems many also seem to take this as permission not to stick to their own culture's rules of courtesy and become rude, unreliable and untrustworthy in work and private life. I know that some Japanese bosses treat their people badly, as do some Japanese women, but I've heard stories told with self-righteous gusto about quitting a job or dumping a girlfriend for reasons that only a spoiled teenager could think were legitimate.
Now, whenever I meet with what appears to be anti-foreigner-ism I now assume that it comes from the previous experiences with foreigners, not racism and I do my best to make it clear that we're not all like that.

David said...

The longer I stay in Japan the more I want to make friends with other foreigners. I want to know how they are dealing with life in Japan. I never avoid eye contact when I see another foreigner even though I know some are avoiding me like the plague. I guess I am influenced by my partner, a Brazilian-Japanese. You should see all the warmth and hugging and kissing that ensues when Brazilians meet each other. I am so glad I am exposed to that warmth....I hate hangups and complexes and paranoia and over-analyzing every damn situation. Everyone should be Brazilian for a while.

Katrina said...

I'm a bit late to comment on this post, but there are so many interesting points raised here! As a white woman with a black boyfriend, we completely ruin the stereotype and confuse gaijin and Japanese alike; it has given us many occasions to laugh out loud! When we are together, most white gaijin will pretend not to see either of us, and male black gaijin will usually give my boyfriend the nod, while black females we come across less, but they often choose to ignore us also. When I am alone or with my boyfriend, I do try to acknowledge the existence of another foreigner somehow, (although I have to admit I am judgemental and avoid contact with really strange looking people as I wouldn't talk to them wherever they were in the world!) but I am more often than not completely rejected! Last week I received a genuine smile from a white foreigner and I experienced that 'high' you spoke about, lol!!
Anyway, that's just my P.O.V. and it highlights that there are many dimensions to this phenomenon that is gaijin wars!

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Danielle: Thanks for writing further. Your comment about breaking promises made me smile, as I had been told by Japanese professors at university that Japanese people always break promises, or rather, we interpret their "yes" as a "yes" when it's really a "no", leading to these "broken promises". I agree that being in the Japan bubble it is very easy to act immune from the law and societal constraints; the latter can be freeing for some and as you pointed out, cringe-worthy in others. I do hope most people with the pre-conceived ideas about foreigners are basing it on past experience, because I have sometimes heard foreigners berated by Japanese for not having etiquette or a sense of honour, which in some of the contexts, was drawn merely from the fact that the speakers felt that the Japanese version of both was in fact, the only correct way to do things.

David: Yes, I miss the warmth of certain cultures/people! I've met a few Brazilians here and they have all been extremely genuine. It wouldn't hurt for Japanese people to hug others once in a while.

Katrina: Thanks for commenting, I have also spent a short time here as half of a white/black couple and it's been interesting to read your experiences. Do you experience a similar degree of "confusion" from others when in your home country or is it mostly in Japan?