Being a Foreigner is a Pain, anywhere

Think of it as plastic memory, this force within you which trends you and your fellows toward tribal forms. This plastic memory seeks to return to its ancient shape, the tribal society. It is all around you—the feudatory, the diocese, the corporation, the platoon, the sports club, the dance troupes, the rebel cell, the planning council, the prayer group…each with its master and servants, its host and parasites. And the swarms of alienating devices (including these very words!) tend eventually to be enlisted in the argument for a return to “those better times.” I despair of teaching you other ways. You have square thoughts which resist circles.

–”God Emperor of Dune, Stolen Journals” by Frank Herbert

I usually try to avoid this particular subject, but sometimes it’s worth bringing up sometimes. I wrote about this a year ago, so apologies if this sounds familiar. ;)

Anyhow, I was reading an article on the Japan Times by a famous writer named Debito Arudou about the little insults that foreigners experience in Japan. People who’ve been to Japan or lived though often get tired of people being surprised that they can use chopsticks and can speak Japanese, or questions about what they think about Japan, etc, etc. Someone else took the time to write a strong counter-point of Arudou’s article by the way. I recommend reading both, actually. :)

I read the Arudou article and had a few thoughts in my head. First, yes, I’ve had some experiences as well. I remember someone complaining in front of me about foreigners in Sumo wrestling, and I get plenty of stares on the trains in Japan, in cafes or in the neighborhood park where I take my daughter. I try to speak Japanese in public as much as I can with my daughter, so I don’t look like a total foreigner, but I don’t know how much it helps.

But the second thought was that my wife has all the same experiences, here in the US. I grew up in the US as a generic white-male protestant. I never really had to think about race, even though I knew in my mind that other people in the US face discrimination as foreigners or as minorities but it wasn’t something I really had to live with.

Then I went to Vietnam in 2001 as a naive 23-year old and had a bad case of culture-shock. People there at the time still had very little contact with foreigners, especially in Hanoi, and would do all kinds of strange things to me. People would call me ugly, fat, or just walk up and pinch my belly. No joke. Or they would try to scam me of money, because they assumed all foreigners had lots of money and were gullible.

Likewise, my wife in the US gets all the same treatment (without belly-pinching thankfully ;) ). People will stare at her sometimes at the local Starbucks near my grandma’s house, or comment how great her English is (she has a really good accent to be honest), or ask her really strange or naive questions about Japan. One time, a Japanese exchange student confided with me that Americans would still ask her if there were still samurai in Japan. No joke. But speaking from experience, I’ve also seen this kind of thing happen when we lived in Ireland, and I hear it’s even worse in mainland Europe.

Seeing this happen to my wife really taught me some important lessons. When people stare at me in Japan, I try to remember it happens to my wife in Seattle, and it helps remind that people are often curious even if they do it in a totally tactless way. Didn’t your mom teach you not to stare?! ;) Also, I realized that Americans have plenty of silly stereotypes about foreigners too after seeing Irish co-workers coming here for visits. The Irish co-workers would get peppered with the same questions over and over: Is Ireland still part of the UK? What’s the deal with Northern Ireland? How do you say X in Gaelic?1 They were also surprised by some Irish co-workers who didn’t drink. After all, Irish people are famous for drinking, right? You can see an American in Japan using chopsticks and surprising people in the same way as non-drinking Irish in America.

It’s funny how ignorance is universal.

But imagine if you belong to an ethnic group that people don’t trust? Imagine the life of a Muslim immigrant in the US. You could be the nicest guy, and be a wonderful husband and father, but as soon as you put on a turban, or a keffiyeh and you immediately get dirty looks from people. Guaranteed. I have a lot of co-workers from the People’s Republic of China, and I know they endure various stereotypes too living here, or some people even assume they’re secret agents trying to steal our technology and trade secrets.

However, I don’t want to say that America is more racist than Japan, or Japan is more racist than America. It’s not the point. In fact, I think people use the term “racist” too often. I do believe there are a lot of naive and ignorant people out there, though.

Ignorance really is a serious problem. It divides into fictional tribes based on language, religion, skin color, and separates us from other people. We belong to this tribe, and they belong to this other tribe, and they do things differently. You can’t just will it away, or just reasoning. It’s something deeply ingrained in us, and requires a lot of soul-searching.

If there’s one think I learned from Buddhism, especially Hosso Buddhism, is that everybody lives in their own distorted world built upon their own narrow life-experiences. Everyone believes their perspective is right, and people around them are ignorant:

XKCD #610

When our worldview gets challenged or threatened, we get defensive and we tend to argue or feel ill-will towards the other person.

The truth is, you can’t really fight it. Foreigners who live in Japan go through some stage where they realize that they will always be treated as a foreigner and either learn to live with it, get bitter and hate Japan, or isolate themselves in their own community. I’ve heard over the years that people complain about immigrants in the US the same way (“why do they always keep to themselves”?).

