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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Getting Past Being Just a Gaijin

Getting Past Being Just a Gaijin in Japan.

I am a male foreigner who has been working in a Japanese office for about the past six years. For the first few years working here, I never tried to analyze office dynamics much at all. I simply saw myself as the foreigner in a Japanese office. However, I have come to see things differently. Experience of the dynamics here has made me redefine myself. More than a foreigner, I am a man in a Japanese office, albeit with a difference, in that I am gay in Japan.

The office I work in has about 30-35 people, of whom just less than half are women. There are only one or two males in the office who I can say I unreservedly like. They are friendly, warm, polite, cooperative and interesting.  The rest - the vast majority - have exhibited enough typically "male" behavior - ranging from uptight, non-responsive smugness to outright arrogance and bullying - to make me dislike them. I admit that I have a tendency to take things personally, which only worsens the chemistry. In other words, I am not blessed with the robust teflon cheer that I have seen bring quite spectacular inter-personal success with males in the office for a previous foreigner who worked here. My feelings tend to show.

Conversely, most of the women who work here, I like. I don't have that much more to do with most of them than I do with the men, but like them for the same reasons I like the likeable men.

However, unlike how the women here interact with the men, I tend to be, well, more typically male in my interactions. That is, if I am slighted, I tend to react aggressively, instantly shooting down any attempts to establish dominance. This occasionally sees me indulging in the same kind of behavior I abhor in others: unfriendly boorishness, that never fails to shock the unfortunate male it is aimed at.

Yet it was only quite recently that I noticed a reaction among the women that led me to redefine myself as a male more than a foreigner. One quite senior figure in the office, whom I have never had anything to do with in terms of work, once wandered over to where I was helping apply address labels to envelopes. I didn't like him, because not only did he never deign to acknowledge my presence, but more than once he had pushed past me in the office without a word when I greeted him, with a pained, arrogant "don't-bother-me" look on his face.

In applying the labels, I was pressed for time and was therefore doing it production-line style, rather than painstakingly doing each label as if pasting photos in an album - which is how the others were doing it. In the process, the odd label would get applied with a crease in it, or a little crooked. The aforementioned man had come over to the table, looked at what I was doing and proclaimed what translates as "Yep, that's your style, isn't it!" There was a short fuming pause before I let rip. My frustration at having been roped into this task when I was already flat out reacted explosively with my resentment of him personally. I said in ringing tones that he had no idea what "my style" was as he had never requested any work of me, at which he immediately backed off with a shocked look and profuse apologies.

It was then that the light shone down from heaven and revealed on the faces of the women there a look far from shock and dismay, but of quiet satisfaction - repressed delight, almost. I had clearly voiced a shared feeling, and noticed a subtle change in how the women there related to me from thereon in. I was now on their side.

I am not proud of being thin-skinned and occasionally aggressive, but these traits have revealed to me that "foreigner" is by no means the only thing that significantly defines me in a Japanese group. "Foreigner" covers how I pronounce my Japanese, but beyond that there is little about me that a Japanese with the appropriate experiences behind him or her might not have. As a male, on the other hand, I am more likely than many of the women to express to other males in the office what I really think of them, and as an openly gay man I am more likely than straight men to be considered something of an oddity - which no doubt accounts for some of the screwed up interactions I experience day-to-day at the office. And, as a gay man who was considered sissy as a kid and regularly bullied for it, I feel I am oversensitive to how others interact with me now that, as an adult, I (misguidedly?) expect more of other adults in the way of civility than I ever did of other kids.

It is perhaps odd that, having lived in Japan for as long as I have, I defined myself principally as a foreigner for such a long time. In hindsight it looks like naivety, and yet considering how the Japanese/gaijin divide is one at the heart of so much talk in Japan, and how much more conspicuous my being foreign is than being male ("spot the gaijin" as opposed to "spot the male"), it is forgivable naivety.

Foreigners in Japan can allow the fact that they are foreigners to color everything about their experience in Japan, and blame "discrimination," "prejudice" and "parochialism" on the part of Japanese people for everything negative they experience here. But, sometimes it pays to step back and ask yourself what Japanese people really see when they look at you. Sure, people who don't know you will see the black or white face and not much more. But people who know you have generally gotten past that and see you for the myriad other things that make you you.

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