An imagined second year


I have hit a low point in my attitude towards Japan. Well, towards life as a foreigner, filtered through the lens of Japan. I’m not dissatisfied with the country per se; I’m disappointed in the treatment of foreigners and the underlying cultural attitudes about them. It feels like instead of meeting the Japanese halfway and striking a balance between our cultural differences, I’m stretching 90% of the way all on my own – and still find myself pushed onto a strange pedestal that feels more like a prison.

There’s a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” I think the glaring exception to this rule is foreigners: no matter how much we try to worm our way into the proverbial wood, we are firmly held back, held separate, by the surrounding culture.

I’ve noticed a change in myself in the last month or two: for at least my first six months here, I tried so hard to adapt, to “read the air,” to show coworkers and the general public that I could fit into their culture. I was always on edge, always apologizing or preparing to do so, trying to do everything the way I saw others doing it.

I used to privately distinguish myself from other foreigners who really seemed to want, literally, to become Japanese – people who obsessively studied the language, put on all the cute clothes and mannerisms– but it turns out I was working just as hard to change myself, in the hyper-adaptability and humility I tried to exude. Now, I act and react more or less as my American self, stripping away the makeshift Japaneseness that everyone always knew was counterfeit anyway.

 I will always, my whole life, maintain that Japan is a gorgeous country with a culture worth learning about, both in the teeming cities of Tokyo and Osaka and off the beaten tourist track. But I cannot endorse it as a place to live and work as a foreigner. I don’t pretend to speak to the experience of all foreigners here, nor to imply that immigrant or resident alien life is better in the United States or elsewhere. All I am saying is that I’m disillusioned by my experience, and that life as a gaijin is not for me.

My Fantasy Second Year

There are so many things that I wish I could stay and accomplish, so many frustrations from this year that I know will never be resolved. So I like to imagine that, if I stayed a second year, I would confront head-on everything that has bothered me about my life here.

I would start by refusing to play along anymore in the caricaturizing of foreign countries.

One day, I would refuse to smile indulgently when a teacher told her 10-year-old students that, “if you put up the middle finger in America, you will be riddled with bullets” (this last clause not spoken but vividly mimed). My supplies of temperance and patience would run dry as I continued to correct the stream of outrageous and offensive assumptions about Americans or foreigners in general (because all too often in Japan, those two terms are interchangeable), presented to me gleefully by coworkers who should know better.

I would also confront the routine harassment of foreign women, the legions of men who target us because they assume that we lack the language skills to object.

When a store employee said, “you have long legs compared to me,” and reached to grope my hip – or when a stranger asked me out of nowhere if I was wearing nylons and pinched my knee – I would finally yell at him like I always wish, in retrospect, I had. I would embarrass him for the whole country to see: I’d eloquently tear down stereotypes (because in this second year, I would be practically fluent in Japanese) as well as this creep’s inflated ego.

No More Ms. Nice Guy

And yet, at the same time, I would be a stereotypical American. I would put my foot down, set ultimatums, stand up for my individuality and my personhood and my culture, for the ideals of tolerance and respect that America has instilled in me.

Why I haven’t done any of these things this year, I couldn’t tell you. All I feel is an immense shame and frustration, a lack of integrity: I was so busy trying not to make waves that I forgot how to be myself in the midst of this vast ocean of a foreign culture.

Until tonight, I had felt guilty about the recent transition I’ve mentioned, from desperate attempts at adaptation back to plain old me. Until tonight, I had seen it as giving up. But I’m beginning to view the problem of cultural exchange (and yes, in Japan it is a problem) as one that can’t be solved with tact and gentleness and a sugar coating. I’m beginning to believe that, as someone hired for my foreignness, my job is more about constructive criticism than about playing nice. And my job extends far beyond the classroom: in a way, I’m always at work – challenging prejudices one at a time, in every interaction with every store clerk, postal worker and creepy stranger.

I think our countries have things to learn from each other, and the closed-mindedness I’ve run up against time and time again here discourages me. I can only hope that I won’t find a similar brand of exclusivist nationalism in my own country when I return.


5 responses to “An imagined second year

  1. “All I feel is an immense shame and frustration, a lack of integrity: I was so busy trying not to make waves that I forgot how to be myself in the midst of this vast ocean of a foreign culture.”

    I think your experience is usual, and indicative of good survival skills 🙂 to survive we think we must fit in somehow, or at least accepted or at the very least not cause offense. Then at some point, ESP near the time of our return we start to dig up our old selves and old beliefs and get angry with how we allowed ourselves to become. In particular if that new self was one who we felt tried too hard for too little, and who might have let herself get pushed about a bit (or adapted too much to put a positive spin on it).

    On the plus side, I found myself happier in my own skin and less fussed about others. Cuz I learned the hard way that being so concerned with others opinions made me their prisoner. This attitude has continued with me when I went home too.

    So, be proud of the fact that you had good survival and social skills 🙂

    • I totally agree! You’ve expressed the process really well. It can be really frustrating because few of my peers went through the same things at the same time that I did. But like you, I’ve come out the other side understanding myself and my priorities a lot better, and right now I feel like I’ve more or less made my peace with Japan. 🙂

  2. Hi there! Don’t know if you still keep up with this blog, but I figured I’d go ahead and try posting a comment anyway.

    I was on JET 2009-2013 and from what I’ve read of your posts, you and I were probably going through a lot of the same things at the same time. The section “My Fantasy Second Year” really struck a chord with me. I’ve been unable to get a job all this time so I’ve found myself basically going through a fantasy 5th year, and beating myself up for not having had the strength to make all the changes you outlined in this post — calling people out for spreading stereotypes, for saying rude things in Japanese assuming I couldn’t understand, etc. etc. There were a few times in my four years that I was able to react, but countless other times when I just froze in disbelief at what was going on around me. I’ve forced myself to keep on moving, continue the job search, apply to grad school, but part of me feels like it won’t be over for good until this August, what would have been the end of a 5th JET year. It’s a nagging little thought in the back of my mind.

    Anyway, I hope things post-JET went better for you, and thanks again for writing this post!

    • Thanks for your comment! I just wrote my first post-Japan piece, definitely inspired in part by your comment. 🙂 Like you, I’ve often found life since my return unexciting and difficult. I think that’s an unavoidable feeling after living abroad.

      I guess I decided to just go through the motions until life felt normal again, and it really has started to feel not just normal, but fulfilling. I can’t change or return to my life in Japan, and I think I’m okay with that. I hope you find similar closure this August (or whenever… it’ll happen!) 🙂

  3. Your post has really hit a cord in me as well. I am currently a JET starting year 4 and I want to stay in Japan longer, but find myself depressed a lot. I was always a person who took pride in my job and was really energetic and didn’t let things get me down, but between year two and three noticing the negativity in my thoughts began to make me so disappointed in Japan. Year one and two felt really fun and amazing and I always sort of attributed that to the students being so good at English then and the teachers at my school having been very friendly. In reading your post though, I realized it was me trying really hard to be as Japanese as I could and positively spin everything. I live in a relatively inaka place where no tourists come so I’m often stared at like a unicorn and the people can be so offensive without even realizing it. I’m tired of being shot at with questions about all of America as though I’m it’s only representative, or told that “I’m not foreign enough now” and the students are losing interest in me. I’m going to try to move to Yokohama after this year and reunite with some older expat friends, but I think I’ve had enough with being the foreign puppet who teaches English. I will take any job but as an ALT. Praying Yokohama has a more accepting atmosphere…

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