Strangers in the Light?


You start to recognize people, and it’s not just because their faces are so relatively similar to yours that they seem oddly familiar. The foreigner community is thriving but small enough that the same handfuls of big-nosed, English-speaking people turn up at your bars and restaurants. Japanese cultural events are also a foreigner trap; of course we want to learn ikebana, what do you think we’re doing here? Later, names will pop out at you in the English-language magazines: I know that name. Do I work with him or did I just read a column he wrote in last month’s issue? It’s sometimes comforting to see the somewhat familiar faces on the train and sometimes unsettling: I’ve seen him somewhere. Does that mean I have to talk to him? Sometimes you can’t remember for sure and are forced to do the gaijin nod, a subtle head bob to greet another foreigner, even though you’d completely ignore them if you were back home and you looked like everyone else. Hopefully you’ve actually met the person in the book store, because otherwise that gaijin nod to a total stranger would have been kind of lame. 

You’ll usually know someone in common. You’ll probably have been to the same festivals. You’ll wonder why your neighbor claims to have never been to a certain bar when their photo is clearly up on the bar’s wall. You notice the photo during the bar owner’s birthday party, an affair so large it is held in two bars on the same floor. There are plates of crackers, real cheese and strawberries and your eyes light up because you know how much real cheese and fruit cost. 

There’s a man in the corner whose accent betrays his New York origins. You could talk about Gray’s Papaya, the buzz about Senator Clinton potentially being appointed Secretary of State, how great the Japanese train system is compared to the MTA and how very excited you’re getting about your trip back home next month. But there’s no chemistry; the conversation dies once you disclose your former neighborhoods. He’s just your basic boring schmoe, the kind you used to avoid back home, and you’ll probably have to dodge eye contact on the train platform next week.

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. I find this sometimes with bloggers in the J-Community. I see a face on the train and I try to match it to someone that I know is in the area. So far, I have yet to meet another (English) Japan Blogger.

  2. Nate says:

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone else has noticed the “gaijin nod.” I’ve received and given unsolicited gaijin nods, as well as returned and had them returned with no other pretext whatsoever. Is this genetic or something?

    Less ubiquitous is the the “gaijin ‘Hey.’,” however the infrequency is more than compensated for by the surprise at the gaijin face that suddenly materializes in front of you and then TALKS.

  3. billywest says:

    There’s really no big mystery as to why the “gaijin nod” happens; We’re living in a mostly gaijin-free zone and when we come across other foreigners, especially if we think we might share the same home country, we feel inclined to acknowledge that person because we both share the extraordinary circumstance of living in a foreign land.

    When I first got here, I tried to avoid other foreigners because I wanted to immerse myself in the language, culture, etc… But, after living here for awhile and getting used to living a much different lifestyle from the one back home, I started to become glad to interact with other foreigners. I don’t care how geeky or socially inept they were back home… We’re both here and now experiencing life in a strange country and that makes us comrades of a sort. Knowing how tough it can be to keep spirits up when facing some of the challenges of being outside your element, I could never turn my back on my fellow foreigners.

  4. Ken Y-N says:

    Heh, as well as being an anti-social git, since I have my photo on my web page whenever I see another whitey person I wonder if they read my blog, and I wonder if they half-recognise me, and I wonder if that’s why they gave me more than just half a second of eye contact, and…, so I’m too scared to acknowledge their presence.

  5. I smile and nod at anyone who meets my eye, only seems polite to do so and I did it in Australia, too, so I can’t speak to it mostly. But Liv’s query whether just because we are gaijin in the same country, does it mean we have to be friends is a really interesting one. The very fact that it is potentially an issue speaks to how open and welcoming the expat community is here (and possibly everywhere) and I have enjoyed that. I have made some genuine, if new, friendships here but they are people who I have clicked with and would have happily made friends with in Australia, too, had I had the opportunity to meet them. So being gaijin was definitely how/why we met and our first topics of conversation but not the only basis for friendship.

    I think I would take the problem of having to talk with someone that bores me a little on occasion because there are too many openings for friendship in a different country than the isolation I experienced when moving interstate within my country. At my age (35), working from home as a writer/editor and not having children to use as a basis to force my way into an established social group lol, there are very few opportunities to meet people in your own homeland. When I return to my home country I will again not be in my home town and I will be looking for the expat community this time around!

  6. ieatmypigeon says:

    It’s true – moving abroad can be very isolating, especially in a country where so many people keep to themselves or their own group. I didn’t mean to devalue the benefits of having something in common in a strange land … speaking the same language and having shared experiences, even if they’re incidental like loving Thanksgiving, is so, so helpful for creating a connection. That said, I’ve never been into having friends “just because” they’re there; when I make a friend, it’s almost always an organic thing borne of chemistry rather than circumstance. It’s always been quite difficult for me to make attachments; I was lucky with Sean and Bob. I clicked with them so quickly I had to pinch myself. I wouldn’t mind making a female friend or two but for some reason became even more insular here than I was in New York. Maybe because I knew I’d leave some day.

  7. Kimberly says:

    I know I am reading a blog written by a person who is homesick, so to make you more homesick…

    I am getting ready to make Thanksgiving dinner for my family next week. All the traditional items like a turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, coffee with Bailey’s.

    Makes a tear come to your eye, doesn’t it!

  8. ieatmypigeon says:

    Wow … is it really obvious that I’m thinking of home a lot lately? Hmn …

    Oh. And darn you … (shaking fist)

  9. phauna says:

    I feel like I don’t want to acknowledge other gaijins because they are almost invariably Americans. I just feel swamped, it’s like a 99% chance wherever I go, and I just want a little more variety in my expat. I mean, everyone who is not American already pretty much knows everything about America. To me they are the most boring type of expat. I love it when I meet some French people or a Swede or something.

    Sorry Americans.

  10. ieatmypigeon says:

    Phauna … um, no offense taken! 😉

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