Yes, living in Asia for an extended period, surrounded by Japanese, does something to you. Something quite involuntary. Something you aren’t especially aware of until you leave Japan. You catch a glimpse of it when you go home for a visit, assuming your home-world isn’t an Asian country. Even if you’re returning to a multicultural domain like NY you glimpse it. You can feel this alteration you’ve undergone. Your life in Japan has slowly, insidiously, left its mark on you. Your perception of reality is slightly askew. You feel like a pod person who vaguely realizes that he’s been reconstituted by body snatchers. You hardly know what to do with this other you. You see the world through Japanized eyes; how Japanized, I suspect, depends on how long you’ve lived within the Japanese sphere of influence.
Your friends and family have essentially become foreigners with all that entails: They’re a little too loud, a little too direct, a little too indiscreet, a little too kimoi. They’re NOT Asian (Japanese) so they’re a little too unpredictable, a little too…dangerous?
And they can see the difference in you, too. You’re a little more reserved. A little…I don’t know…daintier? You speak a little too carefully. Your patience has risen to an inhuman level. You’re not so argumentative…not so disagreeable or confrontational. You smile too much and you’re too damn…I don’t know…pleasant. And, you’re jumpy as hell. The blare of car horns bother you. The report of gun shots rattle you. You notice things you’ve overlooked or never noticed before like how rude service people are and how unappetizing most food looks.
But, all of that is nothing compared to the weirdness you feel when you go to another Asian country where the people look virtually identical to the ones you’ve spent the past 6 years living alongside (but don’t tell your Japanese friends that if you want to keep them as friends. That kind of observation is almost a deal breaker). Why? You see, you’re this connoisseur now. You’ve got this Asian thing down to a formula. You’ve learned, through the ordeal that is life in Japan for an ex-pat, how to reduce your stress level in their midst to a sufferable level. You’ve acquired the language skills and cultural understanding to make your way in their world and even make a good number of them relax in your vicinity. You’ve learned to tolerate the intolerable and ignore the conspicuous. You’ve transformed yourself into a good gaijin.
But, you know what? All of that is for naught in China…
It’s kind of funny actually. I used to…ok, let me stop lying…I still get uptight sometimes when some Japanese assume that because I am not Japanese I must speak English. And because they usually cannot speak English the assumption on their part is that any attempts at communication between us will prove embarrassing to one or both parties. Thus, it’s something to be avoided all together, if possible.
Then, you find yourself in China on vacation looking in familiar Asian faces…and you know what happens? Yep, you guessed it…You start spewing Japanese, sumimasen-ing and gomen nasai-ing all over the place, and nodding and bowing like an imbecile…and the Chinese will look at you displaying your well-honed Japanese etiquette with a look on their faces not unlike the one you would wear to indicate you’re thinking, “You gotta be shitting me! Are you for real?” Halfway through your ninth or tenth bow, when you realize that they aren’t being returned or even acknowledged in any way, shape or form, you snap to the foregone realization that this is not Japan, or rather, Japan is not Asia, only a tiny friggin’ island group, a rash on Asia’s rump, and that these people before you are not Japanese.
What helps you achieve this cognizance is the long line of Japanese people behind you, the ones that had deplaned with you. Whereas, at Narita Airport, when you’re returning to Japan from NY, these Japanese passengers would have gone to a separate (faster and more efficient) line for Japanese passport holders (though the line for foreign re-entry Visa holders isn’t so bad, either), here in the Middle Kingdom, in the heart and soul and body of Asia, you’re all in line together- Japanese and Westerners alike- standing before an Immigration booth designated for…wait for it… Foreigners.
It takes a minute to get it through your thick Japanized skull, but eventually it gets through. You’ll spend the next few days constantly reminding yourself that these people are not Japanese, But don’t worry…the Chinese will help you. Oh yeah! they’ll help you, alright. You’ll find out, as a matter of course, that you are more Japanese than they are. But, in the meantime, you can do what you came to China to do.
You only have 3 days, so what is that exactly? See the Great Wall? Yeah, I guess. See the Forbidden City? It’s a World Heritage Site, isn’t it? Blah, blah, blah… Wanna go see where the line of Ming emperors rest in perpetuity? Sure, why not? But, that’s not why you came to China, is it?
Why? You’re not just a foreigner, you’re an American. And to make it worse, you’re a New Yorker…so you’re not easily impressed. You’re a little snobby and not a sucker for sightseeing. Plus you’re a writer, and not one of them travel writers, either, spending 1000 words talking about the best place to get a good photograph of the Bird’s Nest. Hell, you didn’t even know what the Bird’s Nest was until a cabby drove you by it and pointed it out.
You wanna see some communism, don’t you? You wanna see at least a hint of why your country is so afraid of these people. You wanna see why the Japanese hold them in such contempt, as well.
You wanna see what all the hubbub’s about.
I tawt I taw a communist…I did! I did! I did taw a communist (-:
PS: And, oh yes, you wanna eat real Chinese Food for the first time in your life! (-;