My brother, Diego, came to Japan with my parents back in 2002 for the World Cup. When I first moved here and talked to him about living in Japan, he asked, “Tell me the truth – have you ever felt so different in your entire life?” Eh … actually, I’m fine with looking different. I didn’t expect to come to Japan and look like everyone else, after all – my gaijinity is a fact and just isn’t something that bothers me the way it bothers other foreigners so I have maintained a sort of blissful ignorance about the unabashed stares we receive through my first few weeks here.
Sometimes my friends point out the stares as we amble down the street in search of food in our black suits. Ignorance is indeed bliss in this situation – I notice that some of my friends get a little cranky – but for me, the worst thing is the possibility of getting shafted. It might be ugly, but on more than one occasion, Japanese shopkeepers have definitely tried to overcharge us for drinks or various other sundries. Their plans haven’t gone down since several of my friends speak Japanese well enough to argue with them and get the bill back down to what it ought to be but this reality has made me extra careful when I receive change at a conbini.
Apart from my fellow schoolteachers, I catch another un-Asian’s eye from time to time. Yes, our faces do stick out in a sea of Asians and there is sometimes the employment of the phenomenon known as “the gaijin nod” – when un-Japanese strangers pass each other (in a shop, in the subway), they must somehow acknowledge each other’s presence with a nod, a raised eyebrow, a smile of some sort. We do it but laugh because we know that if we were back home we wouldn’t even look at the person. Here in Japan, however, our eyes search and settle on the strangers that somehow look familiar.
My neighbor Bob snickered once as a bicycle whizzed past us while we walked to school. When I asked why he was laughing he said that it was because I had just gotten a funny stare from the person on the bike. He explained that he thinks I get even stranger stares from the Japanese since, from the back, I might be able to pass as one of them but as soon as they get a load of my face they do a double take. Hmm. Business in the back, party in the front?!
Just now, as I tope at the internet cafe, a man sat at the computer next to me and bumped me slightly. “Sumimasen!” we both said automatically but when we turned to grin apologetically we were both shocked to see another Caucasian looking back at us. Our ready apologetic grins turned sheepish. We nodded at each other. And then we went back to typing in English.