You’re Not From Here
You are a foreigner. You were a foreigner before you arrived, you are a foreigner while
you are in Japan, and when Japanese go abroad they will still refer to you as a
foreigner, ironies be damned. This cannot be understated and will be a recurring theme
in the stories to come. Never forget, you’re a foreigner. They won’t ever forget.
The signals are subtle and people seem intent to not cause offense when broaching topics concerning race and class.
But it's also a reminder that I am not perceived quite the same. At best, it can be an acknowledgement and affirmation of my experience and feelings. At worst, well, in the spirit of Wainzinger's wonderful article, I'll not talk about what sometimes happens at worst. :)
I would absolutely feel like a foreigner in any other city in Germany, but not here. If being a "foreigner" disturbs you significantly, like it did me when I lived in Vienna, I would say moving is worth it. There aren't many cities where there is no such thing as a "foreigner", but they do exist and are not exactly mysteries.
Can you expand on what living in Vienna felt like? I loved visiting there and didn't feel unwelcome at all, but of course being a long stay resident exposes you to different experiences than just being a tourist.
The primary annoyance was my Jewish heritage. I'm completely secular, it's not a big part of my identity and something I rarely mention, but it's also not something I conceal. It would only take a drink or two at some social event for people to decide to unburden themselves in one way or another. I would have to listen to people apologizing for their racist/backwards countrymen, I would have to let people try to set the record straight about how Austria is misunderstood and actually Hitler's first victim, and I would have to watch people's expressions grow pained and conversations go dead when I honestly answered questions about my heritage. Eventually I learned that it's easier for everyone if I stopped mentioning it, and eventually I grew resentful that I had to hide it.
Generally, Austrian-ness played an uncomfortable role in social interactions. Older people, upon hearing my standard (Hochdeutsch) inflected German would react with hostility and tell me that their language is different (I had no intention of learning the Austrian dialect), and that Americans need to learn to distinguish Austrians from Germans. I found the constant "in Austria we say 'x' instead of 'y'" and "in Austria we always do this in 'x' way" corrections to be tiresome. Generally, I was reminded that I was a foreigner much more than I felt was justified, and gradually I came to understand why many expats in Vienna cluster together as opposed to integrating.
Just for "colour", can you give an example or two?
In short, I represent 9% of the population but 0.8% of my office and 1% of my graduate program. At the same time I'm associated with all the other things my ethnicity is stereotypically known for, in which there is overrepresentation. (the usual issues linked with socioeconomic shittyness, like crime).
As such I frequently feel like the other, despite living in a very diverse city. It's like we put water and oil in a pot and say look there's multiple things in the pot. But is it a melting pot? To me, not nearly enough. It's still shocking to me how much segregation there actually is, we've kind of left the discussion of segregation behind us since there's no more segregation by law (inputs), but the outcomes are still very much there.
Of course that's all theory and reality is much less rosy with many more shades of gray. But even having that self image is already half the battle. And no other city in Germany has such a self-image, except maybe Hamburg to some degree.
So what’s the problem with that? I’m an European, currently living in Singapore. I am a foreigner (Angmoh). People know that. I know that. Cultures clash here and there but there is no problem with it.
It's not a problem, in the sense that I realise there is no malice; on the other hand, it's a problem in the sense that after many years living in a country, having acquired citizenship and having built a family here, I would like to think you are part of the community.
Constantly being reminded that I am never really going to progress past the status of outsider can be really bothersome.
How long have you been living in Singapore? Things start to change after a few years in my opinion.
EDIT: I just wanted to point out that the positive aspects of migrating to a new country, in my case, still greatly outweigh the negative aspects such as the one described above. Also, I am lucky because the cultural differences between my native country (Italy) and my adoptive one (Australia) are relatively minor.
To clarify, my comment above was primarily meant to point out that the behaviour we're discussing is not something unique to the Japanese. I felt it was a bit unfair to single them out for having a culture that continuously reminds people of being foreign, when everybody else does it also (well- as far as I can tell). I didn't say whether I thought it's a problem or not.
