Adventures in Repatriation

Cassandra Seer of Doom

Cassandra Seer of Doom
The Heartland, United States
December 31
I used to live in rural Japan, teaching babies through adults how to talk the English. Now I'm trying to find my way in a country that's both a stranger and more home than ever.

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MARCH 6, 2009 1:00PM

Americans are Weird

Rate: 38 Flag

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.

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repatriation, japan, weirdness

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Your description is quite good. I was living in Japan for some years, too.
Great description! That's exactly how I figured it would be there with their history of rabid homogeny. I always planned to be a crazy gaijin if I ever went to Japan. Onec I had my reputation established I'd then feel free to do whatever I wanted.

Love this series!
And OS is weirder still!
Glad I found you and welcome. Yes, we are a weird group alright. I have noticed that many societies, including the Japanese are much more formal and aware of norms.
very interesting read, and looking forward to more.
well, new word: orthopraxy...the trick will be to use it in polite conversation, but i'll find a way.

fascinating stuff. "correct activity", hm? but to what end? i don't get it. it seems like a clinging to security, to me. the suicide rates there are alarming, aren't they? are they making THAT into a ritual too?

rated, Jim
Ahh, you mean weird in a good way...

My uncle likes to mess with people, so when he went to Japan for business he introduced himself as "Lowell Woolworth" just because of the trouble people had pronouncing that name. (it's not his real name)
Very interesting.

When I was in India some years ago, esp. in the smaller places, I was the center of attention at all times, being very conspicuous in color and clothes and just generally. It's a weird experience.

Hah, James, "orthopraxy" was not a new word to me - it's used a lot in 'traditional' Wicca.

Your uncle - cute with the Lowell Woolworth. But I hope he ran into some Japanese who called themselves things HE couldn't pronounce....
Thank you to everyone for your comments!

To Jim, yeah, a lot of it is clinging to security, but the theoretical end is "societal order". While much of the extreme adherence to ritual seems pointless and stressful , the benefits are that there's little crime and littering, trains are always on time and everyone automatically forms an orderly line. Maybe it's because people are so conditioned not to deviate from the norm. I think mental health is one of the costs of this system. The murder rate is extremely low, and the suicide rate is extremely high. I'm not saying one way is better than the other, but since I grew up in America, it is kind of comforting to be able to engage in public acts of weirdness.
I find the ideas of orthodoxy and orthopraxy fascinating, and very much enjoyed this post which examines the effects on the psychology of the individual moving between cultures!
Interesting post. Japan sounds like a somehwta more intense version of the town where I live, in which all oddities of behavior are noted and spun into bizarre narratives much more entertaining than the truth. The difference we all do it to each other ... and in Japan everyone was doing it only to you. I don;lt think I could live under that kind of microscope ...
I hope we'll get to read more about your re-entry ...
Maybe it's more of a small town/city divide than Japan/US divide? You don't have much anonymity or privacy in an average american small town where everybody knows everybody neither.
Icemilk & Steven - good point. I really noticed it when I moved from the anonymity of the city to the country....where I didn't see anybody and thought for a while that I had found blessed isolation, only to find that *every*thing about me was known (and some things that were imaginary) and discussed for miles around...
I liked this too. I think though if you do some research you might find that the murder rate isn't as low as reported. Instead it's the muder investigation rate by the police that is extremely low. Many murders are recorded as natural causes etc.
To Icemilk and Steven: I'd never thought about how my experience might have compared to a US small town. That would certainly be interesting to know more about. But I do know that even in Japanese cities, I had little anonymity. It's not as bad, because there are more foreigners, but there are still always a few people every day who jump when they saw you, the stares, and of course random people coming up to either practice English or try to have a conversation about where you're from, what's your name, can you eat Japanese food, which Japanese people would never do to each other. Also, I'm pretty sure I'd be well-known among people on my daily route, or at convenience stores or restaurants I frequented. Even I noticed foreigners. I saw the same foreign guy who took the train with me from Tokyo to Kyushu in Fukuoka-city almost two years later! While visiting Fukuoka (the nearest big city) at different times, I saw the same foreign girl in different places three times throughout the two years I lived in Japan. Anyway, wherever we were, we always ten times more visible and fascinating to the general public than the average Japanese person.

