Friday, June 28, 2013

International Exchange Column

Kemper Johanson
   5th-year Kochi City ALT

   An extended stay in Japan is all about overcoming the little things before they add up. It’s like having a bad day. It isn’t just a disappointing breakfast, an annoying boss, a traffic jam, or a family emergency. It all just adds up as I remind myself over and over, I’m having a bad day.

   A common complaint among foreigners is that people always ask the same questions. After “Where are you from?” and “Why did you come to Japan?” have been answered the conversation usually dries out. This can be for the better when I don’t really feel like talking to a stranger, but this overtly predictable conversation is not just the strangers fault. Did I have questions for them? Were there details that would allow this person to discover interesting things about me? I often imagine speaking to me is like talking to a stereotypical foreigner in the movies. “Yes, my friend, I coming from America. I wanting new adventures in Japan. It very nice.” It’s easy to understand what I’m trying to say, but I’m simply not ready to discuss international politics over a cup of coffee. These little introductory conversations do present an opportunity however. I can stretch my answers to fit into a grammatical structure I’ve been studying. I can slip in a new word. It will probably make me sound all the more foreign, but I will be able to giggle later about an opportunity seized and a new mistake made.

   There really isn’t a way to avoid standing out as a foreigner in Japan. Beyond skin color there is a willful adherence to our own personalities that marks us all. There is a certain freedom in being conspicuous however. It allows me to choose my own terms for standing out. I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing. If I’m feeling really good, I might just treat the people along my commute to some horrible bike-by karaoke. Knowing everyone is watching somehow makes it easier for me to live like they aren’t. I think you can see this attitude all over Kochi. The street performers in Obiyamachi aren’t there for tips. They are there to do what makes them happy. It’s hard not to notice the person playing music or juggling in a shopping arcade, but it is also hard to judge them negatively. They are wearing their heart on their sleeve. I believe foreigners are observed in a similar manner here in Kochi.

   Kochi is a little city with a big heart. These vexations may not exist in a major metropolis, but I would much rather be an oddity in a community than a part of nothing at all. After all, life will never be frustration free.

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