The New Girl, Part 3 (Stranger in a Strange Land)

Santa Visits Japan…

Something happened in a store today that made me realize once again that there is a topic I have been wanting to write about for a while, but haven’t known where to begin. A theme central to my experience here in Japan, which is probably the single issue that would keep me from wanting to make this city my forever home. (Well, other than the glaringly obvious fact that I miss my family and friends so, SO much.)

And that topic is my public experiences as a foreigner here in Tokyo.

Today on the way home from Harajuku, we stopped by Tokyu, the massive department store connected to Shibuya station, where we love to meander the basement full of booths and counters that sell an endless variety of delicacies. But first, we were lured to the third floor, where there is a small but well-stocked stationery store*. I wanted to buy a replacement cartridge for one of my Frixion pens**, as quarter grades are due this coming week. After a minor detour into the Christmas card section (which has become half the card section now that Halloween is past) where we found some amazing stickers featuring tiny Santa Clauses enjoying various Japanese traditions, we headed to the pen aisles, where I began trying out the various thicknesses of pens on the provided pads of paper, deliberating aloud to Tomo as to which was the right size for my pen that was out of ink.

Suddenly, I heard a voice in English. “Those cartridges are very specific as to which pens they go to. It’s better to just bring your pen to the store, and have them find the right one for you.” I turned to see an older Japanese woman standing next to me.

“Oh shoot!” I said. “I was hoping that I could get away with just buying the cartridge now, so I wouldn’t have to go home and come all the way back to Shibuya.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Big companies sometimes order those cartridges to save money, only to discover that they don’t fit the pens that they’ve provided their employees.”

I thanked her for her advice, and turned back to the pen display, now trying to decide which pen I should buy, so that I could get started with my grading as soon as I got home this evening. Suddenly, the woman, who continued to stand there watching me, spoke again. “You know, people here don’t test pens like that. It’s best to have a clear idea which one you want, and pick it out, not to test a whole bunch of random pens.”

“Oh, don’t worry: they provide these pads here for testing them out,” I responded cheerfully, holding up the pad full of scribbles in different scripts and colors where I was trying out pens. “It’s not illegal,” she countered. “It’s just that people see that as very rude. You don’t want to be the wrong kind of gaijin.”***

I went silent for a moment. This conversation was going a direction I did not at all anticipate. My memory cast back to the many times I had tested pens at stationery stores here in Japan. My face flushed, and my hands went cold. Had I inadvertently disrespected the unspoken code of stationery stores, in which they provided pads for testing pens, but didn’t expect you to actually test them? Were people walking past me in silent judgement at this very moment, as they had been each time I was blissfully trying out pens, wondering why this rude gaijin was damaging perfectly good merchandise? “But,” I rejoined, in confusion, “This pad is full of pen tests from other people…”

“Trust me, when I was growing up in California, my grandparents owned a small business. They used to hate it when people did that kind of thing. When you are here in Japan, everything you do is taken as being a reflection of gaijin as a whole. And they pay more attention. Just like Black people in the U.S. will be stopped by a police officer for doing the exact same thing that a White person can do without any problem.”

Now I was really speechless. The way I am seen and treated in Japan is a far cry from the clear and present physical danger African Americans face from police officers in the U.S. At the same time, I heard what she was saying: the actions of a tall, high-nosed, curly-haired, uniquely-dressed foreigner like myself are seen differently than those of Japanese people; are held to a different standard. In fact, my Japanese American and hafu (mixed) students at school regularly tell me that they are judged and punished for not knowing or following rules that it is assumed they “should” know, as a Japanese person. Rules that I know I get away with breaking, as an obvious outsider. In fact, this is regularly referred to as “the gaijin pass” (or gaijin smash, depending on how aggressive you are about it): the special ability of Western foreigners to ignore, bend, or break rules no self-respecting Japanese person would dream of transgressing. I stared at the woman in confusion, and growing mortification.

Meanwhile, Tomo flagged down a staff member, asking if it was ok to test the pens out on the provided pads. “Please do!” said the sales associate, smiling and gesturing towards a test pad, and continued on his way. Tomo turned to the woman, righteously indignant on my behalf, and said, first in Japanese: “You see? The employee says there’s no problem.” And continuing in English, “I was born and raised here in Japan, and I have never heard of this. I think I know the rules here.”

“Oh,” replied the woman, “Like I said, it’s not illegal. It’s just not how it’s done. In San Francisco, where I grew up, we used to hate young Japanese people…”

“That’s too bad.” Tomo cut her off, as I bowed to her respectfully, turned and walked away, horrified that this bizarre conversation was going on, in English, in public. “I love San Francisco.”

