Born and raised a ‘gaijin’


The other evening after pushing my way onto the same train car as always, I hung there on my commuter strap and broke momentarily from my rush hour funk to find my reflection staring back at me from the window. There I stood with my shoulders sagged, my necktie loosened and a work world of fatigue weighing in my eyes — exactly like the fellows on my either side.

Except for one difference.

“My gosh,” I thought. “I’m a ‘gaijin’!”

Yet in no way should that have been a surprise. For I have always been a gaijin . . . from long, long before I entered Japan.

Now, the Japanese word “gaijin” — which, like the English word “foreigner,” literally means “outsider” — is one of those loaded terms that collects quite a different bang depending on just who hears it when. The sound rings out loud with connotations, and few of them are subtle.

From the Japanese end, gaijin can be bullish, insensitive louts, often well-meaning, sometimes funny, but usually with their mouths open and at least one foot lodged firmly inside. Yet at the very same time, gaijin can also serve as symbols of freedom and beauty. They will evoke images of Hollywood and jazz bars and The Beatles and romance and courage and hope, and hence can offer the teasing promise of an escape from a plodding existence of groups, symmetry and overtime. The truth — that oily devil — lies somewhere in between.

From the outsider’s view, responses to the word “gaijin” can range from those who growl at the racial overtones of exclusion and discrimination, to those who embrace the goofy-but-lovable barbarian role to the max, and on to those who want nothing to do with the term “gaijin” whatsoever and only wish to sink silently among the masses and become as Japanese as possible. For most foreigners, perhaps, all three of these visions hold true, each at separate moments.

But as for me, I don’t think that last option is feasible. For my gaijin-ness is too intrinsic. Yes, there are times in the rigmarole of my daily routine when I lose track of where I am and drift into the fuzzed assumption that I am but one of the madding crowd about me, only to be roused back to reality by an Oriental voice at my shoulder or a telltale reflection in a windowpane.

Then I return to my gaijin-ness like a person shaking off a dream, not sure for an instant of my true whereabouts, only knowing that I am alone and surrounded.

That sensation, I have come to consider, is not Japan-specific. I have felt it all my life. If anything, the long-accepted notion that I am apart from any group has eased my adjustment to the curious and occasionally unwelcoming stares of foreign residency in Japan.

You see, I was born a gaijin. I was a gaijin as a kid in the Midwest, growing up in a divorced home as the only dad-less youngster on the block. I was a gaijin in school, yearning for friends like everyone else but just a bit too sheepish to mingle. And I was a gaijin in the awkward years of adolescence, never feeling as self-assured as the other youths around me seemed so dead-certain to be.

I was born a gaijin. I grew up a gaijin. I came to Japan a gaijin. It’s always been as natural as gazing out a window and appreciating the landscape yet not being one with it. I fit in Japan because I matched the role. I was a gaijin from the get go. I suspect a lot of us were.

More than this, I suspect there are many Japanese who feel like gaijin too, viewing themselves as enduring extras in their long-playing epics of life.

But none of this is necessarily negative — as all “true” gaijin will understand. For there is much to be said for being a gaijin. ‘Tis the season to be sentimental, so allow me now to bang the gaijin drum and recite the gaijin ode.

Gaijin, I believe, can identify with those who are different, for they know what being different means. Gaijin also care a lot for the “little guy” because they recognize that guy is just themselves in another suit of clothing. Gaijin will also sympathize with the discriminated against, for they have sometimes worn those very shoes themselves.

Gaijin seldom look upon the world as “us against them” and learn to measure other people by their compassion and not by their nationality, skin tone or pocketbook. Gaijin realize that every human soul is a minority of one.

Gaijin take care with language because they have struggled with it . . . and because they have felt how language can hurt. Gaijin hate lies. Gaijin hate spin control. Gaijin know that truth has no relation whatsoever to wealth, power or status, and are disgusted whenever they discover veracity has been manipulated, ignored or bought.

Gaijin do not pick fights. Gaijin do not spout, “Bring ’em on.” Gaijin are often the first to donate money, the first to volunteer, the first to weep and the first to forgive.

Gaijin are not perfect. Ask any gaijin and they will be quick to agree. They do not fit all the above attributes all of the time, but they manage most of them most of the time.

And, of course, gaijin are not limited to any one location. They live here, they live there, they live everywhere. They have learned to see the “outsider” in themselves no matter where they may reside, and that is their perpetual struggle . . . and their perpetual strength.

I wish there were more gaijin in the world. We need them, you see. We really do.