This time, I specifically want to address a post of mine back in August '09 where I wrote about how a sushi chef reacted to my very presence in his restaurant.
First impressions are hard to overcome (and second are the most important... isn't that what people say?). But even harder still are stereotypes and prejudices. There are many ways a Japanese person may respond to a foreigner. I've listed them below by order of preference.
- Nothing Special
Often the older a person is, the more likely they will have this response. This is when they address you in whichever language they find most comfortable, often mixing English words with Japanese, or just chatting it up without a care for how much you understand. This reaction is the most beneficial for learners of the language. Even if you aren't studying, the Japanese person won't have any inhibitions against finding a way to communicate.
- Exotic Stranger
The most common response from young people of the opposite sex while in public places. The Exotic Stranger suddenly becomes the topic of a hushed discussion amongst a group of friends riding the same train or sitting in the same vicinity as the foreigner. When in an outgoing mood, you can have some real fun with this reaction.
- Teach Me, Sensei!
When students who actually enjoyed English class in school meet a foreigner, they are more prone to this reaction. The foreigner can benefit from free meals and often an ego boost in exchange for the opportunity to practice language skills. This is refreshing at times, but eventually the English conversation can wear out its welcome if the two of you don't connect on something stronger than the language alone. With as much stuttering and struggling a learner can do just to complete a sentence, it's no wonder language classes at school are only an hour long. I'm sure I've met some Japanese who felt the same way towards me.
- Fuuuu©# @__@;;
This one I think is best demonstrated by the video below:
Those who more or less slept through required English classes in school are thrown into a frightening recollection of being humiliated in front of their peers. A white foreigner appears to be no different than the teacher that made them feel like a helpless child because of their inability to communicate. These people often default to the one English phrase they remember as their only defense to being forced into the awkwardly nostalgic sensation as our demonstrator, Jun Matsumoto, has done. Even if you claim to speak 'sukoshi nihongo' (a little Japanese), this individual may not even try and see how much you know due to the assumption that you really can't do any at all.
This last response is the most frequent and troublesome, and certainly the least productive when it comes to making friends. One of the benefits of my school having so many foreign teachers is that the students say they lose their fear of foreigners after having graduated.
I've tried many different ways to respond to someone stricken by the symptoms of #4 above. I have tried preempting their 'I don't speak English' by responding to their inquiry into my Japanese-speaking ability with 'iya, zenzen hanasemasen' (Nope, I can't speak any Japanese). Unfortunately the Japanese concept of humor is severely lacking in the category of irony. I just end up sounding like they would had I let them continue to line 2 of their well-rehearsed dialog.
Being a foreigner, you have to learn how to deal with each situation in turn. There may be times when you stand out like a rock star, but once you get into the swing of things, you may find that you can in fact blend in. I experienced this recently when I was meeting a friend at Starbucks.
I had arrived early and sat down in the corner to read my magazine. When my friend showed up, he actually walked past me twice before sitting down on the opposite side of the cafe and texting me to announce his arrival. 'Surely I don't blend in that much...' I thought. Then again, perhaps my friend is just unobservant.
Finally, I'd like to respond to myself 9 months ago. While you certainly shouldn't expect to 'fit right in' from the moment you land, you can expect to reach that point eventually. So long as you can recognize that you are no more or less human than a Japanese person and that it is only your personal backgrounds that differ, you will come to learn how to adapt to the people around you in the most beneficial way. Communication is the key.