So- is it? I guess that will depend a lot on the situation, won't it? For myself I've been in both kinds of situations, where it was a problem and where it wasn't. Say, when I first moved here I worked menial jobs and the people I worked with tended to not care much about social niceties (although there may have been other reasons I attracted the wrong kind of attention, by some). Nowadays, I'm a PhD researcher, so it would be a really big surprise if someone brought up the fact I'm not from around here as a disadvantage; most people I work with are not, anyway.
It's just that, there are situations were anything that singles you out can spell trouble- and being foreign singles you out. In such situations, you have to tread carefully in a way that locals don't.
To be perfectly clear, I personally take things in my stride and I generally fare very well. But not everyone is the same as me, neither have I always been as confident and self-assured as I am now. The target is, I think, to have an environment (a society, if you will) that accommodates all kinds of people, those who aren't bothered as well as those who might be.
Edit: "neither have I always been as confident and self-assured as I am now". Actually, now that I think of it, I always have. I'm a tough cookie :)
I'm happy to follow the social protocols while never feeling like needing to belong (which is already hard enough even if you were born a native...).
I used to be a "digital nomad" before coming to Australia, I lived in many cities across S. E. Asia and South America and, like you, for a while I really enjoyed being able to "taste the soup while not diving into it".
However things change when you decide that the place where you are living is where you want to settle down and build a family (see my other comment in this sub-thread).
 This is a (probably not accurate) quote by writer and journalist Tiziano Terzani, unfortunately I'm unable to find a link to a source at the moment.
Things are pretty good here. Because of cultural differences people don't necessarily have to 'accept' me as one of theirs (it is just human nature to be so). And that's fine by me. If being emotionally accepted was a factor, I would have chosen to live among my extended family back in India.
It's merely a statement of fact. I know this well, I speak French, have some French relatives, have a French name, travel to France all the time, and while I can get on, can have a great time and have made friends in France, I'm not French (I'm Canadian) and never will be. People there still treat me great, I know a lot about their culture, but I don't know their culture, just like they don't know Canadian culture.
Japan is a very rigid, closed and unique culture. Their country is extremely developed (could even say over-developed), and I have no doubt that growing up there, living from birth to death in that society marks you in a way that living there for 10 years won't.
There's a reason Canadians emphasize diversity over assimilation, because complete assimilation is impossible. You can't simply ignore one's upbringing and life experience and pretend we all had the same experiences.
Well yes- unless we become like the Borg, innit.
JFYI, a "classic":
For example, when contacting with someone outside of the company, you would NEVER refer to anyone in the same company as you with -san honorific (Mr./Ms.) via email even in maximum formality mode, e.g. "I'll forward this to Tanaka-san, head of sales" may be considered rude. Instead, you will have to skip -san, as in "I'll forward this to Tanaka, head of sales."
These small details are so subtle and there's a lot of them. Many people don't really mind if you use it wrong, but some do, so you have to always be cautious with.
I think the easiest way to think might be that you won't refer to your sister/brother with honorifics when talking about them with someone.
When you (an outsider) email a company, everyone in the company who replied to the email are considered belonging to the same group, so they should not use honorifics to refer to themselves regardless whether they are CEO or just random employee (even if you call them with honorifics in internal email.)
There's also another small rule regarding this, such as you can say something like "Uchida, the CEO" (CEOの内田) but NOT "CEO Uchida" (内田CEO) because the title in the latter is being used as a suffix, and considered a honorific (equivalent to -san). It's a weird rule.
The reason? Written Vietnamese is too formal, and they prefer English for getting to the point quickly.
(interestingly, my friends point out that I seem to have different personality when using English instead of my mother language)
You may be interested in this thread from a few weeks back with numerous people testifying to that: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13758623
I assume part of it is due the language used and part due to cultural traits you pick up when you learned it. Would be surprised if there was no feedback loop between language and cultures that use it.
The article goes a bit broader and it's been a few years since I read it in depth, but you might be interested the counter-perspective.
Yes, sure, if anyone claims that such a workplace culture is an inherent, inseparable part of Korean culture, then that's bollocks. But most people aren't saying that. We're just saying that there's a hierarchical culture problem widespread in Korea, right now. Which is absolutely true.