To Myriad: Now I want to hear about your time in India. Have you written about it?

To Trevor: Hmmm... interesting. *strokes chin*
That's a thought - writing about my time (not very long, but fairly immersed) in India. Too bad it was pre-digital-cameras...
I enjoyed this post. Thanks.
dont you worry, I feel the same way having relocated from the eastern part of the country to the west - feel as much of an outsider in my OWN country !!! do empathize with your plight and great to discover your blog, wd come again, thanks for sharing :)
weird as i wanna be, that's why i'm here.

i want to live everywhere. since i can't do that, reading your account of life in japan is the next best thing. i enjoyed this.
As a Latina, I always like a minority in America, so it wasn't that different when I lived in Niigata, Japan. I could usually do everything just right, because I really did like their culture and I could mimic the manners adequately. The formality appealed to the polite Latina in me. But one night, I went to dinner with some American engineers, ended up going to a disco with one, got really drunk and got us thrown out by kissing this gorgeous lesbian on the dance floor. The American engineer said it was the best night of his life. Later, I was kind of pissed. I mean, that girl had to live with that prejudice. Maybe Tokyo was hipper.
I lived in both Japan and Okinawa and speak and read Japanese fluently. For many years I was always aware of the difference and to me it felt more like distrust. Of course in my line of work apprehensions always played a role. Still I really enjoyed living there. Good post. O/E
I lived in Japan for a year. I was expecting a different experience, but the experience was far more different than I had expected. I was very fortunate to have known people who took me deep into the culture and away from the touristy, mass culture aspects. It was fascinating and different in a way that felt more like being on another planet than another country. One of the most alien experiences I had was sitting in a movie theatre. I wonder if you went to the movies there. They sit forward instead of back like we do here, so the heads of the people in the rows behind you were next to you rather than the person in the row next to you. Little things made for huge differences there.
Sirenita-- I always wondered how it would have been different had I lived in one of the big cities. I've heard about Japanese people who live completely against the grain, but I never got to meet them. Homosexuality was such a weird issue there, too. I met a couple gay men who were dating acquaintances of mine, but they were completely uncomfortable with PDA and kept it a secret in their professional life.

O/E--The mistrust thing may have changed a bit over time, but I've heard from fluent people that once they started getting really good at Japanese, people treated them differently, more warily. I just got to a conversational/communication level, so the most part people treated any attempt at Japanese on my part sort of like a monkey doing tricks, and they would smile and tell me how good I was at Japanese. It was a different story when I had to use Japanese to express myself during an uncomfortable situation at work.

Bill--It totally was like another planet! I went to the movies a couple times, but both times the theatre was pretty empty and I don't recall much about the seats besides they were huge and really comfortable. Going to the movies was incredibly expensive, so it was like a whole different aesthetic. And there was assigned seating!
I always thought the insane "people to space" ratio in Asia would make for privacy issues. I've met nice people from different countries, but it really seems like some cultures are stuck doing things the way they've always been done. I recently watched "Eat a Bowl of Tea", and the plot dovetails with your description of how everyone is all up in everyone else's business. We have our version of face here too. But I'm glad that (mostly) one member of a family can't tarnish the face of that entire family.
"Like a monkey doing tricks" - great description. I live in Turkey, and regardless of whether it's true or not, many Turks have an idea that their language is the most difficult in the world and no foreigner can ever learn it. I think in part it's because not many foreigners ever really try to learn it well, and because there have always been non-Turkish minorities that are distinguishable by accent and characteristic grammar oddities. People first tell you how well you speak (which you know is a polite lie). Some insist on speaking "Tarzan-ese" (Turkish stripped of its many grammatical endings which a foreigner could not possibly comprehend.). They say you know you are getting somewhere when they finally start correcting you. ;)