Wednesday, November 23, 2005

When we was gaijin

During my first few months in Japan, before I began to settle into my life in the 'Nog, I used to make bimonthly trips into the Kansai area. It wasn't such a long ride, about three hours by bus, and the lure of quiet afternoons spent strolling Kyoto's Higashiyama area followed by a few beers in the expat bars of Shinsaibashi allowed me to forget for awhile how far away from home I was.

About three months into my stay here, I was coming back from one such weekend. After leaving Kobe, the bus would follow the Chugoku expressway, a long concrete path through high sheet-metal-lined walls which barely hid the uninspiring landscape of pachinko parlors, golf driving ranges, and identical, non-descript department stores. On this particular day, the bus driver was going faster than usual, probably to make up some time before taking the route through the mountains, usually snow-covered this time of year. Time seemed to be marked by the rhythmic hum of our engine reflected off each car we passed.

At some point in my trip, I happened to look up from my book and out the window to the express bus running alongside ours. Inside was the usual scene of middle-aged Japanese on a day trip, the majority of heads bowing in slumber, jostling with the motion of the bus. Yet what made this group unusual was that each bobbing head was shaped into a samurai topknot. They were wearing wigs of course, but every man on that bus was dressed in a style most familiar to me from noisy afternoon TV. I'm still not quite sure how these men could fit into their seats, sitting side by side while wearing those kimono with long pointed shoulders. The women too were straight out of the Edo-period, their eyebrows a mere pair of dots high up on their heavily made-up foreheads.

As we came alongside the next vehicle, I saw the same thing, and on the bus in front of that one was still another scene of slumbering samurai. My usually uneventful ride home had placed me at the center of a Fellini/Kurosawa co-production.

On this front bus, one man was awake, looking out the window in obvious boredom. As our eyes locked, he did a visible double-take, noticing that the face staring back at him was not Japanese. To a foreigner living in the countryside, this sudden change of expression can be seen a dozen times a day. Being still somewhat new to Japan, I was just beginning to flinch at the sound of the word "gaijin." Not long before, I think that I had probably found the attention flattering, but by now I wanted to be considered just another unrecognizable human being in the midst of a daily existance.

So, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I recognized the familiar double-take and the ensuing stare. But then I noticed something new. A look of sadness passed across this man's face just before he looked down into his lap. It was if he had realized that due to his attire and make-up, he was the one who looked different, the one on display. It was if he had realized that I had had more reason to stare than he. And with this realization, this sudden enlightenment on his part, we seemed to share a brief, mutual understanding of what it is like to stand out in a country which prides itself on conformity. And for a moment, I didn't feel so far from home after all.

On the turntable: David Bowie, "Heroes"
On the nightable: Bill Bryson, "Notes From a Small Island"


Josh said...

hmmm. I do so like that story.

Kyoto Eric said...

Nice story, Ted. Understand how both you and the guy feel. Most people think I'm Japanese, but when I speak English I'm a gaijin. I'm the same yet different. I play both roles, man, the samurai and the tall guy from New Mexico (but i don't like Mexican food).

I'm actually a north Korean spy. There, I said it.

ted said...

Are you from NM Eric? That's weird because I am too. Whereabouts? I'm not samurai though, despite spending 12 years pretending. A simple look in the mirror usually cures that.