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Gaijin in Japan: #whitegirlproblems

I am starting to feel paranoid. Not all the time, mind you, but some of the time I can feel people looking at me.

I am about as white as a person gets. My skin tone is so pale I practically glow in the dark and if I stand in the sun for ten minutes I will look like a lobster. My hair is medium brown and curly–even more so in the high humidity of Japan. I wear noticeable earrings on a daily basis, I wear flip flops in the summer no matter what I am wearing, I paint my nails obnoxious shades of dark red, I wear bold colors and sunglasses. I have blue eyes and long eyelashes and wear lots of eye makeup. I sit with my legs crossed and carry a backpack with me some of the time.

If you saw me in America you wouldn’t look at me twice because I would blend into the crowd.

Yep...Without a doubt I am a Gaijin... >_<

Yep…Without a doubt I am a Gaijin… >_<

But in Japan I stick out like a sore thumb…or maybe a parrot or something equally ridiculous.

This is something I noticed the last time I was in Japan, but yesterday it was really bad. And by “bad” I don’t mean “the world is ending” or “my life is ruined” but rather that it was so noticeable that I became more and more self conscious as the day wore on.

Yesterday I went about my day as I would any other day. I was wearing a long red and black printed maxi dress, had my curly hair pulled back into a high pony tail, and of course there were the flip flops and backpack. There are a fair number of Gaijin at the Yoyogi Olympic Center, but for whatever reason–whether it really was because of how I was dressed or how I was acting or if it were just random–the Japanese people I passed as I walked about from building to building would often do a double take and then blatantly give me a once over with their eyes. Kids in their school uniforms, office ladies and salarymen in their suits, staff at the center, older people with every inch of their bodies covered to protect themselves from the sun–everyone turned to look at me.

Maybe they were surprised, maybe they thought I looked exotic, maybe I just looked out of place. But I was definitely looked at.

Previously in Japan I have had the experience of people looking at me, and being surprised to see a Gaijin. But typically the people either pretend not to see me/are focusing so hard on not looking at me that it seems like they don’t know I am there or they are children who don’t know any better who shout things like “Its a Gaijin!”

But I am not used to this feeling. I am used to being in America where I am part of the majority, and even though I am part of the majority and surrounded by people who look like me in some manner it is never surprising to see someone who doesn’t look like me. It is far too cliche to say that America is a melting pot, but it is true that unless you are in some secluded town in the midwest or notoriously homogenous sections of cities or suburbs, it is true that at any given moment a person can and will come into contact with people who look different from themselves and have a different ethnicity or ancestral heritage from themselves. To me, that is a given.

And then there is Japan. Ethnically homogenous and historically isolated Japan. Where despite technological advancement, tourism, world connectedness and forced teaching and learning of English through schooling, foreigners in Japan are still something to be surprised over.

In Japan I stand out as unusual and surprising and amazing…but not for any of the reasons I want to stand out for. I want to be recognized for my talents and my ambitions and my dreams, but instead I am singled out for my skin color and all the other features I carry that mark me as a Gaijin–as “other.”

In no way am I trying to become Japanese, but I would like to be able to walk down the street without people pointedly staring or needing to force themselves not to stare at me (though if they were staring because they genuinely thought I was cute…well who am I to stop them from doing that? 😉 ). I would like to be able to ask a question or order in a restaurant without someone trying to speak broken English to me or offering me a menu in English just because of the way I look.

And the thing is, no matter what I do or how long I stay in Japan, I will always carry these markers that I am a Gaijin. And that is a strange feeling.

At first I found it fascinating to be a part of the minority when I had always been a part of the majority, but I think the fascination has worn off. I now go between humor–because lets be honest, when someone looks at you and realizes that you are a Gaijin and you can blatantly see the emotions on their face that let you know their brain is screaming “OH MY GOD WHAT DO I DO NOW?” its hilarious–and also exhaustion–because there really isn’t anything that can be done to change the situation.

I think part of the reason why I am so contemplative about the Gaijin experience is because I am working with an American study abroad company (IES) and monitoring 43 foreign students as they experience Japan for the first time. As I watch them discover the delights and pitfalls of Japan it causes me to think back to all my first experiences in Japan as well as the differences between those experiences and my experiences now.

Anyhow, my posts seem to be getting more and more random…but hopefully you are enjoying them ^_^

Thanks for reading 🙂


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