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.