Repatriation diaries: September 17, 2008
One thing this country has given me besides huge, heaping plates of lettuce called “side salads” and all-you-can-eat chicken fingers is an unparalleled level of anonymity. In Japan, my foreignness infiltrated every aspect of my public existence. Every single interaction I had, whether it was with the people at the gas station, the clerks at the 7-11, or the landlord who wanted to explain why my garbage had been rejected, every interaction was pervaded by my otherness. I could go through the checkout lane at the grocery store with the same proficiency as a native, but it didn’t matter, I was different. It explained why I was always buying broccoli but rarely fish, and I insisted on putting small purchases in my purse rather than a plastic bag or a designated “reusable shopping bag.” It explained why I walked places within a few blocks of my apartment rather than riding a bike or driving. Sometimes I got so used to the foreigner way of thinking, it affected me in my own apartment. As in, “I can’t open this jar, I’m too foreign to figure it out.” It didn’t help that all the doorways there were half an inch shorter than me.
Since I lived in a small town, I was sure that every time I went outside my appearance would be noted by anyone I happened to pass by, and likely by many of the people who drove by in cars, as well as some people completely hidden to me who were watching me from their windows. I knew this because people would report back to me. “[I know this is the first time we’ve met, but I saw you coming out of Marukyou the other day. You were wearing a brown skirt and carrying a green bag.]” Or better yet, “[I saw you on the train last month. You were writing in your notebook the whole time. Where were you going?]”
Living in an orthopraxical society, I was particularly conscious of publicly deviating from the norm, because I knew people I couldn’t even see would probably be watching me and maybe even discussing with their friends what that crazy foreigner was doing, and eventually run into me and ask me about it personally. When I was outside, I had the mentality that I had to go from point A to point B, no investigation of snakes I might see in the river, no lingering in certain areas or taking shortcuts that involved me climbing over something, because that was all too weird. Once, during the school day, I drove to a convenience store near Colin’s school to meet him and drop off something he needed for his class. After I gave him his item, he leaned against the car and started to chat about his day.
“Go back inside! Everyone’s a spy,” I told him. I didn’t think it was a big deal for him to be off school grounds during the day if he had nothing to do, but every person in town recognized him, and they all knew he was doing something wrong if he was talking to his equally conspicuous girlfriend during school hours, and some of them had connections with people in the school they might decide to inform. It seems really paranoid, but it’s true. People love talking about the activities of the resident foreigner, especially if they were doing things they weren’t supposed to.
Possibly the weirdest thing I regularly did in public was go to an abandoned house in the area to feed the stray cats that lived there. I tried to be sneaky about it at first, but pretty soon the entire neighborhood was aware of it, and I had the woman at the grocery checkout counter asking me how the cats were. Yeah, they probably thought I was some weird, infantile cat lady, but whatever. Recently I’ve been seized with sudden panic attacks thinking about those cats, and what happened to them after I left.
Anyway, in America, but particularly where I live near uptown Minneapolis, people are unafraid to be as weird as they want to be, loudly and in public, and no one thinks anything of it. I can walk down the street without anyone looking at me, and I can even lie down on a bench or feed some random cats if I want to, and it still feels like I belong. The other day I saw this guy standing on the street corner singing and all-out dancing to whatever was playing in his headphones, and he didn’t even seem mentally ill. It’s kind of comforting that America gives so many people permission to be freaks. But I’m still stuck in a Japanese mindset, because I when I see random acts of weirdness, I catch myself thinking that those people are just selfish.