Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Shoes Fit

What's up with the list thing on the Internet?   "10 Things" this and "Top 20" that.  The format certainly catches our attention (and it's all about attention)  if for no other reason than these titles assure us that whatever the content, it will be limited to those 5, 10 or 20 items and not one more.  If it's good, it's easy to remember; and if it's dreadful, the pain and boredom is limited.  A futile attempt at time management in the time sink that is the on-line life?

A few days ago a reader posted a link to such a list entitled The 10 Gaijin You Meet in Japan.  Gaijin is a Japanese word for "foreigner" and it's not a nice word.  I used it once to refer to myself in a conversation and my Japanese drinking buddies reacted badly.  "Don't use that word," they said.  "Why not?" I replied. "You use it."

In the spirit of linguistic and cultural appropriation, we foreigners own that word now and use it freely when we talk to or about each other. And this list is all about one gaijin talking about other gaijins for general edification and amusement.

It is a diverting list in a Paul Fussell sort of way.  Fussell was a keen and cruel observer of  human grandiosity and he did the witty, cutting, ego-deflating smack down quite well.  The fact that he was a class-conscious snob (and an ass to boot) has never lessened my pleasure at his genuinely funny and erudite commentary.

The 10 Gaijin is not that funny or well-written.  But that doesn't mean it isn't worth reading.

How many of us approached this list hoping that we would be entertained by the folly and bad behaviour of other people?  Because, of course, none of us ever acts abroad in a way that might bring blushes to the cheeks of our compatriots or fellow foreigners.  Nor do we have anything in common with each other besides the visas in our passports.  We are original, authentic people having an original and authentic experience and our behaviour is just fine, always, and beyond even the gentlest mockery.  

My own sense of specialness took a blow when the mild amusement I was feeling reading the list was abruptly cut short by a flash of recognition at  #8, the "My-Japans".  Replace "Japan" with "France" and the shoes fit.  That's an uncomfortable admission to make and my first reaction was to take off those sexy black pumps and throw them at the author's head.

Not so fast. The author may own his own words on the Net but he's not responsible for my reaction to them. And why, pray tell,  am I reacting to them with such indignation?  Because I can see myself here and I don't care for the reflection.

There is a sense of pride that we long-term expats/migrants feel after spending years integrating into a new country and culture and by God, we want points for the effort (because we sure aren't getting much applause from the natives).  Nothing is more aggravating then the newly-arrived, puppy-dog earnest, inexperienced compatriot who doesn't give us the recognition that we think we are due. And so we shut them down or attempt to cut them down to size.

As recently as a few months ago I engaged in this kind of mindful malice at a party in Paris.  When a person with less time in France informed me that she loved her Parisian neighborhood because there were no Americans in it, I took a perverse pleasure in gleefully pointing out that I had American friends living right next door to her.  Fussell would have been proud.

Am I the only long-term expatriate/migrant in the whole wide world who ever did such a thoroughly obnoxious thing? No, and I know this because it was done to me when I first arrived in France and it made me feel small and stupid. And I really resented it at the time.   Fast forward about 20 years and here I was inflicting it on someone else.

That appalling bit of self-revelation made The 10 Gaijin worth the read for me. As an old lady trying to get into Heaven now (also known as trying to clean up her act in anticipation of the day she gets the definitive answer to the question Is There a God?) it's good to have one's bad behaviour exposed while one still has a bit of time to do better.  For this I thank the author.

I cannot speak to the other elements on his list but perhaps someone here would care to take them on?

12 comments:

Inaka Nezumi said...

Amusing list, but... I think I'm going to stand up for my fellow gaijin and say that few, if any, fit those stereotypes. Most live fairly ordinary lives, as engineers, homemakers, construction workers, researchers, teachers, students, restaurant workers, corporate drones, what-have-you. The white women are mostly happily married as far as I know, the men keep their hands to themselves as far as I know, the teachers who are English teachers do not act like clowns in the classroom as far as I know, I can't think of any anime or martial arts freaks as far as I know, and I don't know anyone who avoids other foreigners on purose (though I suppose, if they are successful at it, I wouldn't). We see each other in grocery stores and at neighborhood school functions with our kids. Just an ordinary slice of humanity, really.

Now, I've known some who are bitter but trapped in their jobs, and some horny kids right out of college, but they'd have probably been like that anywhere.

Inaka Nezumi said...

"When a person with less time in France informed me that she loved her Parisian neighborhood because there were no Americans in it, I took a perverse pleasure in gleefully pointing out that I had American friends living right next door to her."

You know best what was in your head, but I could read this exchange quite differently. Were you really thinking, "let's ruin this newbie's joy of discovery just to be mean," or were you actually thinking, "keep your prejudices to yourself, you self-hating foreigner," and trying to gently educate her?

Inaka Nezumi said...

And in the interest of not spreading hurt, let me replace "corporate drone" above with "salaryman/woman."

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Yes, just ordinary people. But we seem to have all sorts of trouble convincing the homeland government and citizens of this fact. That we lead pretty normal lives? What a concept. :-) And yet they are given a steady stream of books and articles where we claim difference. It's a conundrum. I think a lot about this one....

I've heard variations on the statement I quoted. I had someone tell me once how much they loved Paris because there were almost no Americans living there. And I just laughed and pointed out that there were about 75,000 of them living in the city.

Oh yes, Those kinds of statments annoy me and I've been quick with the witty and condescending reply. Easy to do when it's a factual error - there are no Americans in my quartier. Oh yes there are and here are some names.