For a less tragic and more comical example of what the culture is like in Korean Air, look up the "Peanut turnaround incident" of 2014 (땅콩회항) which earned Korean Air the memorable nickname of "Peanut Air" (땅콩항공).
(...the nuts were actually macadamia nuts, but "Macadamia Nut Air" doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely.)
I live in Vietnam, speak Vietnamese, and see millions of people post not-formal, to-the-point things on Facebook and Instagram every day.
Totally different ball game.
I absolutely think there are people where there's a huge gap and others where it's hardly noticeable ;)
I’ve always assumed Asian languages to be very informal as a lot of it has to do with context. At least that’s how some of my friends talk to each other. And one of the reasons why it’s so hard to blend in. It could also be possible that they rarely talk formally in person, and I’ve yet to experience it.
I'm not sure what you mean by this, but if you're thinking about "East Asian languages omitting 'necessary' grammatical parts all the time", then you might be talking about this:
Note that this is a grammatical phenomenon exhibited by some languages (i.e., the characteristics of a language as a whole). Formality/informality is a concept associated with a particular "speech" inside a language, which is orthogonal to this. (You can say a particular speech in English is formal or informal, but it makes little sense to say that "English" as a whole is a formal or informal language.)
With Korean, spoken language among roughly same-age friends is informal, of course. But if someone is older, then there's a different ending, unless you know them well enough to speak in informal language.
If you're speaking to your boss there's a different level of formality, and people like your grandparents get honorifics which are also conjugated, but alongside with formality.
It also reinforces social pressures of obeying your boss/elders, which stem from Korea's roots in Confucianism/Neo-Confuncianism.
It's no wonder people like to use English sometimes.
Are there companies with an overwork culture in the US? Oh yeah, definitely. But how many expect everyone to work, say, 9-7:30 at a minimum, plus some time most Saturdays, and to go out to the bar after work as a team multiple times a week? That would be extremely rare, maybe some finance companies and startups have that kind of culture, but not many.
My tl;dr would be "the US is big and complicated." I've seen people working stressful service jobs be incredibly polite in Houston, and baristas being checked-out jerks in small-town Colorado. Overall, I would say that people tend to be more polite when they have more mental energy to spend. That tends to be in quieter towns, but not always.
George says: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usN3rpfFoGA&t=30s
My main gripe with Japanese companies is that they simply don't pay as well as American ones do.
Fair, but Tokyo can be much, much cheaper than SF or NYC (in my personal experience, rent alone is up to a 2-3x difference. Same with dining out - a 1500¥ dinner easily runs you $30-40 with tip in SF).
However I also don't think that "they don't think it's offensive" has any relevance. Some people think the N-word is not offensive. It still is. Some men don't think calling a female colleague "babe" is offensive. It still is.
The word is a pun, and also means "always outside". This secondary meaning is not lost on Chinese people.
The vast majority of the time it's just used as an easier way to describe New Zealanders of European descent, it's even used on the census form, but I've heard it used on rare occasion as a pejorative.
The Cantonese "gweilo" (lit. "monster/ghost person") and Taiwanese "adoga" (lit. "big nose") are more clearly offensive in literal meaning.
Both are extremely casual, and in most cases no ill will is intended.
But for each I've encountered situations where it wasn't so pleasant.
Notably once in a remote guangdong town, some people stopped on a motorbike, pointed at me and said "Gweilo" before riding off laughing.
Equally at a good friends wedding, his mum kept referring to me as "adoga" in the 3rd person.
"Adoga comes from England" rather than using my name, which she'd known for the past 3 or so years.
In China, I can't think of a specific situation where I was offended by the use of "laowai".
That article is about the friendship/enemyship between a teacher and a child student, formed by the student’s teasing hostility toward the author as a foreigner.
EDIT: grammar, clarity, readability.
This was far outside of Tokyo and seeing a 'gaijin' was a genuinely rare occurrence. More than anything the word seems to fit a real communicative need. "I had an interaction with someone that was different from the norm because they did not look Japanese" is quite a mouthful and invoking the word 'gaijin' starts to happen quite naturally.
