30 November 2008 ~ 7 Comments

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #2: Props and Camouflage

As I’ve mentioned, #1: Don’t be you, is by far the most difficult step. A lot of water has to pass under the bridge before that kind of transformation can occur. So, what do you do in the meantime? My mother used to say, “fake it until you can make it!” In other words, pretend not to be you. This is much simpler.

I used to work for NOVA. Those of you who live here know of it, I’m sure. For those of you who don’t know, it used to be the biggest language school franchise here in Japan, focusing primarily on English instruction since English is in the greatest demand here. I won’t get into my life at NOVA. It’s not essential for this post (maybe I’ll tackle it in later post.) What is relevant is that the uniform for Nova instructors was at minimum slacks, shirt and tie, but they preferred you wear a suit. And so most everyday I left my house dressed very conservatively. This was not my preferred mode of dress.

Before I came to Japan, I used to work at a reputable company in New York and there, too, the expectation was for all account executives to wear suits. And, so, for the money, I did.

At first, I loved it. I loved the way wearing a suit made me feel. Like I was successful. Like I had made it, climbed out of the ghetto, scaled above the low expectations of the people I grew up among. I was a suit, goddammit, you better recognize! I loved the attention…some of it anyway. Girls went crazy for guys in a suit. Yes, I work somewhere where the requirement is that I look like this on a daily basis… What a statement to shout at some cutie looking to upgrade from the lifer she’d just sent two pairs of Timberlands and some Long-Johns to Upstate. (aka Prison)

But, it wasn’t long before I started hating suits. My hate was prompted by a number of factors. I didn’t particularly like the way my suit spoke to people on my behalf without my permission, sometimes without even my knowledge. It confessed  things I’d rather people didn’t know with a glance. It told people things about me that weren’t necessarily accurate. Things i often found myself having to retract or modify. Sometimes it even told all-out lies and, inexplicably, people would eat them up. It whispered to girls that I had money and security, education and standing. It yelled at my friends and people in my neighborhood that I was pretentious and thought I was better than them. It told salespeople and con-artist that I was an optimum target. It told some people, “He’s a hustler…so, you better be careful,” and told others “He’s a Jehovah’s Witness…get ready to get solicited!.”

Not unlike a soldier in uniform, a Police Officer or a Firefighter, unless you knew me already, I practically ceased to exist in a suit, the symbolism was so powerful. I used to practically tear it off of me whenever I’d leave the office for the day. When I quit that job I swore, unless necessary, I would never take a job where a suit was the uniform ever again.

But, I wanted to come to Japan and NOVA was my opening so I broke down and broke my promise. Their explanation being that in Japan, as in other countries, a suit says professional. that was understandable.

Now, here’s the thing: While I was working for NOVA, I lived in Saitama and, of course the same offenses that occur now occurred then. Japanese people behaved the same way in Saitama as they do in Yokohama. But, to a significantly lesser degree. After I quit NOVA, I had to move out of the apartment they had furnished, and eventually made my way to Yokohama. I was told (by Japanese friends) that Yokohama people are accustomed to foreigners, what with all the military cats and whatnot. A Gaijin-friendly environment that won’t set me back considerably? Hell yeah, I was in. I started working at a Japanese public school, which is an entirely different environment than the one NOVA provided. And, in this environment, to my extreme delight, suits were not required. That was a bigger fringe benefit than the six-week vacation in the summer. At the same time, I noticed that the Japanese in Yokohama were not as tolerant of me as the Saitama Japanese were. Which went contrary to what I was told.

Well, you guessed it by now, I’m sure. It was the fucking suit! It took me a few months to catch on, though. And an even longer time to breakdown and wear one again. The idea of being forced to wear a suit just so that Japanese people would feel more comfortable around me was offensive as well. If your child is acting out in the supermarket over some candy they simply must have, sure you might go ahead and buy it just to shut them up, or you might pop them upside the head, like my mother would do, and they’ll learn how to behave out in public. if your dog shits in your slippers, you might give him a Scooby snack or you might put your foot in his ass. I felt like I was betraying a rule of nature. It felt really wrong, soulfully wrong, to reward the Japanese misbehavior.

But, in the interest of maintaining your sanity (and your freedom), and unless you think you’ll get a kick out of putting your foot up dozens of asses and popping dozens of Japanese upside the head every day (I’ve been there and trust me your foot and hand, metaphorically, will get very tired and in the end they’ll just be more asses to kick and heads to pop), you had better take tip #2: Props and Camouflage to heart. It can put a big dent in the number of offenses you incur daily. Trust me.

Of course, if you wear suits daily anyway, you’ll be glad to know at least partially why you haven’t experienced the obscenities that prompted this tip making the list.

In addition to a suit, I’ve experimented with a few props that you might find of use. One of the most popular reasons Japanese give me for their behavior (yes, I’m an inquisitive mofo) is due to the fact they can’t speak English and they’re afraid that foreigners might try to communicate with them and create some kind of embarrassing international incident. Fine. Unacceptable, but fine. I didn’t believe it, however. I thought it was my skin color for sure. So, I put it to the test.

Let’s see now…how could I make it clear to the people around me that I could speak Japanese? That way, I could see if their manners would improve.

There are a few ways, some more effective than others.

While I’m standing in line and the Japanese in my vicinity begin their dance of discomfort, (and in lieu of doing my daily dance of despair and disillusionment) i whip out my cellphone:

“Moshi Moshi!” I stage whisper.

