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?