My biggest problem with the word is that it is used sloppily. It conflates race, culture, language and nationality and assumes a kind of all or nothing approach to them. My black student who was born and raised in Japan fulfilled 3 out of those 4 categories but would be considered gaijin everywhere he went.
Westerners are no better - the US does the same for everyone who is not "default" (i.e. white) where they are differentiated by a prefix, usually their heritage, which conflates "culture, language and nationality". Your black Japanese student would be considered "African American", which is beyond absurd.
Isn't that the grandparent's whole point - that we at least have distinct categories for "whatever-american" and "foreigner", where "gaijin" conflates both and others.
No they wouldn't, for the same reason Americans don't call Africans "African American."
I don't refer to people primarily by their race, and I don't recall my friends doing so. While I don't deny that sort of conversation happens, it's probably not as idiomatic as you seem to believe.
I'm sure you can understand how easily a stereotype like that can fail when applied to a country as populous and diverse as the US.
I think the issue that sort of overlaps what you are talking about is sometimes when people assert things "aren't offensive", what they really mean is that they think they should be free to use derogatory language without others being upset.
Offence is the position the interpreter. ie offence is taken, not given. This is not to say that offence is not to be expected, nor is it to say the person who offends should be exempted from all repercussions - but it does temper what a reasonable repercussion is (in a society that deems it viable to censor through offence).
It should be noted that words like nigger did not always hold their current offensive status (especially not outside of America) .
It should also be noted that words have geographical offense, the term 'lass' was one that I grew up hearing and using - appropriate when referring to a person to their face in an informal manner regardless of age (note that if you don't already know this usage then you are unlikely to be on informal enough terms with someone who would accept it to use it) - yet if I were to say this in the south of England I would be being patronising.
 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger#British_usages
I have heard comments that surprised me from women in the small company construction trades, haulage, F1, and darts; I also expect that what was acceptable with respect to `babe` has changed over time.
It should be noted that the post I replied to referred to 'calling a female colleague', and you are talking about an 'office situation'. Certain kinds of businesses make less use of offices and hire different kinds of workers - it is not much of a stretch to expect them to harbour different language standards.
It is also notable that you introduced the specification of a 'man calling a woman'. This is the situation I had been considering, yet when I open it to women calling women I know I hear the term `babe` used between women at work all the time - I also hear women calling men `babe`.
I also don't think it's appropriate for a woman to call a man a pet name like that either, but in a different sense.
I shouldn't have assumed an office environment, but it still stands for the most part. I can't think of any situation where I'd call a colleague `babe`, even if I've known them for many years.
The world just is the way it is. One's reaction is the only thing one has power over.
However, we need to add that there are people who both know a word might be offensive and still decide to use it. I believe this is the critical distinction OP was trying to make with his point
I lived in Korea, not Japan, but they also have a word for foreigner—외국인. I never got the sense that a Korean person found the term offensive to us and still used the word. Korea, like Japan, is just so highly homogenized as a society that it’s common to refer to foreigners that way.
I think we find offense in the term, because as many people come to realize, foreigners generally get treated like a second class citizen. So then, being called a 외국인 is a reminder that we look different, and thus Koreans have premade assumptions (like that we don’t and won’t speak Korean). Which isn’t exactly wrong though, as many foreigners / expats / sexpats don’t bother to learn Korean.
Again, I don’t think Koreans are intentionally using the term to be offensive to us. It’s just a descriptor.
Sorry to ask for your time, but if it is possible for you to let me know, I would love to read about a Japanese engineer living in the US. Are you aware of any related articles or response articles on this topic? I understand that it may be an inconvenience to tell me about these articles, but your cooperation is greatly appreciated in this matter.
Apologies and thanks,
Me: This is clearly broken!
Tanaka: Yes, you’re right.
M: Shouldn’t we do something about this?
T: Nothing can be done.
M: This is easily patchable!
T: I’m sorry.
M: Who’s responsible for this code?
T: Team X.
M: Somebody on our team should talk to them.
T: Yes, you’re right.
M: Well, can I talk to them?
T: Ah, it’s not impossible.
M: Does that mean I can?
