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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Bubbles and Ghettoes

It was in Japan that I first encountered the term "bubble" in the context of migration. Foolish literal-minded me was a bit confused at first because "bubble" in my mind is 1. what small children create with soapy water and wands; 2. extravagant prices for tulips or stock; and 3. a way to keep a pleasant reality in and an unpleasant reality out.  Using those definitions/images I could not immediately connect the term to migration.  Clearly, it meant something else to the people who were using it here.

"Bubble" in the context of the English-speaking migrants in Japan is a metaphor for what is referred to elsewhere as a "[country of origin] ghetto" or, to be more politically correct, "[country of origin] community."  Metaphor because people don't actually live in "[a] thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or another gas."

Why eschew the old and venerable term "ghetto?"  Maybe because a strict definition of the term implies extreme poverty - something that I think it's fair to say most Americans, British and Canadians don't experience in the destination country.  It may also be because "ghetto" implies spatiality;  it's a place that you can point to on a map and where the well-meaning native counsels the tourist to avoid.  The ABC's (and continental Europeans) simply aren't numerous enough in most places in Japan to completely overwhelm a neighborhood and call it theirs, though they can shape its character.

At best they live in a part of town that caters to the "international community" or apartment complexes that are "foreigner-friendly" but even there they are rarely a majority.  In 2008 there were 152 Americans per 100,000 residents in Tokyo which meant about 18,000 Americans in a city of 13 million people. In Osaka there is a neighborhood called "Little America" (Amerika-mura) which is 99% Japanese, other Asian and African youths.

"Ghetto" is also pejorative;  it's a place where we imagine that people are trapped and can't easily leave but there is a certain ambiguity introduced when the people in that space are a culturally and linguistically homogenous community of migrants.  There are arguments for and against their agency: choice versus forced segregation.  I note that when such an area becomes an area of interest for the cultural tourist it is elevated to a "town" ("Koreatown" or "Chinatown.")

"Bubble" when used in the context of migration here is combined with a not very nice word for foreigner.   Added together these two terms become "gaijin bubble."  Unlike "[country of origin] ghetto" a "gaijin bubble" is mostly disconnected from physical space and describes a combination of actions and intent on the part of a migrant in Japan and both concern integration.  A migrant living in a "gaijin bubble" is one who has not integrated - much or most of their daily life is spent speaking their home country language and having very little contact with Japanese and Japanese life - and chooses to remain unintegrated.   The notion of agency here is powerful - there is no ambiguity as with the word "ghetto."  A "bubble" is a choice and with a little or a lot of   effort (I've heard both) a migrant/expatriate can step out and be an active integrated member of Japanese society.

Is the term more descriptive or prescriptive.  I would make an argument for the latter.  When I hear an Anglophone in Japan use the term " gaijin bubble" they aren't talking about themselves, they are referring to how other people live.  They are making a moral judgment that says "my way of living in Japan is superior to yours."  Put that way it doesn't sound like very attractive behavior - it smacks of a sort of puritanical policing (as does, I would admit, the accusation that some Americans in France are living in an "American ghetto.")  And, yet, I can see why they would do it.

The fact that such terms as "ghetto" and bubble" exist as epithets says to me that those migrants who consider themselves integrated are paying attention to those who they perceive as unintegrated. They claim to be on the outside looking in and yet (unless they have no direct experience with such people) they do have connections to them - some window into their lives which leads them to believe that they know and can judge them.  However, outside of one's immediate circle of colleagues and friends the Japanese are likely to make no distinction between those who have integrated and those who haven't.  Those who are integrated find this to be extremely frustrating and I can understand that.  There is an argument to be made here that the behavior of those who don't integrate does affect the lives of those who do.

How can one change this situation?  Well, asking the Japanese to approach migrants/expatriates differently would be one possibility, but is it realistic?  Given the numbers, probably not.  Asking 100,000 people to be more open to the possibility that some gaijins are fluent in Japanese so as not to hurt the feelings of the 152 foreigners is unlikely to work.  As minority migrants and citizens they just don't have that kind of power or influence, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Another possibility which is easier and may seem more likely to produce results is to go to work on those who persist in living their "gaijin bubble" lives.   Alas, this usually means: insinuating that their manner of living in Japan is all wrong; criticizing them for not speaking Japanese well enough or being illiterate; whispering, "he/she is still  teaching after 10 years in the country" and so on.  There are several reasons why this doesn't work.

First of all there is the lack of a clear and common definition of integration.  The Japanese themselves don't seem to have an integration policy with regard to this population. (Perhaps it would be easier if they did.)  So it's a very subjective thing.  Since most migrants are on some sort of integration continuum just about anyone can point to some things they do which would make "bubble" or "ghetto" inapplicable to them.  So when they hear those words they assume that the article or comment is referring to other people.

Another difficulty is that, frankly, there are migrant/expatriates who are not integrated and refuse to do so and those who are integrated have no real leverage to convince them otherwise.  They don't care one whit about the good opinion of the integrated foreigners and are inclined to say that it's none of their business how they choose to live in Japan.

Last possibility I see is to simply let it go. In the schemes of things this is hardly the most important issue of the day.  As they say, keep your own side of the street clean, live in accordance with your principles, negotiate your own integration in your community, and don't worry too much about what other people do.

