Andy, the other foreign teacher at my school, is American. He’s not ashamed to share his many opinions. Loudly. He’s 6 feet tall, has a shock of curly, red hair and a beard to match.
When he walks through the streets of Tokyo, teenage girls wave, small children gawk and other Caucasians give him a nod.
When I walk down the streets of Tokyo, the locals carry on with their business, tourists ask me for directions and Caucasians try to hand me flyers.
“Would you like to learn English?” a man outside a train station once asked me in a cheery American accent.
“No, thank you.” I replied without thinking.
“Wow, very good!” he said in a way that would have been totally encouraging if I was learning English as a foreign language but because I wasn’t, came off a little patronising.
“But if you’d like,” he continued on, “I can help you fix your pronunciation.”
He definitely wasn’t the first or last person to mistake me as a local.
“All Asians look the same,” I grew up hearing.
That wasn’t true when I visited Seoul with a Japanese friend last month. Many shop owners and street vendors could speak Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and English. Without missing a beat or needing any verbal cues, they would skip from speaking Japanese for my friend to either Mandarin or English for me to Korean for the person behind me.
Some of them could even pick out both my language and nationality, asking in English, “are you Chinese?”
From Tokyo to Osaka, however, I’m considered Japanese until I open my mouth to speak. Not that I’m complaining.
Japan is an inherently monocultural society that’s curious with anything and everything foreign. The tone and dynamics of conversations change the moment any local realises you’re a foreigner. Not out of condescension but rather out of consideration. But because I’m often greeted as a local, I’ve had glimpses of how they would interact with a normal local stranger.
Everything that Japanese people are famous for – attention to detail, politeness, consideration for others, an incredible sense of integrity – for the large majority, is not a charade. It’s not even something they’re really conscious about. It’s just part of their culture.
Went somewhere new? Bring back a gift and share the experience.
Noticed something out of place that wouldn’t make a difference in the long run? Fix it anyway and then make it better.
Found something with even the slightest value on the street? Leave it somewhere visible and out of the way so whoever lost it can find it easier and it won’t inconvenience the foot traffic.
I once left my keep cup at my local Lawson (a convenience store). I didn’t run into the employee who served me until a few months later but as soon as he saw me, he ran behind the counter and handed me my cup back. I’m pretty sure he washed it too.
I get to see all this up close and personal. I get to see how it feels to have this level of integrity and quality of work expected of me.
In fact, there are times when they completely ignore all signs that I’m not a native.
Andy’s been in Japan for a few years now and he’s a quick language learner. So when we’re speaking with anyone in Japanese, he usually understands a full moment before I do.
Naturally, however, most people just see an Asian with a Caucasian and will doggedly direct their speech to me instead.
“いらしゃいませ！何かお探しですか？(irashaimase! nanika osagashi desuka: welcome! Are you looking for anything?)” they’ll ask in shops.
“Ummm…” I’ll pause momentarily to digest the sentence internally: welcome …something …お探し…question. お探し?
Meanwhile, Andy’s already saying, “はい、すみいません。これがありますか？(hai, sumimasen. kore ga arimasuka: yes, excuse me, do you have this?)”
By the end of him saying this, I’ll have realised: oh! お探し: to search/look for.
I’ll nod to agree with Andy’s response. Then after a moment of silence, we’ll realise that the sales clerk is still looking at me having completely ignored Andy.
“これがありますか？” I’ll repeat. And just like that, they’ll spring into action.
I could literally limit my speech to just repeating Andy’s, but you’d be surprised by how many people insist on responding only to me.
Normally, however, they pick up the signs: blank smile. Delayed reaction. Absent brain on the hunt for vocabulary. Wrong particles. Strange intonation. The person next to me is speaking on my behalf.
The perks are pretty good. Rules are relaxed for your sake, people are genuinely excited to have the smallest conversations with you and strangers will drop everything to help you out. With a big smile and my best effort to speak some kind of Japanese, it’s not uncommon for people to give me small freebies either.
I’ve mentioned before that the staff at my local Starbucks know me by name and order but it doesn’t stop there. The owner of our favourite Indian curry house refuses to take my order if I say it in English in an effort to make me practice my Japanese. The waitresses at our morning study spot, the local Denny’s, barely wait for us to take our seats before asking us if we’ll have our usual drinks.
People who will stop what they’re doing to give a wave include shop owners, supermarket staff, security guards… even some people from the local gym.
I don’t even go to the gym. Andy does. They’ve just seen us talking before.
Although we find ourselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, Andy and I are lucky enough to actually be grateful for how we are perceived.
You see, Andy’s your classic extrovert; he thrives on attention. It’s great for me because I’m the opposite; social interactions are enjoyable but draining. It’s comforting to know that there’s someone who wants the limelight when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
Having an indiscernible face gives me a leg up; I have the choice of when I want to be a foreigner and have all the attention it comes with.
Japanese people really are incredible citizens though. A big reason why I wanted to come to Japan specifically was to learn these traits and values. To be mistaken for them, even for a moment, is a huge compliment.