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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1999


Obtrusive nails, squeaky wheels

Not so very often I recall the following words of advice from my dear old mother, a tiding of the heart delivered straight from parent to child.

"Whatever you do," she would instruct, "be sure to change your underwear."

For what if I forgot and then met with some gruesome accident? What if the nurses were to haul me up on the operating table, scissor off my jeans, only to find . . .

The very thought gave her the willies. And not only her, for I later learned that similar pearls of wisdom are duly imparted by frantic mothers to their dense offspring all across America.

Japanese mothers naturally pitch their own parental concerns, one of which might go something like this:

"Now, junior, whatever happens today, don't you dare stick out. Or -- and I warn you -- you are sure to get hammered down. Just like a nail."

Not that anyone actually says this, but the adage of the prominent nail and its predictable fate is so pervasive in this group society that it's easy to picture worrisome parents drilling it into their young from a very early age.

Which brings us to the inescapable curse of every international couple in Japan:

We stick out.

Like Damocles, had he been teased by a carpenter and not a king, our private lives occur each day under a swaying hammer, threaded in place by only a single hair.

Now, it is true that some people like to stick out. More than one foreigner in this land has fallen victim to "Gaijin Goiter," the swollen ego that results from being heaped with too much superficial favor. It's a fate that can readily befall exotic visitors, especially in tiny Japanese towns.

Yet, for every one of these star-blind gaijin, there remain whole galaxies of the other variety, not to mention an entire cosmos of Japanese spouses and international children who would much rather blend in than stick out.

Finding such anonymity can be hard. Back in the old days,it was virtually impossible, particularly in the countryside.

Not but 25 years ago in rural Japan, school kids would hound passing foreigners for autographs, even ones like me with a face only a nearsighted mother could love. Likewise, people on the train might reach out and trail a curious hand down the hair on an outsider's arm, a growth which in my case was already more full and accessible than the stuff on my head.

Then there were the occasions when a stranger would gush upon a visitor and ask to exercise their English. Generally one or two gushing strangers per visitor per day.

Even now in Japan, it's probably easier for a rice ball to slip through a sumo luncheon than for a foreigner to spend a day unnoticed. Someone is always watching, with every pair of eyes also attached to a mouth.

Some resident foreigners lose patience with life in the fish bowl and go home. The incident that nudged one friend out of Japan was when the checkout lady at the local supermarket advised him to try the soba at the noodle shop the next time he dined there, as opposed to the udon. Incredibly, rumor had out-raced his car from one location to the other. Such a high-profile existence my friend just couldn't take.

Other people (like yours truly) simply develop large-scale paranoia. For years, for example, I was convinced the controversy over brain death was a gossipy comment about me.

For Japanese spouses the pressure of always sticking out can be even more vexing. My wife, for one, dreads that sublime moment, either in a waiting room or a city office, when some clerk asks her name.

When the foreign name rolls from her tongue two things invariably happen. First, all chatter stops and every head in the room turns her way, as each person tries to rationalize the alien sound with the indigenous face. Next, the clerk makes the following loud announcement:


The name-giving is repeated. And repeated. Ending with an explanation. So when she next sits down everyone knows a lot more about her than she knows about them. Eyes probe and, sooner or later, questions follow.

What language do you speak at home? And what do you eat? Posers often meticulously paced, as if the speaker wasn't sure the Japanese language would communicate.

In our Kumamoto days, walking together downtown drew another kind of response, especially if we were out late at night and there were bands of tipsy salarymen about. My wife would fetch hoots, winks and whistles, as if she was somehow less respectable than the other girls on the street. Though in retrospect, who can say? Perhaps the target was me.

At any rate, though life in the countryside had its charms, our move to Tokyo has mitigated the swaying hammer over our heads. Foreigners are so plentiful in the megacity that we typically just fade into the cosmopolitan wallpaper. The vanishing act can be refreshing.

Of course, if you really want to stick out, being from an international marriage is not the only way to do so. Other possibilities abound.

Like by ignoring my mother's underwear advice.

Just try it for a few days and see.

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