See the introduction to this series here: Letting The Chips Fall Where They May
Here to check out tip #1: “You is a very Fluid Concept”
Here for tip #2: “Man the FUCK up!”
Here for tip #3: “Don’t Serve Time, Make Time Serve You”
And, here for tip #4: Let Your Smile Be your Guide!
Phew! OK, now let’s get going with #5!
First, a little lesson from those Rap Legends: Whodini
“Friends is a word we use everyday, most the time we use it in the wrong way. Now you can look the word up again and again, but the dictionary doesn’t know the meaning of friends. And if you asked me, you know I couldn’t be much help, cuz a friend’s somebody you judge for yourself…” Whodini
Couldn’t put it better myself…
In the original 2008 series, tip #5 was: Make Japanese Friends.(check it out if you have a chance…it’s the bomb!)
BY FAR, it was my favorite, and most popular, of the 10 tips I offered at that time. In that post I gave readers 4 solid reasons to recruit Japanese allies, and they were as follow:
Then I proceeded to provide anecdotes from instances in my tenure here in Japan where the effectiveness of these tips were illustrated.
Yes, this remains a post I stand by til this day almost in its entirety.
ALMOST, I reiterate.
On re-reading that post in my current state of mind…a mind free of the encumbrances and intoxicants it must have been influenced by at that time, I can see that that post could have been more accurately entitled: Recruit Japanese Allies or Collect Japanese Tools, cuz basically that’s what I did. I recognized what they were useful for and I used them.
They were not friends! At least most of them weren’t. A couple were and, guess what, they still are!
Let me backtrack about a decade….bear with me.
Back in the late 90s, around the time I was working on my first novel, I was doing one of those personal inventories…you know, examining my life under a microscope, taking myself apart, seeing how things work and connect, and putting me back together. And, like when you do such a thing with a bicycle or any kind of machine, for some reason there are always an extra piece or two. A nut or washer or screw that you couldn’t figure out where it came from or where it goes.
Around that time I’d read a book that, for the life of me (and considering the impact it had on my life at the time), I can’t remember the name of it. It was a self-improvement book, one of those “YOU 101 For Dummies” Cliff Notes for Self Empowerment type books. One section of it talked about human relationships, and one chapter (yep, a whole chapter) discussed the impact of the people we let into our little lives, and the power over us we often furnish them with.
It talked about several different types of friendships we generally have, and which of these move us further along on this journey of life, and which are toxic or detours from the journey. It almost described to the letter some of the friendships I had at the time. Like the toxic friendship I endured for the sole purpose of entertainment, and the homey who recruited me for similar purposes. it described the buddy who used me as an echo chamber or sounding board to hear himself wax philosophically and the ex-girlfriend who only called me when she found herself single again and needed to talk about what the fuck was wrong with her that she couldn’t keep a man around? It talked about the lifelong friend who kept his ego well fed on my perceived shortcomings and the one who passed no judgements, was actually self-actualized, and volunteered advice occasionally strictly because she wanted me to do well in life.
It broke it all down in one extraordinary chapter that I must’ve read about a dozen times before I took action.
Yep, I cleaned house (as dispassionately as something of this nature can be done,) cutting off all friendships that weren’t decidedly in my best interest. That’s not to say relationships that didn’t serve my interest, but those which siphoned energy from me and gave me nothing in return. At the time, of the 30 or so people I called friends, only a handful survived this housecleaning. The ones who’d gotten swept up in this maelstrom of self-love never knew what hit them. One day I was a person they could call on and pile their misery on for a couple of hours or so and receive either advice of a most intuitive sort (yes, I’m the shit, sometimes…) or at least constructive feedback that left them feeling not so much empowered as listened to and commiserated with, and the next moment they were getting a persistent earful of voicemail.
I was ruthless. Almost vindictively so, this book had me so fired up…I mean, some of these friends had been draining me dry for years (both with and without intent) and I had been a willing well of wisdom. I learned at the same time that I too had a couple of people that I used as complimentary gas stations on my journey, and I set them free, as well. (One even noticed the change and called to kinda thank me! I think she said something like, “I feel like our relationship has taken a positive turn, don’t you?)
Needless to say, in the weeks to follow, without an excess of baggage, a leaky tank and a dozen forks without signage in the road (that often lead to some very distracting off-roading), I felt a whole lot lighter and picked up momentum. In this alleviated state, I finished my first novel (which, as it so happened, was about constructive friendships and romantic relationships) and there couldn’t be a more fitting confirmation that I had done the right thing.
And, from that time on, I applied that knowledge to new potential friendships, careful not to recruit the type of people that don’t bring out the best in me, nor I in them. Years later I came to Japan and almost immediately discovered that most of what I thought I knew about friendship would be put to the test.
Some of the criteria for friendships I adopted from my reading at that time, and some of it I learned as I went, adapting to the inevitable twists and turns along this journey. But, very little in my experience prepared me for the experience of living abroad in a nation where ignorant assumptions are asserted so innocently and shamelessly, where careless conjecture is believed to be and consistently utilized as an actual icebreaker. It was inconceivable to me that this was not being done intentionally…but it wasn’t. People who ostensibly wanted to befriend me experienced no constraint against presumption beforehand nor compunction in the aftermath, no conception that it might be problematic to do so.
