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!