That's how I see it.  Feel free to disagree in the comments section.  I will end this post by making three suggestions to those who can't/won't let this one slide.

The first is that with all this angst about whether or not a migrant/expatriate is integrated (enough) perhaps  it might be worth asking the Japanese what their definition is and requesting some sort of official policy.  Here is what we expect and if you do these things you are integrated to our satisfaction. At that point I think we could safely say that the debate amongst the migrants/expats would be over.

The second is that who feel they are integrated and are frustrated by those who aren't might want to consider moving the discussion away from talk of "bubbles" and superior versus inferior integration and toward a discourse that sounds like this: "Look, folks, things would be much better for all of us if, say, we all spoke, wrote, and read Japanese more fluently." Make a case.  Make it here if you like.

And thirdly, complaining incessantly about and slapping labels on other people is like moving air - it accomplishes nothing. Or if it accomplishes anything it is the accumulation of resentment and the sparking of contentious debates. I'd take another look as well at the "choice" because, yes, there are those who refuse to integrate but I suspect there are many more who want to and are struggling. Personally, I would have much more respect for the position of those who talk of "gaijin bubbles" if they were actually doing something concrete to help people get out of them.  My .02.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Victoria, you can replace Japan with France and it's the same. When you get back here, join one or two FB groups of Americans living in France. The bubble is very thick skinned and hard to pierce. I don't even try. I just answer questions and stay out of arguments over "Why are the French ....?"

suzy said...

Ellen, I have found that most people who write, "Why are the French?" or "Why do the French?" don't want an answer. They just want to assert their superiority.

Anonymous said...

from Sveeden,

quite similar everywhere. The 2nd generation may be able to bust that bubble.

Sometimes the bubble is enforced by those in it, sometimes by those outside it, sometimes both.

And I do remember Interrailing in the 80's and coming back with such great awareness and self confidence (superiority).

It's a struggle enough just to get work--- worrying about social integration is a luxury.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen, Thank you for answering questions. Newcomers (and sometimes the oldtimers) get stymied by situations that they don't know how to handle. And to those who view organizations that help migrants (of which there are many in Paris) as not conducive to integration are, I think, missing something. They can be a force for BETTER integration. What does the functionnaire prefer? Someone coming up the counter completely clueless? (Even if they speak the language.) Or someone who has learned from another migrant (or a native) broadly how the procedure works and arrives with pertinent questions and ready to get started?

Suzy, Those are questions with no answers. An invitation to kvetch? Probably. Asking anyone of any nationality Why are you (plural) like this? is fruitless. They don't know, you don't know and I don't know. As my mother in law puts it C'est comme ca. :-)

Anonymous, generally from what I've seen it's a bit of both. And I like your last sentence. Let's not forget here that for many of us the priorities are things like paying the rent, showing up for work, getting sober.:-) Better integration might help with some of those things but it won't necessarily keep you healthy or make your children and spouse happy.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Since I have a feeling it was one of my comments that prompted this blog post, I feel some responsibility to reply.

First, the term "gaijin bubble" is not necessarily pejorative, though it can be. As noted, there may be good reasons to do choose to live in one -- for example, one only intends to stay a short while, so the investment needed to break out would not be worth the effort. It's a trade-off. As long as one can make that choice willingly, that is one's own business.

I feel more concern for those who feel trapped in a bubble unwillingly. At work, after many years, I finally ended up in the right committee meetings where I could propose, and get implemented, that we provide Japanese language training for foreign employees. Specifically, language training at a level needed to conduct meetings with suppliers, write specifications documents, status reports and business e-mails, direct workers, etc. All stuff that needs to be done by anyone working where I work, but the need for Japanese training for non-native speakers (beyond elementary, "here's katakana -- great, now you can read the menu at McDonald's, enjoy!") was completely unrecognized by the organization until recently. It actually took a couple of years of persistence on my part, but we now conduct such classes every year, and it has become a regularly budgeted item. I hope this will continue for future generations of incoming foreigners to make adjusting to life here a little bit easier, and I will fight if needed to make it so as long as I am around to do so.

Andrew said...

I'm not a great fan over debates over terminology beyond the more important ones: migrant vs immigrant, integration vs assimilation.

One of early insights into Canadian policy development was the recognition that integration had to be a voluntary process in order to be effective, combined with the belief, generally born out over time, that most immigrants choose to integrate, while maintaining aspects of their culture of origin. But easier for a country of immigrants than more ethnically based countries.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, This one has been in the back of my mind for awhile but, yes, your comment reminded me that I still hadn't made the effort to organize my thoughts and share them. So thank you for that. And thank you as well for making that effort to be of service. To recognize a need and fight for it. As I said I know people here who will not integrate. If I had to make a generalization they are people who are in Japan solely because of a spouse. If they didn't have family here, they would probably leave because there are other places they would rather be (not necessarily their home countries). But I've met many more who regret that their jobs and family obligations make it hard for them to find the time and energy to absorb more kanji, to learn to write well and to raise their level of spoken Japanese. Your efforts are exactly what's needed and you have my admiration for getting the program going and persisting. More of that would be great.

Andrew, Yes, integration is about the long-term. And I suspect you're right that it's easier for a country built on immigration. What is difficult, I think, for some countries is that they became countries of immigration relatively recently and until they admit this is the case, all those questions about integration are on standby. :-)