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.