T: Who knows.
A: This is clearly broken!
A: Shouldn't we do something about this?
B: It's not a priority.
A: This is easily patchable!
B: I have to work on Project X now, they've been bugging me about it for months and their manager is getting mad at _me_ now.
A: Who's responsible for this code?
B: Team X.
A: Somebody on our team should talk to them.
B: I already have 8 meetings this week, I don't have time.
A: Can I talk to them?
B: They never answer my email.
A: I'll email them.
B: Good luck!
- Meeting, a lot of meeting, on average 2 hours a day.
- Scrum is also meeting heavy, for a 5 days Sprint, the first 3 days is to write the document, splitting tasks into smaller subtasks (so that anyone can code for it), the rest 2 days are for actual coding.
- It's very hard to track responsibility due to 'group think' - HoRenSo.
- Disputes aren't resolved completely but just shoved under the rug. The one who tries to pursue it will be alienated. They have a proverb: "The nails that stick out shall be hammered".
- A lot of engineers don't have formal computer education. But they make up for that by putting a lot of effort in learning how to code, so they can catch up with their peer in one or two years. For example, one programmer was working as a system admin for 2 years, and before that she studied marketing in university.
- Community events are mostly for middle aged people, not students or young one.
Overall I think it's interesting to work in a Japanese company, there are a lot to learn from them.
The majority of “engineers” I’ve worked with (including the best) don’t have computer science degrees.
This is _exactly_ how life in the US Govt. IT sectors go.
Let’s discuss this every week, and then not take any actual action
I work in a design studio in Silicon Valley. We do this, and it is extremely common in any design studio. Essentially, there is simply no digital device that matches the ease of annotation, the resolution, and the size compared to printing on a 11x17 piece of paper. You can put them up on the wall for everybody to see, and have a 10 meter wall covered in comps if that's what you need... impossible to do with any digital tool.
Edit: even some of the other stuff seems to be more about tech vs non-tech, as opposed to Japan vs US.
It's always felt that America is the kind of place that once you've put in your 6 years (I think it's 6 now) on the way to citizenship (or however you get your citizenship), and are sworn in/become a citizen, the next person that implies you're un-american you're free to punch in the face (most of the time not not literally). People may imply it, but the way the country is built/the culture is structured is at least supposed to imply that once you choose to join "Team America" so-to-speak, you're a team-member and that's that. America struggles with the divisions and history between the cultures/races within it, but I think that's natural, sometimes healthy, and to some degree inevitable -- there's no way you're going to have lots of cultures mix without conflict/racism. So if you start with the preconception that friction is a 100% certainty, the question is whether you can see it, and whether the culture is one where you can freely discuss it or not.
Japan on the other hand, is like 95%+ Japanese last I checked -- there just isn't enough mixing at any sort of scale to widen the idea of what a Japanese person is, and much of the segregation is intentional (which is fine by me). Even Japanese people who go abroad for a long time as children and return are treated differently, and have to be careful when re-entering society, there just isn't any hope of melting into the society in any reasonable sense for someone who is in actuality 100% gaijin (and looks nothing like a japanese person).
While I haven't lived in the UK, I imagine it's the same, they seem to have a melting pot culture very similar to the US in this sense, in some ways they seem even better mixed than the US -- I feel like I see less overt racism there.
I don't think this phenomenon is limited to Japan of course, just happens to be on topic right now -- I imagine being a white person in Nigeria or some other prosperous African country would be a somewhat similar situation as far as otherness goes.
What are 'gargles'?
I've also gotten "How many colors does a rainbow have in your country?" which is just beyond me
Similarly, when my cousin from Ohio asked if the French people I was visiting in the winter celebrated Chrsitmas, it was ignorance, but a well-intentioned question none-the-less.
This is a big pro than a con. You can really think and act on your own with out bothering too much thinking about society pressure. One can act independently in a manner which is not possible within the society he was brought up.
Power harassment. Stop being such a savior and assuming that your morals are better. Open your eyes and see what’s good and see how things got together.
Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, noticing and commenting on them is fine.
Having lived and worked overseas myself in European country none of this persons experience comes as a surprise honestly.