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On a summer’s Sunday in Japan, I had visited my local supermarket to pick up my weeks food shopping, dressed casually in a t-shirt and jeans, my few tattoos stood visible and witness to what was about to be my first experience of being a freak in Japan. This article is about being a ‘foreigner’ or ‘alien’ in Japan and China and how your treatment between the two countries can differ greatly. Do be sure to check out the latest video from Clueless in Asia, here!
“ resting my folds of skin on a child’s head “
Avoiding the chaos that is an Asian Sunday morning, I darted around the outskirts of the supermarket to the tune of ‘Kid A’, dipping my hand into the freezer to cool off as I swooped by. I picked up a box of something labelled in Japanese and progressed to scan it using an app to translate what it was I was holding as the picture offered absolutely no clue whatsoever, from what I could deduce, it was some form of tentacle on a stick. On lowering the item back down into the freezer, I removed one earphone to see a small group of parents and children gathered on the other side of the mid-aisle freezer, staring at me and frozen in motion before covering their children’s faces and guiding them away as my eyes met theirs. Having lived in China previously, I wasn’t clueless to the fact I stood out, but at this stage, I had presumed that Japan wasn’t the same as China in regards to fascination or discrimination of peoples from outside of their own country, i.e. foreigners.
I progressed, brushing down my t-shirt innocently assuming that maybe there was something crawling on me that caught the onlookers attention. I took to a savoury isle where I spun around as the sound of a basket hit the ground where a man stood glaring, he took a long and deep breath before slowly releasing an irritated and gurning sigh of irritation; he hadn’t dropped his basket out of fear, rather, he was angry, almost as if he refused to continue down the aisle until I had left, waiting impatiently with his basket by his feet.
As I continued, I noticed that people stared into my cart to see what I eat as if I was an animal with an exotic diet, this is something that has remained a factor in every supermarket I’ve been in, “what does it eat?” seems to be the question on everyone’s mind. I began to feel like a freak as if I was the elephant man resting my folds of skin on a child’s head whilst stood in a queue, or held in the same regard as the nutcase who walks around in public with marigolds on and a straw hat. “Is this because I have tattoos?” I had thought to myself, but the answer is, no, it’s not, in fact, I had returned to the same shop on a different day with long sleeves on and was treated the very same, so why the xenophobia?
Why? It would be important to discuss or recognize the significance of having tattoos in Japan and their association with the Japanese crime syndicate, the Yakuza, but this isn’t relevant as over the course of the two years I have lived here, I have been subjected to a series of racial incidences whereby my skin has been covered, but unfortunately, my western face has not. These incidences range from racist mumbles from the elderly generation to full-blown verbal assaults from tired office workers who just don’t have the energy to keep up the charade of, ‘Japanese and polite’, albeit, these incidences are rare and the majority of Japanese people do not behave this way.
The Japanese people are a proud people, proud of their heritage, proud of their country and some don’t even own passports as leaving the country just isn’t an interest; so, could it be the case that a foreigner might not be accepted as they just don’t understand Japan? As I once stated here, non-japanese tourist can demonstrate ill-mannered behaviours through a lack of understanding of Japanese culture and this does seem to influence the impression of all those non-native to Japan, so, before you go to Japan, do us expats a favour and do behave.
One of the children kept asking their Dad if they could, “touch it?”
No one particular example can do justice to the exposure one may well feel when simply walking the streets of China, stares, being called out to and even touching are all fair game and can leave one feeling either seriously special or seriously angry. During my time living in China, my forearms became something of a novelty as people took interest in my arm hair (body hair is rare in China) and even going so far as to touch it; my face, like so many other expats, found itself being captured in unwanted photographs whilst commuting on the metro, thus, it is fair to say that a lack of boundaries exists.
I asked one seasoned expatriate about, ‘being a freak in Asia’ to which he said:
I went to a hot spring for a few days of relaxation, away from the city for a little peace and quiet. The hotel was chock a block full of Chinese people, which is what I wanted to avoid, at first I didn’t think it would be a problem but then I entered a hot spring with my girlfriend.
There were only two other people in there, but they instantly caught the scent of my ‘foreignness’ and began the ancient call of, ‘foreigner’, ‘foreigner’ back and forth, and as I took my towel off, they stared more. After a few minutes, more Chinese people, kids and adults, entered the pool, this inspired more ancient Chinese calls of, ‘foreigner’ and then they all began to talk about ‘how white I am’, ‘how tall I am’, ‘how my hair colour (ginger, or as I like to say strawberry blonde) isn’t real’ and ‘how much hair I have on my legs’. The new people in the pool then started to talk to the others in the pool about me, they shared all their knowledge on America, ‘how Americans do things’, I say, “shared knowledge“, but I should say, “dictated to each other their incorrect knowledge of America“. They basically sat in the pool and picked my ‘American’ body apart. I’m not even American.
One of the children kept asking their Dad if they could, “touch it?” The father did answer twice that they shouldn’t. However, on the third time of asking the father told his daughter that they should make it look like, “an accident” if they are to touch me.
So after having eight people talk about my body and discuss in great lengths everything they know about a country I’m not from, they then thought it okay to let the kids touch me, as long as it ‘looked like an accident’. This was the point I got up and left the pool, obviously, when I stood up there was more talking about me, I knew some of them had been secretly taking photos of me. I felt like an utter freak.
Conclusion. Chinas attitude towards foreigners, especially Westerners, is fundamentally rude, without a doubt, China has a terribly forward and familiar attitude towards your personal space, but ultimately, it isn’t unfriendly. Yes, people will gawk at you, point and even try to touch, but it’s out of fascination and curiosity and in some cases admiration, of course, there are elements of racism, but its ugly head is buried beneath those climbing on top of it to get a picture of you.
Japan, on the other hand, isn’t rude, people are not touching you, nor do they continue to stare once you’ve caught them out and they certainly don’t invade your privacy with taking pictures, but it can feel extremely unfriendly. This will come as a surprise to those of you who have heard that ALL Japanese people are friendly and to those of you I say, YOU’RE WRONG. In the most simple, primitive way I can: “Japan no rude, but unfriendly. China yes rude, no unfriendly“.
Are you ready to be a minority?