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Monday, February 27, 2012

Gaijin

What is a gaijin?

According to the dictionary, this Japanese word translates to "outsider", "alien" or "non-Japanese".

I am all three. I am a gaijin.

And yet, to the visitor to Japan, the term gaijin has come to mean something disrespectful... a hurtful term that smacks of racism. 

Have you ever looked at yourself in a mirror? I mean really looked at yourself - hard - and contemplated all your strong points, all your flaws?

That's what being in Japan did for me.

Via my very own looking glass, I peered at myself and the world of Japan as though I had entered some sort of Wonderland. While wholly similar to the land I called home - Toronto, Canada - Ohtawara-shi, Japan in Tochigi-ken was a mixed up world filled with awe, excitement, confusion and adventure.

I was born in London, England. My parents are from India. I spent my first three years of existence in England, before we moved to Toronto... where I lived in peace, harmony and veiled and sometimes not-so veiled bigotry for 22 years more.

Sure... lots of people have immigrated from one country to another - maybe even you - but with an ancestry some would consider a third-world nation in India, to a first-world country in Canada, I was an immigrant. An outsider. A brown-faced boy who only wanted to be a boy.

Wishing upon a star did not help.

To fit in, I tried to learn as much about my country as possible - and by my country, I mean Canada. I am not a hyphen Canadian. I just wanted to fit in. But being brown-skinned meant also being thick-skinned, as people older than me always saw fault with the way I looked. Different.

I didn't speak with an accent (I lost my Cockney Brit accent weeks after landing in Toronto), I only spoke English, I didn't eat anything foreign - too damn hot!, and knew nothing of my culture. Yeah... thank you for allowing me to fit in. And yet... I never did.

I learned more about hockey (ice hockey) than any of my contemporaries, but never learned how to skate owing to either a fear of failure or a lack of proper direction - my parents couldn't teach me. I learned the rules, the stats, the history - and even now I will go head-to-head against anyone on sheer knowledge of hockey history.

And still... I could be looked upon and seen as different. Too dark. Too foreign.

I was a gaijin in my own country.

When I applied to the JET Programme to teach English in Japan, I was told that the Japanese could sometimes be a tad racist towards foreign people. How would I handle that?

I smiled and said, the same way I handle it here in Canada. Turn the other cheek. Understanding. Education.

As stupid as it sounds, but even 20 years ago many people in Toronto had never had anything but a friend of the same color. As such, naivety of cultures existed. The fact that my culture was the same as their white Canadian culture was a source of much confusion.

He looks darker, but man - he acts and talks and eats and plays just like us. He even knows more about hockey (and baseball) than us.

Arriving in Japan, I had lived at home for all 25 years of my life... spoiled by parents who did everything for me. While I did pay for my own education, they did present me endless opportunities to excel - or perhaps just to find myself. Accordion and piano lessons, soccer, judo... I did them. But, if you think about it... those four things still makes one an outsider in Canada. The piano less so, though. Everything else - that was so foreign.

In Japan, after a period of acclimatization, I would on occasion venture forth from my hobbit burrow and look around town. Ohtawara was a town of about 50,000 people... and no matter where I went, people would stop, stare, point and occasional utter a profane profanity: Gaijin!

I was being called a foreigner... even an outsider, by the Japanese.

I was home.

I never considered being called a gaijin a bad thing - at least not in Japan. I was an outsider. While it is true I did want to try and blend in, I knew, much like in Toronto that I never could completely. Such is life.

Hell... even if I went back to mother India where I have never been and except for being of Indian heritage I really know nothing of the place, I would also be a foreigner. They would spot me a mile a way and know I wasn't from around there.

It doesn't bother me at all. It even makes me feel kind of special. Exotic, even. Japan, India, England, Canada. A man of the world.

I hope I don't sound down or disappointed. I'm not. While I can never truly blend in, I can fit in. And there, I think, I have.

Just like in Canada, the people of Japan have accepted me for who I am. A gaijin, sure... but more importantly to those who know me, I am Andrew.

And, more importantly, I know who I am.

I am Andrew Joseph. 

I've stepped on through a looking glass and am living in Wonderland. At least in my version of it, there is no Jabberwocky.

Gaijin? Sure I am.

And, should you be called a gaijin and discover it bothers you, let me offer a little advice. Words have power when you give it power. Or... sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.

Cheers
Andrew Joseph

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