Broad strokes

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“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The fox, “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I think Japan is taming me somewhat.

To them, before I came to be called プリちゃん (Purichan) or プリ子 (Puriko) or even プリス (Purisu), I was nothing more than a hundred thousand other foreigners with a hard-to-pronounce name. One of the thousands stalking around famous landmarks and little alleyways in search of a photo opportunity. One of the many miscommunications.

Then suddenly, one day, they started talking to me about other foreigners – even Australians and Chinese people – in front of and to me without that filter of politeness.

I will never completely shed my foreign status, no matter what my passport says or however fully I integrate into society. Yet apparently, neither am I considered wholly and newly foreign either. I’m in limbo. In the stages before I become someone who is more than just a Chinese-Australian, a foreigner. In the process of becoming tamed and therefore unique in all the world, beyond ethnicity or nationality.

“True or false,” I half yell over forty children whenever I start teaching a new class. It’s customary to do at least a short self introduction. “I am half Japanese. True this way, false that way.”

After a short countdown and a verbal drumroll, I reveal that no, that is false. I am not Japanese and I am not half. I am from… which country is this flag from? No, it’s not England, and oh it’s very close to New Zealand. Ding ding ding, that’s right, it’s Australia. I’m Australian.

I’ve found that from this point, the class reacts in one of two ways:

a) They accept it without question; or,
b) They fight it tooth and nail.

I personally think that option (b) is a better response because it gives them, and sometimes even their teachers, a chance to consider that ethnicity is not always congruous with cultural identity. But then that begs the question of how to begin explaining this to them in a way that makes sense in their world.

“Listen,” I say, refining the example that has worked the best so far. “Imagine you move to America and have a child there. They would have an American passport. They would not come to visit Japan very often. They would go to American schools and speak English with their friends and eat American food.

“That’s the same as me. I was born in Australia, schooled in Australia, think like Australians. I haven’t been to Hong Kong in sixteen years… that’s longer than you’ve been alive.”

Would I crave these things if I weren’t Australian?

Of course, I am still Chinese. Our family still speaks Chinese and I even still think in Chinese sometimes. I celebrate our cultural festivals and carry some of those habits. My heritage is present in my personality and values.

I leave all this for another day, however. Start with the broad strokes. Not just for them, but for me too. I’m still working it out for myself let alone outloud to impressionable kids.

Funnily enough, that’s the same way I approach explaining things to my friends and family back home.

“Everyone back home seems to think I’m the same as when I left Australia,” I told my pseudo-godparents when they came for a visit. “But I… it’s weird because I feel like I’ve changed. A lot.”

“Yeah, you have,” confirmed Pseudo-Godfather.

Having lived in Japan before, I imagined that they were going to be some of the only people who would just understand, regardless of eloquence or lack thereof.

“Yeah, 妹 (mui4: little sister),” agreed Pseudo-Godmother, “in the time that you’ve been here, you’ve experienced things and emotions more intensely. You know what I mean? Like happiness, loneliness -”

” – frustration and achievement,” I added.

She nodded. Pseudo-Godfather leapt back in. “Yeah. You don’t know how long you’ll be here, right? Like, you think it’s not forever. So every day, you do something. You think about it. But in Australia, you don’t.”

It’s true: every day is a potential adventure. All I need is a full PASMO card, camera and headphones.

Broad strokes, I think, as I write these blog posts, a tool to process and a platform to share.

Sadly, this only applies to when I’m in my element of writing or if I’ve had time to practice and refine my explanations, like in the classroom. In everyday conversations, it’s a different ball game, one that I rarely try my hand in. These days, however, I’m starting to wonder if I should – try, that is.

“You know what I was doing the night before I joined our school?” I asked.

It was hard to avoid the lure of nostalgia, sitting in my empty apartment, ready for the next teacher to move in after me. At least, it would be ready once my gas meter turned off.

My former manager yawned. To be fair, she’d woken up early that morning for my moving day.

“Wake up, 起きて (okite),” I repeated in Japanese to soften it. She groaned and I nudged her with my shoulder. “You’ve gotta talk to the gas guy when he comes.”

She nodded drowsily. I tried again, “Know what I did in training the night before I joined?”

She sighed. “うんん。パーティー? (unn. pātī: nope. Did you party?)”

“Yeah, ’cause I’m a real party animal,” I deadpanned. “Nah, my training friends and I went on the school website and stalked the teachers we were replacing.”

“えぇ (ehh),” she murmured obligingly, clearing her throat of sleepiness. “何で? (nande: why?)”

“To see what they were like,” I shrugged. “I saw the girl I was replacing and was like, ‘Oh no, she’s pretty and she looks super nice. They’re gonna be so disappointed with me!'”

