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The child in me, the child in you

by Thomas Dillon

Mirrors don’t lie, but they can mislead. Mine, for example, will sometimes offer unkind reflections upon my age. Especially in the morning.

Yet, those red orbs, veined temples and that desolate scalp do not represent the feelings within. And within I remain a much younger man, one — I imagine at least — with a colt’s lively prance and a little boy’s oversize eyes for the world and its wonders.

This “young at heart” outlook I attribute to one thing: my years of residency in Japan. For something about Japan that has roped in Father Time and kept me believing I am not that much older than when I first arrived here, now nearly three decades past. Japan has been a magic elixir of youth and the reason — to me — is obvious.

Here, I am too often treated like a child.

Most foreigners are. And when you are treated like a child, it is natural to feel like one.

This unique brand of kids stuff can rub many people wrong and the theories behind it all grow on trees. Go ahead. Reach out and pick one.

It’s a language thing. Japanese figure a foreigner will never handle the national tongue — except perhaps at the level of a youngster. They thus raise their voice and reign in their vocabulary accordingly. “I’m not a kid anymore. Don’t talk to me that way!” is a refrain I long heard from my two sons while they were growing up. In Japan, I’ve been able to sing that same tune myself on too many occasions.

Japan welcomes guests and will lavish them with all the graces of the orient. Every visitor has his/her story of special treatment and spectacular kindness, tales that speak fabulously of Japanese hospitality.

They also speak of an indulgence that many foreign residents find hard to shake. They remain a “visitor” no matter how long they stay and it’s easy to feel like a kid when it seems society is holding your hand.

Certainly, longtime residents are not hailed with the same fanfare as rookies, but each fresh encounter always starts off on square one — between guest and host.

Japan also has an over-worn inferiority complex with Westerners. Whether related to the war, the Japanese bane with English or whatever, this hangup has pinned on Westerners a somewhat privileged status among foreign arrivals. And “privileged” can equal out as a synonym for “spoiled” in the case of the foreigner/child.

The typical Japanese stereotype of foreigners — and again particularly Westerners — sees them as emotional, fun-loving, loud and restless. In the end, not so different from a child at that.

All these apples shine with various luster from person to person, but there is no doubt that some foreign residents add a lot of polish to their perceived role as Helpless Henrys. After all, life is simpler for a kid. And who wants to grow up?

“I do, that’s who.”

The speaker is Foreign Resident X, Mr. X for short. Mr. X has lived in Japan since the days when the economic bubble was but mere fizzle in the mind of some distant economist.

He’s carved his life here and considers Japan his home. He speaks Japanese. He reads Japanese. He writes Japanese.

“But,” he says, “I don’t look Japanese.”

That’s the problem. While he has fully blossomed as a Japanese resident, most people still see him as a brand new bud.

“I’m not knocking kindness. I am touched by people’s consideration. It’s also nice to be pampered. But often I can’t get beyond that. Those who know me will treat me appropriately, yet to others I am forever the helpless child. Wherever I go, I am time-locked in that stage, frozen as the bumbling babe in the woods, and the routine has grown thin.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot of options. He can:

Fight the system. Which is sort of like fighting an ocean tide. Success is problematic and the waves just keep on coming.

Live to be 150. For Japanese culture is indeed changing, not unlike a mountain eroding away. The influx of foreigners and the outflow of travelers is slowly reshaping national attitudes. A day will come when a foreign face will provoke a reaction little different than that of the domestic version. All you have to do is live to see it.

Go home. Rip up the roots of all these years and replant somewhere else, a place no doubt with peculiar quirks all to its own.

Or just put up with it.

Mr. X is wise enough to know that the last option is his only true choice.

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Of course he could also exploit it, as many surely do. The “Gaijin License” I had one acquaintance call it — the trump card face that entitles its bearer to extra favors.

Or — and why not? — emphasize the health advantage.

“I swear,” I tell him. “It’s keeping me young.”

For more than a babe in a wood, I feel like an adventurer in an enchanted forest. Each turn among the knotted trees can lead to a fairy-tale event or person — something or someone I might remember forever.

True, the foliage is not as dense as when I first came, nor does the adventure hold the same thrills. I know the ground now and I have my own survival tricks. Yet there is still a gap — sometimes small, sometimes mighty — between what I know and what I do not, and I often rely on the guidance of the inhabitants for a safe passage home.

They might take me by the hand or they might just point the way, resulting in a journey that might be smooth or might be rough. But the encounters keep me sharp, observant, and, I wager, still young between the ears.

Of course, not all days are good, as my truth-speaking mirror is so keen to point out.

But in the end age has something closely in common with all mirrors.

That being: What you see is only on the surface. The truth runs much deeper than that.