Imagine my surprise…
My sensibilities told me to reject all candidates for friendship who broke ice this way, period, end of discussion. I mean, I wouldn’t tolerate these kinds of assaults on my sensibilities back home, no way. Anyone back home, especially in New York, who didn’t know by the time they reached adulthood, that presumptions about people for any reason – particularly in an effort to illustrate their lack of ignorance in worldly affairs — was the social equivalent of hazardous sauntering onto thin fucking ice, was not worth the effort it would take to lay a foundation from which a friendship could rise. Not impossible but, as we say in these parts, “mendokusai.”
I came to Japan with a standard for friendship (and not a particularly high one, either) and discovered that if I were going to have Japanese friends I’d need to grade the whole class on a curve or the whole fucking class would fail (no exaggeration). I’d have to, firstly, forgive in advance this ice breaking quirk of cheerfully anticipatory stereotyping, and the passive assertions of often bizarre and nonsensical misinformation. And beyond the ice breaking, throughout the relationship, a barrage of microagressions, most tolerable (oh you can use chopsticks? Americans eat McDonald’s a lot deshou? etc…) but the hits keep coming and little by little you realize every time you dispel one there will be two to follow, like there exists an almanac of ignorance and misinformation that all Japanese have to master by adulthood or risk being outcast.
I’d also have to dodge, dispel, discourage or totally ignore these assertions while displaying a minimal amount of my considerable distaste at this tendency or run the risk of scaring the candidate off.
You find out not long after arriving here about 思いやり omoiyari, which is the Japanese preoccupation with being especially considerate of others, and you live amid the mostly awesome results of this, bear witness to it on a daily basis in almost everything they do. This informs you that you too would be a beneficiary of such considerations (and would gladly reciprocate such considerations) if they only knew that it’s much better to go into any relationship with a stranger viewing that person as a blank slate than a slate filled in partially by the tendencies of his race, nationality and /or presumed class. But, alas, you discover that you will very seldom be on the receiving end of such an exchange.
In other words, with the exception of my girlfriend mentioned in that 2008 post, Aiko, who only accosted me with stereotypes in the way they are best used: as insults or intentionally degrading remarks (ex: “Sometimes you’re just like all the other stupid ass Americans that come to Japan…” etc, used only when she’d get angry at me), all the other Japanese “friends” mentioned in the 2008 tips were ALL tools in my tool box.
Not unlike that scruple-free chick you befriended in University cause she had cute girlfriends she wasn’t opposed to hooking you up with, or that asshole you hung out with in the Army cuz he knew all the cool clubs and had major suck with all the bouncers, or that irritating egomaniac you used to go clubbing with back in that days cuz he was skilled at picking up girls and had the kind of charisma that somehow rubbed off on you and got you laid more often than not, which was twice as often as you would have gotten laid on your own…
Yep, tools, and not much more.
Consequently, there are only three avenues I’ve found for making friendships of substance here in Japan which don’t require a strong stomach or a barf bag. The first, and thus far most fulfilling, has been through private English lessons. That is not to say that private students don’t stab you with the same ice shards –ahem– I mean utilize the same icebreakers and other foolishness. They certainly do. But, they’re paying you, cash money, and as it is with many unpleasant things in life money serves as a temporary pain reliever or cushion for the blows. And once all of their presumptions are out of the way (and this can take months…time I’m no longer willing to invest without a compensation) the foundation for understanding and offense-free communication can be laid. Often this is done by me just being my natural self…or rather the person I’ve evolved into as a result of living here so long –one who has honed an ability to address the pervasive foolishness without scaring or shaming off all of my clients– and surprisingly the foundation produced is often quite enduring. Some of my oldest and closest friends here are current or former private students. They are my most prized relationships and the beneficiaries of the best I have to offer, as have I benefitted a great deal from the insight they offer into all aspects of Japanese culture and mindset from a variety of perspectives, my students coming from all ages and walks of life.
The second avenue has been via the romantic relationships I’ve had in my tenure here, a few of which were serious. Though I’ve burnt half as many bridges as I’ve built, while the relationships were in full swing friendships had blossomed…and a couple persists til this day even though the romance has long since bottomed out.
The third were people I met because we had common interests, like basketball. Under the condition where it was safe to assume I loved the game, i.e., on a ball court, I met these gentleman and so that was the initial glue. With a couple of these guys it expanded beyond the ball court into a sharing of ideas and such. And even if it hadn’t I’d have been content because on the court, I’m not (or rather I’m no longer) the foreigner, the outsider that has been allowed into their circle…
I’m just another baller.
And, here in Japan, I couldn’t ask for more.
So, tip #5
is Be A Baller!
Stay tuned for Part 6
PS: And if you haven’t read Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist yet, what are you waiting for? A personal invitation? Get yours now…don’t let the days go by! Find out why it was number #1 in The UK yesterday, and number #1 in Germany last week! It’s available in paperback and E-book version here).