At this, she sat up and made the effort to turn to me.

“誰? (dare: who?)” she asked.

“Natasha.”

“No, プリシラ (purishira),” she swatted my arm lightly. “Who did stalking?”

“Me. I did.”

“But you’re…,” she frowned in her effort to phrase it in English. So early in the morning. “You’re… I didn’t know foreigners are not confident.”

“Not confident. ‘Insecure,'” I said clearly, allowing her the time to repeat it to herself. “Yeah. Sometimes.”

After eighteen months of seeing each other almost every day, I thought she would’ve worked this out on her own. But, I reasoned, I’m always consciously trying to balance how I behave against how the locals behave, how they expect foreigners to behave, and what I would usually do, with varying degrees of success.

“プリス先生、今日はありがとうございます (purisu sensei, kyou wa arigatougozaimasu: thank you for today),” a homeroom teacher said at the end of the school day.

As always, I reciprocated the abbreviated bow and sentiment awkwardly but sincerely. A few teachers turned around to look. I rarely speak in the staff room.

The teacher I was speaking to watched me carefully, apparently deciding on whether she should speak her mind. I misunderstood it to mean that I’d done something wrong.

“違う?(chigau: is that wrong?)” I asked, scratching the back of my hands. “すみませんでした。(sumimasendeshita: I’m sorry.)”

“いいえ、いいえ。プリス先生は…すごい…えぇっ (iie, iie. purisu sensei wa…sugoi…ehh: no, no. You’re…very…umm),” she brought her fingers to her mouth and pushed them out, a reversed grabbing action.

“Loud?” I suggested.

“そう!(sou: yeah!)” she said, delighted that I’d understood her.

“Oh.” We were talking about a class of forty eleven year olds. Was volume really an issue? “Umm すみませんでした?(sumimasendeshita: I’m very sorry?)”

“いいえ、いいえ (iie, iie: no, no),” she waved her hand in front her face quickly to reassure me before rolling them around each other slightly to help the flow of her speech. “えと、プリス先生 (eto, purisu sensei: ummm you) look… I think プリス先生は (purisu sensei wa: you are)… おとなしい? (otonashii?) えぇぇ… (ehhh: ummm)”

“Shy? Quiet?” I offered again, effectively stemming the mental word search.

“そう (sou: yeah),” she smiled with relief and gratitude. “でも今日は (demo kyou wa: but today) … えぇっ (eh: um), ‘Let’s play a game! Yay!'” she raised her arms and voice briefly in her impression of me in the classroom. Catching herself, she lowered them again, glanced around the staff room and smiled sheepishly. “すごい外国人でした。びっくりした (sugoi gaikokujin deshita. bikkurishita: You were very much a foreigner. I was so surprised).”

Day 35: I went to one of my favourite places in Japan today – Sensoji at Asakusa.

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I have a mode I call “Full Gaijin Mode,” frequently activated when I’m being a teacher or tourist.

Apparently, the traditional image of foreigners – endlessly energetic, charismatic, dramatic… obnoxiously so – remains prevalent, even with those who interact with foreigners often. And without the time and ability to pull anecdotes like I do on these posts, I can’t really explain how I feel and what I’m experiencing. So, I usually choose between two options;

1. Continue to feed the stereotype like I do in the classrooms; or,
2. Shrug and say, “しょうがない (shouganai: it can’t be helped).”

The only thing is, if I took the time in conversation the way I do here on this blog, perhaps it could be helped.

“Just watched ‘The Little Prince’ on Netflix. Such a beautiful movie. Must see!” a friend texted me a few months ago.

“Really? I’m scared because I loved the book… I heard they changed stuff in it. Or added a whole storyline to it. Was it any good?” I held my breath.

Three little dots faded in and out. “It’s pretty okay,” came the reply. “I love it for the visuals.”

Well, I thought, good enough to try.

Surprisingly, I loved it, new storyline and all. Keep in mind that I love books so much that I sometimes have a hard time reading sequels by the same authors (*cough* To Kill a Mockingbird *cough*). In fact, I found that while keeping to the original tone and story, the new storyline made it more palatable and clear for kids. The kids the book was written for and the movie was marketed to.

This blog offers no wildly new or original ideas. But the way people differ from their stereotypes sometimes only becomes clear after they are tamed. Sometimes, even then, it requires discussion to appreciate it. After all, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And this fascinates me. Enough to record them on a public platform.

Still, these thoughts are only really accessible for English readers, meaning very few in Japan can read it with ease. What a shame, ね (ne: right)? The country that’s taming me barely even realises it. So, very slowly, I’ve started the process of translating some of these posts into Japanese. I repeat: very slowly. With help.

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll become unique in all the world, to all the world.

Thoughts?