The “Gaijin”

Having been a visitor to Japan twice, I am still impressed by its breadth of tourist pickings and its hospitality. Just food alone, these range from the delectable yet simple delights of melons in Furano to the intricate kyo-kaiseki (Japanese traditional haute cuisine) in Kyoto.

I would be greeted with the impeccable hospitality of the Japanese each time I return. Food is a stress-free experience; almost no one seems to churn out a bad dish. Some even suspect my heavy biases towards Japanese culture and suspect I may be smitten with everything Japanese.

However, unlike my travels in Central Europe, I was not able to have deep enough conversations with the Japanese, unlike the Dutch (in particular). Some of them certainly know English, but towards foreigners, the Japanese put on a face of hospitality. It sometimes leaves me with a tinge of disappointment, especially in an environment of a high-context culture: their very accommodating nature makes it difficult to infer what they might be really thinking. According to a book about Japanese culture I read, there exists the “tatemae”, which is the external-facing self and “honne”, which is the internal-facing self. “Tatemae” is usually what we see: the formal, polite Japanese, whereas “honne” is unlikely to be seen unless we are close enough with them. Other cultures have variants of “honne” and “tatemae”, but these were not as pronounced as that of the Japanese.

Of late, I felt this sentiment of being a “gaijin” in some circles back in Singapore. To be fair, for the uninitiated, my manner of expression and choice of contexts to draw upon may make people me for being a Japanese (in the US), Vietnamese (in Chinatown), Malaysian (not so often, but noticeable enough) or even British (because of proper use of English on a networking platform — this has happened at least twice). Perhaps my curiosity of other cultures and willingness to engage in them make me sound, subconsciously, more “global” and hence less Singaporean, even if my instincts are certainly Singaporean.

However, I am beginning to learn that I don’t necessarily seem to resonate much with what we associate as “typically Singaporean”. I recently learnt that singing karoake was a favourite past-time in Singapore. I must be extremely late to the party. And Singaporeans love to travel for purposes of “breaking out of work cycles”, unlike my travel patterns, which one tour guide describes as “being European” and another person describes as “very interested in local culture”.

Perhaps it is my concept in what being a Singaporean means that gives rise my sense of feeling like a “gaijin” smack in my own land. To me, I stick to a rather pedantic definition of what an immigrant nation entails; being built out of people from foreign lands seeking a brighter future, Singaporeans will necessarily have origins from all around the world. This was featured quite heavily during our National Day Parade this year and I resonated well with that theme. However, a pedantic, time-invariant interpretation of this also suggests that I should, too, be open to future citizens who might share such a dream as well. But I sense, among my friends, a less than eager tune to adopt such an idea of nationality.

Going back to the term “gaijin”, its pedantic definition bodes no ill. A “gaijin” simply means “foreigner”. However, we start to pay attention to differences in a bid to differentiate between who belongs to a group, and who does not. These traits can be physical, such as skin colour, or behavioural, such as seeing who can speak a certain language a certain way (e.g., Singlish). But the concept of “gaijin” can extend beyond discriminating based on nationality. We can extrapolate this to discrimination based on attitudes towards certain events. For instance, people get aggressive when disputing about social issues, and start calling people out as bigoted or stupid.

In most matters I tend to take a slightly cooler, perhaps more analytical view. It endears well to people who want to try to break out of their comfort zone and I hope to be able to value-add to these people (partially why I write a scratchpad in the first place). However, since I appear to not pick sides on these matters, I would therefore not be included in either group and hence be seen as “gaijin” because of my lack of subscription to the various groups’ beliefs.

I am quite contented to be perceived at “gaijin” at times, though it is somewhat disappointing because being “gaijin” means it is often difficult to prod into the inner thoughts of people (cold hard analysis from the outside can only go so far) from a distance. It means that I don’t endear well particularly to most groups that have already banded because of various commonalities.

Sometimes, I am OK with such a status quo; I am free of shackles from my own groups to interact with others with the comfort of other parties that I have no vested interests. Certainly not that of an insurance agent, or that of a preacher that insists on the superiority of a certain religion, or way of life, or modality of thinking. Being “gaijin” has its advantages; “gaijin” have less restrictions on calling out sub-optimal behaviour and patterns. There is some value to be from the outside.

Emotionally, it is not entirely healthy to be a wanderer on the outside. It eventually makes one weary and miss home, a comfort zone, family and friends. Humans, being social creatures, want to feel included. I am no exception, and I hope not to be treated as “gaijin” wherever I go! However, I am also reluctant to give up my value-addedness of wanting to always look at issues from multiple angles instead of taking the pre-defined views a community subscribes to.

Perhaps mulling over this makes me feel even more lost (as this writing might suggest) than enlightened. When does one stop being perceived as “gaijin”, and start to be included into a community?

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