Looks can be deceiving – On being Asian in Japan

14 Nov

(This was originally written a while back for an editorial piece. However it did not really fit into the requirements, due to the general style and structure of the writing. Hence, it’s up here instead – for friends and family!)

“Is that your water bottle?” My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) asked, gesturing towards the turquoise David’s Tea tumbler on the table.

“Yes,” I responded.

“It’s… very nice.”

The exchange seemed normal enough till I found out that it is not customary for teachers to drink water during their classes. I guess it’s another one of those things to add to the “Only in Japan” list; a list that all foreigners start when they come to Japan.

Call it whatever you may, it exists.

Some lists bear striking resemblances, others differ greatly.

For example, I am a Canadian of Chinese ethnicity who grew up in Singapore and I’ve had conversations with my non-Asian friends who speak of experiences foreign to me.

I have never had someone stare at me as I walked down the street. I don’t feel like I’m an unidentified alien when I walk to the grocery store. Nor do I get surprised looks when I greet people with simple Japanese phrases.

In that respect, some might be tempted to think that Asians have it easy in Japan. However, like any issue that has to do with identity and appearances, that is only one side of the coin. When I first applied for a position on the JET programme to teach in Japan, I did so with initial trepidations due to my Asian heritage.

Would I be what the teachers and students in Japan were looking for?

See, I lived in Vancouver where there’s a diverse community of Caucausians, Aboriginals, and Asians who proudly proclaim themselves Canadian. Before arriving in Japan, my work in the University of British Columbia involved interaction with international students on a daily basis. There, I was exposed to students with varied backgrounds and was conditioned to think without having preconceived notions of individuals. Yet, with all that training, in addition to my background growing up in a culturally-diverse society, I am not spared from judging others by their appearances.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to me that in the eyes of the Japanese public, I must be Japanese since I look it.

When I first started teaching, students greeted me in Japanese and continued to do so even after I had been introduced to the school as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). Teachers at my school told me they first thought I was a new Japanese Teacher. In fact, every single person I’ve met in Japan has immediately assumed that I am Japanese.

Yet, without a doubt, I betray my ‘gaijin-ness’ with more than just my broken and sorely-lacking Japanese.

There’s a Uniqlo right in my neighborhood that I frequent. The first time I tried on a dress, I did what any Canadian would do, step into the changing room. On a whim, I peeped out of the changing room before closing the curtains. My eyes went from the horrified look on the sales representative’s face to the pairs of shoes that were outside the various cubicles.

Who would’ve guessed that the Japanese do not wear their shoes into fitting rooms???


Another time, a student came to me after having received her journal.

“What is wrong with this sentence?” she asked as she pointed at an underlined portion of her journal.

“Absolutely nothing, it’s great!” I said.

As I recounted this exchange to my supervisor, I learnt that in Japan, correct answers are marked with circles and wrong ones with checks.

What a great thing to find out, after already marking 280 of their journals.

Yes, I may look like one of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like the foreigner that I am.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully embrace looking Asian. I appreciate the chameleon-like ability it gives me to blend in. However, there is a danger that lurks when you start to believe the perceived reality that others have of who you are.

Take my situation for example: I look Japanese. People believe I am Japanese. I believe I am Japanese. (Sounds something like Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, maybe?)

So, maybe it’s not that simple.

There are other factors at play; the desire to embrace a culture and reflect one’s adaptability, for one.

If you have chosen to be in Japan for long-time work or studies, you likely relish the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture foreign to your own. Ideally, you would interact with it on your own terms. Realistically, you will be faced with situations you’d have never dreamed you’d encounter. Amongst difficult things like homesickness, fatigue, and stress, you may find yourself looking to be part of the community that you are so seemingly submerged in. Things that you’ve added to the ‘Only in Japan’ list start to become a commonality, possibly even a habitual trait of your own; an attempt to adapt and fit in, maybe? Or a genuine identification with culture?

Either way, for some this shapes and strengthens you. For others, this splits you in half. To the latter half of you, I say, “be wary.”

Take heed to find the balance between the fine line of adaptability and losing yourself.

The countless encounters I’ve had with the surprised looks and remarks about my not being Japanese did eventually take its toll on me. At one point, not being able to speak nor understand Japanese well made me feel highly inadequate as a person. Only when a friend remarked, “but, you speak English…” did I realize the need to consciously remind myself to put things into perspective…

So, whether you decide to add or delete things off your personalized ‘Only in Japan’ list, never, ever, let it diminish who you are.

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2 Responses to “Looks can be deceiving – On being Asian in Japan”

  1. André November 15, 2014 at 1:30 am #

    Having lived in Japan before I guess this time around I have been spared a lot of the “wow, really!” moments a lot of the new JETs are having.

    However, when I first came to Japan I also had one of those experiences at Uniqlo. I drove to the nearest store and when I entered the parking lot it was very busy. There was a large van that appeared to be just randomly stopped in the “driving lanes” of the lot. I started to go around to find a place to park (think they were waiting for someone), only to realize that the van was being held in place by a traffic director,and that similarly vehicles were being held in some sort of complex queue at various places around the lot. I had accidental butted ahead, something I imagine is dimly looked upon by the Japanese, and was confirmed by the look in the traffic directors face. I had to apologise a lot in Japanese and then wait my turn, while awkwardly stopped in an odd place. When I went inside I found nothing I wanted and had to walk back past the traffic direct after only 2 minutes. Who new a store would have traffic directors in their parking lot!

    • joyiejoytan November 15, 2014 at 7:47 am #

      It’s moments like that which make it Japan! Thanks for sharing 😀

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