Aradou and people like him believe they can somehow change Japanese society and make it more open-minded by criticizing their behavior and persistently correcting them. I don’t agree with the approach myself to be honest. When I am in Japan and get naive questions or comments, I just let it go and move on. If I tried to correct their behavior every time, I would have no rest. As Roger Zelazny writes in Isle of the Dead:

There is a Big Tree as old as human society, because that’s what it is….There are names written on those leaves, and some fall off and new ones grow on, so that in a few seasons all the names have been changed. But the Tree stays pretty muchthe same: bigger, yes; and carrying on the same life functions as always, in pretty much the same way, too. I once went through a time when I tried to cut out all the rot I could find in the Tree. I found that as soon as I cut out a section in one place, it would occur somewhere else, and I had to sleep sometime.

I’m kind of leery of one-man crusades because I believe they’re fueled by a person’s narrow view of the world (i.e. their own personal distortion) and may ultimately come to nothing in the end.

However, there is a happy ending to this post. I have had many experiences with people over the years where I meet someone who’s from a different country or ethnic group, and when we find a common interest, the conversation totally changes. Suddenly we get so absorbed in the topic, we forget our stereotypes and “tribal” identities and we just have a great conversation. We’re the only two people in the world at that time, and there’s a natural bond because we are of like mind.

We build up all these imagined barriers in our mind, but in moments like that, we suddenly side-step them and embrace a wide, new world we didn’t know was possible. That world is the mind freed from it’s own distortions, even if only temporarily. I think this is why I like KPop so much lately: it’s from a different culture, and yet when you hear a good Big Bang song (or whatever), everyone regardless of ethnicity will stop and dance or shake their hips. Music has a nice way of transcending barriers I think. :)

I believe the solution to the whole problem is to overcome ignorance, but we have to overcome our ignorance just as we help others do the same. As the 14th chapter of the Lotus Sutra says:

When a son of the Buddha preaches the Law,
He is at all times gentle and full of forbearance,
Having pity and compassion on all,
Never giving way to a negligent or a slothful mind.

–trans. Gene Reeves

Just as we learn to be patient and easy-going with others, we have to learn to be not give way to our own ignorance, lest we become the very people we decry.

Namo Shaka Nyorai

P.S. Sorry for the long rant. I wrote this all in one night, and my brain is getting too tired to edit/revise. I have something more fun tomorrow planned anyway. :)

1 Irish call their native Gaelic language “Irish”, by the way.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Hosso, Japan, Korea, Travel, Vietnam. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Being a Foreigner is a Pain, anywhere

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi Doug,

    I read Debito Arudou’s article from your link, but the counterpoint article seems to be the wrong one – it seems to be addresssing a different article.

    Anyway, it’s true, I’m constantly asked when I am going to return “home”. I was asked this all the time during my years in Korea, and I’m asked it all the time here too. I’m asked it even though the people asking it know that I left the UK almost 20 years ago, have a Japanese wife, and am learning Japanese with the aim of staying here. The same people also ask if I can use chopsticks, and exclaim in surprise if they see me doing so!

    I think the point of the first article is that this happens EVERY DAY. It’s okay if it happens when you are here on holiday, but think how it is if it happens every single day of your life. It gets very old very quickly.

    (Japanese people in the UK don’t get asked on a daily basis when they are going back home, and British people don’t express amazement every time a Japanese person picks up a knife and fork).

    However, you are right – it is not racism. I totally agree with you that ‘racism’ is a word used far too easily. If you want to see what racism looks like, take a look at the treatment of Burmese in Thailand (I lived in Thailand for years and was amazed at the rotten treatment the Burmese get: Burmese immigrants and refugees never get Thai citizenship, Burmese labourers have to obey a curfew, are not allowed to own mobile phones, etc etc) or, even worse, look at the treatment of non-Arab workers in Saudi Arabia.

    So when I hear foriegners in Japan moaning about being asked if they can use chopsticks, I do have to wonder how good life here is if that is their worst complaint!


  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Hm, you may be right about the counter-point article. I wrote this all in one go while very sleepy and might have goofed.

    Yeah I agree that cultural insensitivity is pretty frustrating at times but it’s a far cry from genuine racial problems that happen in the world. It’s important not to trivialize true racism by obscuring it with the petty stuff.

    While its true that people in the UK don’t care if can use a fork or not, I do know that immigrants there face challenges sometimes. You’ve even told me yourself in the past. :-) Likewise my wife had to endure incidents in Ireland that made her very uncomfortable too and soured our time there.

    In the end, I just don’t want people to assume living in a foreign country is always easier in country X than country Y. Being a foreigner in any country will have some challenges and frustrations, even of they manifest in different ways. Life is just different living abroad than “back home”.

  3. Marcus says:


    I agree, immigrants anywhere are going to face challenges. But when you consider that 42.3 per cent of the population of London are non-white-British (look it up on wiki!) I do think that being an immigrant there is going to be easier than being an immigrant in other places.

    I mean, if you were an immigrant, where would you find it easier – London (a city in which you can find over 300 different language groups), or Seoul (one of the most homogeneous cities in the world)? New York or Riyadh?

    Anyway, nice discussion!


  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    True. Seattle and the West Coast are also pretty heterogenous, so compared to other parts of the US, they’re supposedly more open-minded and friendly toward immigrants. As I am not an immigrant, I have to take people’s word on it. :)

    Anyhow, indeed, some places are easier than others, and at least for me, I like living in a plural society. I just hope other places become more plural as well as it benefits people in the long-run.

    Take it easy. :)

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