No answer. Of course there’s no answer. It’s a fake call. I’m actually talking to everyone standing on line.

“Ah sou nan da!….Eeeeeto ne…Honto ni?… Maji de?… Ja, kinyoubi yoru hachi-ko de aou ka? ku-ji goro? Ii naaa. Ii naa…Hai! Hai! Sou sou sou sou. Hai! Wakatta! Ja ne, bye bye.” You don’t say! Well…really? Seriously? Ok, let’s meet at that famous statue of a dog in Shibuya on Friday night…about 9? Cool! Cool. Right, right, yeah yeah yeah yeah. Alright. You bet! Later.

While you’re having this conversation with the people on line, via yourself, you might notice some of them, upon hearing your fairly native sounding Nihongo, visually relax, like they’d been waiting to exhale ever since they first noticed you. Try not to laugh. It’s important to learn some native sounding phrases and practice them over and over until they feel natural to you. Some of the people on line couldn’t care less if you were fluent or not. But, you’ll relieve the anxiety of a handful, guaranteed.

And that’s what these tips are all about: reducing the number of offenses, which will increase your chances of keeping your sanity intact.

Also, you might try picking up a Japanese language newspaper at the newsstand. I know, feels like a waste of money, but it does wonders. Make all kinds of faces like you’re comprehending what may to you be totally incomprehensible (actually I can read a little now so my facial expressions have become pretty authentic.) You know, go through the motions. And, make sure you read from the top to the bottom of the column then start at the top of the next column, right to left, otherwise you’ll expose your deception in the most embarrassing way. Might even draw some snickers. (Been there, done that) It sounds silly, and you might even feel loco doing it at first. But, compared to the daily feeling of repressed rage and the stress of not opening up a can of whup-ass on someone who has given you clear indication they need it bad, It’s a marked improvement. It might even inspire someone near you enough to do something as neighborly as speak to you–which could backfire if you can’t speak any Japanese.

Which leads me to my next tip: #3- Learn that Japanese!

Loco

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7 Responses to “10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #2: Props and Camouflage”

  1. topaz 1 December 2008 at 11:57 am Permalink

    Loco – we do think alike! I don’t get half the dirty stares or negative vibes that I did when I first came to Japan. Clothing and language ability are the top 2 things that changed the reactions, I think. I am pretty sure my skin and hair color hasn’t changed.

    True racism in Japan is certainly present. But I think it’s way less prevalent than Japanese people’s discomfort with people who BEHAVE differently (is there a name for this?). For newcomers to Japan, this is indistinguishable from racism. The vast majority of us non-Japanese-looking people simply can’t behave like Japanese when we arrive, until we acquire much stronger language skills and familiarity with day-to-day life. After a few years, once we get into the swing of things, we start to notice those strange reactions from Japanese people have mostly stopped. And then we start to consider that maybe those reactions weren’t based on racism quite as much as we thought.

    Like you, I go out of my way to open my mouth and make sure people around me hear me speaking Japanese. The tension usually melts instantly. It’s a great technique. I think there’s more to it than people worrying about having to speak to you in English. It also signals that you know how things work. You probably know you have to bag your own groceries at the supermarket. You probably know you have to pay your restaurant check at the register, not at the table. You probably know that on a long-distance train trip you’ll need a regular “joushaken” as well as the reserved seat ticket. You’ve moved yourself into a category of “normal customer” instead of somebody who’s going to need hand-holding. The Japanese person can stay in their comfort zone, far less worried about having to enter into an interaction they haven’t practiced or trained for.

  2. Locohama 1 December 2008 at 10:27 pm Permalink

    Topaz, I think it falls under xenophobia. Webster says xenophobia is a fear of foreign or different things and people. I agree with everything you said. Maing it is about more than the language, much more.

    Thanks for the shout (-:

    Loco

  3. aniseed 31 March 2009 at 7:00 am Permalink

    Loco – can you please clarify for me what you mean when you talk about 'the tension' in the people around you? I've been in Kyoto for a year now. I have whitish skin and blackish hair, but I am clearly not Japanese-looking. The huge arched nose and big brown eyes should be an instant give-away. I stand in lines clad in jeans and jumper at the supermarket and such, and have a minimum of interaction with shop attendants. But I have yet to detect any of the tension or discomfort that you talk about. I'm betting that its there but I don't know how to read it. What are the telltale signs?

  4. Locohama 30 April 2009 at 9:55 pm Permalink

    If you're white you may never experience it or rarely. Japanese just aren't as intimidated by whites as blacks. can't tell u why definitively. Just be happy you don't have to endure it…

  5. leon 16 June 2009 at 11:00 am Permalink

    this is somethin a japanese told me when I made some conversation over his folding bike ('cause I also have one and his was quite cool)
    日本人は白人をなめる,
    I mean I pretty much understood everything he said to me but that was the first time I heard hakujin so I had to look up the word as soon as I got to my computer…
    but anyways, by the context I understood.

    And well kyoto is a turistic spot, they usually just want turists to go in an buy something and get out (quickly!). So they are pretty much used to seing foreigners (but that doesn't mean they will like them). Most people don't notice this, for what I noticed and talked with other people who came with me. So you will not see the tipical over-helping japanese who grabs you by the hand to where you need to be.

    (oops found them!)


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