I would like to stop doing that. I make a judgement about them based on one sentence that I find pretentious or ignorant and that becomes my excuse to explain a few things to them in a way that isn't gentle at all. Thus ends the conversation on a very sour note with both parties thinking badly of the other.

Someone pointed out to me another strategy that might be a bit better (and keep my side of the street clean) and that is to ask a question instead of coming up with a witty put down.

A gentler way of replying would be perhaps a simple "Why is that important to you?" and give the person a chance to explain.

In the conversation (and now it's become a conversation and not a pissing contest) you can slide in the information and see if that changes anything.

This is something I'd like to work on but it's definitely a work in progress.

Anonymous said...

Victoria
I don't know about other countries but as an American expat in Canada, let me tell you we keep a pretty low profile so as to be almost invisible (especially now with FATCA).In 38 years I've heard one main expression from the Canadians. And that is: "those damn Americans..." It gets old after awhile. As to your spiritual search, don't give up. The pastor in me says there is a God, but we don't achieve heaven...it is a priceless gift...Good Friday and all that. Takes a tremendous burden away and replaces it with gratitude...like your piece the other day was getting at. Enjoy your posts so much!

Inaka Nezumi said...

"Yes, just ordinary people. But we seem to have all sorts of trouble convincing the homeland government and citizens of this fact. That we lead pretty normal lives? What a concept. :-) And yet they are given a steady stream of books and articles where we claim difference."

I wonder, are "we" claiming a difference, or is a difference being claimed for us? The only studies I know of are Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels' ones, which tend to show that we are singularly ordinary, boring people -- just like everyone else where we live or came from. Not yet enough to counteract the dominant narrative, which would seem to have us as wealthy tax-evaders, defective personalities, or both. But very valuable studies.

But of course, boring and ordinary doesn't sell. So bring on Profiles In Wackiness instead.

Maria said...

A difference is being claimed for us, I think. Because the "normal" way of life for an American is to live in America. Going abroad to live is seen as something akin to an adventure, even if the person going abroad is going to a normal life much like the one lived at home. For Europeans, though, especially southern Europeans, going abroad is seen as a way to live a better life than the one at home. It is seen as a search for oportunities denied in the home country. Those who remain behind don't envy the adventure, they envy the economic betterment.

Inaka Nezumi said...

@Maria,

"Going abroad to live is seen as something akin to an adventure, even if the person going abroad is going to a normal life much like the one lived at home."

Yes, I guess that goes back to Victoria's post about "what kind of problems could you possibly be having in Paris?" I think the idea that we can't possibly be living real lives with ordinary problems (and pleasures, too) makes it easy to write laws without any concern for their impact on us, and to demonize us for political purposes. I think that is why lists like this "10 gaijin" one rubs me the wrong way -- just seems to encourage the trend.

Though maybe I should try to take the lesson Victoria got from it, and try to be gentler in my reaction to it.

bubblebustin said...

It's interesting all the things we do to compensate for feeling like outsiders, whether it's a result of our own or what we imagine are other's conceptions of what it means to be an immigrant. After moving to Canada when I was 12, I've found myself doing all kinds of contradictory things that I thought would make me fit in better - from being anti-American when I thought I needed to, or "sorry" for Canada's behaviour in reaction to some event. Well, suddenly a few years ago I found myself on even footing with other Canadians when I learned about a big change to Canada's Citizenship Act that made me a Canadian citizen at birth. With the stoke of a pen, I no longer felt stigmatized for being an immigrant, and at 12 I actually 'came home' to Canada instead having been brought here by my mother to live in 'her' country.

Yes, when we feel we're being treated with hostility for being newcomers, imagined or not, anything we can do to look like less like one is only natural - whether it's reminding another that we've been here longer than they have, or staking a claim on some birth rite. You'd think that being at the pointed end of the stick, however, it would be something we wouldn't want to perpetuate. Thanks for pointing that out! (Although I'm in complete agreement that you were justified in using your greater knowledge of this woman's neighbourhood to put her in her place, lol).

DL NELSON said...

When someone said I have a glamorous life (I'd met my daughter in London for lunch--she came from Germany, I came from Switzerland), I didn't have the heart to tell them we ate at Burger King, I was on my way to my university course and she had taken time from her university studies in Mannheim.

It tends to be a more American trait to give numbers and lists. 10 ways to loose weight for your summer bikini, 5 easy meals, etc.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Nezumi and Maria, A project I've had on the back burner for awhile: take a look at the movies, documentaries, magazine and internet articles and books written by for about Americans abroad. Put myself in the position of an American at home and look at them and try to see what's being described through their eyes. I think "adventure" is definitely one impression. What are the others?

And I'll tell you what I noticed in two books that I read not too long ago: nannies, good schools, very affordable housing, good inexpensive health care and so on. Some books I've seen play up their acquisition of cultural capital: cooking skills, language, art, music, museums, monuments, travel. In these books no one is ever unemployed, facing bankruptcy because of illness, or worried sick over the quality of their children's education.

These are the images that sell books and movies and magazine articles. I'm curious about the cumulative effect of those images on homeland Americans. If this is all they see (or all that we let them see) then perhaps there is some foundation for their overall impression that we are having way too much fun.

@bubblebustin, YES! Compensation is exactly the word I was looking for. And that sense of insecurity when one isn't quite sure if one belongs or not. Standing out is not necessarily in one's best interests. Impressions that the host country nationals have of your particular nationality can be quite negative. Easy to find oneself downplaying certain things (or avoiding behaviour) that might irritate or offend. Deportation and denaturalization happen and are only a concern for the resident and natualized citizen.

bubblebustin said...

Deportation and denaturalization are the least you have to worry about - we've all read "Shogun", lol!