We paid for our pen and stickers in silence, then went down to the basement to get food, though neither of us was hungry anymore. What had just happened? Was this woman, a fellow U.S. American who was trying to be helpful, giving me advice based on her insider knowledge as a person of Japanese descent, merely voicing what everyone around me here was thinking? All the times people have given me dirty looks — as I walked down the street (for reasons unapparent to me), or took a second too long to get off the bus, or otherwise walked across some invisible line that branded me, in their eyes, as an inconsiderate and ignorant foreigner — came rushing back to me. Suddenly, I wanted desperately to go home to our cozy apartment.

The thing is, people in Tokyo are tired of tourists. Tired of crowds, stressed with their jobs, exhausted by dealing with too many people in too few square miles. This is what I tell myself, when yet another person huffs meaningfully when I make a mistake. Cuts their eyes at me when I step the wrong direction by six inches. Mutters under their breath as I cross their path. Tells me that a restaurant is full when there are clearly still seats available. Opts to stand for half an hour rather than sit beside me on the bus or train. The list goes on. This has not been my experience anywhere else in Japan. But here in Tokyo, it is a daily occurrence, an undercurrent to my existence here.

So. I can’t pretend that Japan is a fairyland, where everyone welcomes me with open arms, enticing me to stay forevermore. In fact, although so many people have been generous and kind to us here in Tokyo, I get the feeling that many Tokyoites would actually be quite happy if I turned right around and went home. While as a tourist I was blissfully ignorant of the quiet irritation all around me, it has become more and more obvious to me as time goes on, and I become more adept at reading the body language of those around me, which is subtler than American body language, but says volumes once you learn to decipher it.

I try to be philosophical about it. I have no doubt that my first experience with being a big, awkward, confused gaijin that stuck out like a sore thumb in small-town Japan, when I was 15 years old, shaped who I am as a person today. I know that it strengthened my dedication, born of earlier childhood experiences, to those who, like me, found themselves strangers in strange lands. I know, KNOW, that being the new girl is character-building…my Third Culture kid students and 8-elementary-schools self all agree on that point. At the same time, I know that this discrimination will not kill me. I think about Sikh civil rights activist and lawyer Valerie Kaur, whose family has lived on the U.S. West Coast for over a century (longer, incidentally, than mine has), and yet still faces being seen as outsiders. I think of her powerful prayer for our country, a call to what she calls revolutionary love, in which she says,

“And in America today, as we enter an era of enormous rage, as white nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high…black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls seen as someone else’s property. And when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters, then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.

I am not in danger of most, or maybe any, of these consequences of my otherness.

So I try to be thankful for this low-stakes lesson in being Other. I try to hold it close to me, let it sink in, lest I forget it when it next comes time for me to be an ally. To speak out when someone else is being marginalized, excluded, or judged based upon standards that do not make sense to them.

In short, I try to be the wise woman I am working on becoming, four decades into this human experience. At the same time that I sometimes long for my mommy. My brothers and sisters. My other-side-of-the-ocean home.

Edit: After writing this post, I came across several recent articles on this topic, which is apparently beginning to be talked about here in Japan, now that they are about to host one of the world’s most important events (the Olympics), with visitors coming from all over the globe. Here are a few that I found interesting:

“Japan racism survey reveals one in three foreigners experience discrimination” (The Guardian, March 2017).

“Tackling signs in Japan that you’re not welcome”  (Japan Times, June 2017).

“In 2017, Japan woke up to the issue of discrimination” (Japan Times, January 2018).

*Maybe someday I will write a post dedicated to stationery stores here. Other than bookstores, they may be my favorite stores on earth.

**OMG, Frixion pens: if you have not discovered them already, these are truly erasable pens and highlighters that come in every color, with beautiful, bright, flowing ink. My favorite teaching pens in the world, hands down. I can write colorful comments and corrections, editing myself as I go along, without whiteout that would obscure the student’s work, or make for a messy rewrite. So good.

***Gaijin is the informal, sometimes derogatory form of gaikokujin (外国人), or “foreign-country person.”



14 thoughts on “The New Girl, Part 3 (Stranger in a Strange Land)

  1. Lili!
    I have known that kind of people. They enter without permission in your time and pretend to be part of it. It doesn’t matter in which continent. Since a young girl in Eugene told to a friend and me to speak English instead of Spanish, and started explaining why we should speak only English in public, I just use to tell that kind of people something like “excuse me, I am not interested in your opinion and I don’t own you my time.” As of tokyoites… Tokyo is a big city, and people in big cities tends to be nasty with everyone. Why should in Japan be different?


    1. Yes, Noemi, so, so many examples of people being nasty and ignorant to foreigners in the U.S. (Now more than ever, sadly.) I was not as aware of folks in Tokyo’s feelings on that front until I had lived here for a while. Yes, I think people are nasty in some big cities…but not all. And there is a character to it here in Japan that I find unique: it is around the highly structured society that exists here, and what happens if a person steps out of that structure, even by an inch. I have lived in many large cities as a foreigner, and never had an experience like this one. Does that make sense? Thank you for reading!


  2. Great post Lilli. I’m so sorry you were blindsided by this obviously unhappy woman. I really like your friend Noemi’s tactic of how to deal with folks like this. She will say something like “excuse me, I am not interested in your opinion and I don’t owe you my time.” Wow. Basically she shuts them down. A polite shutdown would be good to have in one’s bag of tricks, to pull out as needed when you would otherwise be dumbfoundedly out of words. Good on Tomo for coming to the rescue and saving you from any more emotional trauma brought on by this woman’s commentary!

    I was just reading Tomo’s post to Pete, about how he wishes he could “be a person like this island”(about Okinawa). So poetic. Pete wonders if he writes haikus? Hope you both can continue to nurture yourselves and find lots more places and experiences like that. People in cities must shut down part of themselves to be able to handle living in human density. Parts that might be a little more wild and free and even “child-like”. Structure and rules are something you (and certainly I) have always had mixed feelings about. They may be a “necessary evil”, and efficient, but they can be just plain oppressive. And the people who are the enforcers. Well, a book could be written and almost certainly has, about the psychology, etc
    of enforcers. I have confidence that you will survive, and even thrive while you are in Japan, but I’m certainly not going to bemoan the fact that you miss us and plan to return home when your job is over!


    1. Thank you for reading! ❤ I liked Noemi's approach, too, and thought it very appropriate were such a situation to happen in the U.S. If I were to say such a thing in Japan, though, it would be shockingly rude by all that overheard it. To smile, nod, bow respectfully, and exit stage left ASAP is a much more culturally acceptable way to deal with unpleasant people.

      I agree with you about cities, and what it can do to the people who live in them. (Even Portland vs. Eugene is a huge difference in that regard, in terms of kindness and openness!) And people who police the boundaries (enforcers, as you say) of whatever is considered "socially acceptable" leave me asking a lot of questions, always. (Which is part of the reason I struggle with current U.S. politics and society, where people are starkly polarized, and if you do not tow the party line, you're labelled a traitor.)

      I still love it here, don't get me wrong. I am just organizing my posts thematically, and this is a theme I would be remiss to leave out. Japanese society is notoriously difficult to break into, especially here in Tokyo. However, I have met so many kind, warm, good-hearted people. We are already building up a circle of friends.

      I will tell Tomo what you said about his writing! He is such a good writer. He does not write haikus, no. Thank goodness for Tomo. Where would I be without him here??!!


    1. Me too. Never heard of them before.

      This morning, in the locker room after swimming at River Road Pool, I told a beautiful Japanese woman who swims there often that I had just been to Japan. She asked how long I was there. I told her 12 days, and that I was impressed with the efficiency of the country and and the polite niceness of everyone I met. She laughed. Told me that if I was there longer I would discover that people are not always nice.


      1. As a society, people are more polite and considerate than folks in the U.S., hands down. And it’s easy for tourists/guests to have the impression that everyone is kind and welcoming thanks to the deeply engrained host culture (how to treat guests). It wasn’t until I was living here that the attitudes behind the adage “出る釘は打たれる” or “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” came to light.

        Just to be clear, though: I still love it here, and have lovely and loving Japanese friends and family. There are just some unhappy people who have named themselves boss and judge who make the day-to-day unpleasant at times.


    1. Thank you so much, Nancy! And thank you for reading. It is therapeutic to write these posts, especially with my loved ones and culture so far away. It is nice to share the joys and pains of life here with you all. Doubles the joy, relieves the pain. ❤


  3. Hello again… I was talking about my US experience because it’s the country where I have spent more time as a foreigner (14 years). It’s actually here where I have learned how to politely shut people up. When I was in the UK I preferred to run (just in case…) and in my homeland Spain I am *not* polite at all…
    Peace and love!


  4. I can remember several instances in Japan where one of my nephews would discreetly tell us what was expected and how to properly show our respect… it was an eye opener to me each time! Without that feedback I would have stumbled along stepping on toes!


    1. Yes Katie, what is considered polite in one country or culture is definitely not universal. I was just reflecting on that today. For example, I have definitely become more self-deprecating/humble since I began living with Tomo, a personality trait that does not necessarily serve me well in Western professional contexts, where self promotion to the point of arrogance is the norm. I actually believe that that woman was trying to be helpful, it’s just that her particular idea of what was culturally appropriate in Japan nowadays seems to have been outdated. At least according to all of the Japanese people I have subsequently asked a question about pentesting and stationery stores. 🙂


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