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Saturday, April 23, 2011

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Coming to proper terms


"You think you've got it rough?" says my wife. "How about me?"

We are talking about identity. After 30 plus years in Japan, I have announced I am not sure what to call myself.

This is unrelated to what I am called by others. I have been collecting those kinds of names since I was a kid.

A grade school sample, only for reference . . . "Dumbo." (You'll get it in a moment. Just wait.)

No, I mean words that clarify my status in Japan. There is a long list of such terms, in whichever language you select: gaijin, foreign resident, expatriate, non-native, alien . . .

And they are all accurate, I suppose. But none quite hits the spot.

But what has set this off is the term "alien resident." I asked my wife if she truly considered me an alien, which one would I be? ET — cute, stoic, always mumbling about home? Chewbacca — hairy, loyal, inarticulate? Alf — sarcastic, bumbling, forever hungry?

Her answer?

"Yoda. It's the ears."

To get her back, I have decided to spice my conversation with Yoda-ese for the rest of my life. Or at least the next 600 words.

The status term that grates on alien residents the most? Without a doubt . . .

Gaijin, it is. Translated as "foreigner," the characters read more accurately as "outsider." Many thus sniff discrimination. Gaijin hints at inside versus out. Us against them. Japan against the world.

Bigotry, it is. Or so some people say.

But the whiff that I get is closer to slapstick. A kind of . . . "Guy Jean" . . . the clumsy cousin to the Guy Smiley muppet. Silly Guy Jean! Who knows what banana peel he'll slip on next!

In my 30 plus years, I have made my share of slips. I couldn't write this column without them.

However, I admit that the term feels limiting. For as a gaijin, I am placed in the same shallow box with other non-Japanese, many fresh off the boat.

But I am not the same! After three decades, I am onto a whole different level of banana peels. Yet I must always prove my ineptitude as if I had just arrived. Somehow I manage.

Gaikokujin is a softer version of gaijin, diluted by the use of koku, meaning "country," with the full translation being "outside country person."

That reduces the sense of discrimination with many foreigners, except a friend pronounces this as "gai-cuckoo-jin."

"And cuckoo I am!" is his Yoda-esque way of explaining. So I cannot help feeling cuckoo too, each time I hear it.

"Foreign resident?" No, thank you. It sounds like an infection.

Here I become a foreign substance invading the collective health of the nation. I produce phlegm, inflame sinuses and plug bowels. All in the form of asking questions, bending rules and sticking out.

Plus, I take an extra seat on the train. Yes, the body would be better off without me. Nurse! Bring the disinfectant!

Not so fond of this, I am. With the term "expatriate" being even less acceptable, but for different reasons.

For one thing, the nuance lines up too close to "ex-patriot" — a person divorced from his/her former country and perhaps all the happier for it.

I hear too much of this from "America: Love it or leave it" rationalists, who — if I speak any American criticism at all — respond with a wave of the flag and the comment . . . "Left it, you did. Shows your sentiments, it does."

Does it? I say only those who have traveled abroad can tell how bright the home fires burn. But I get tired of arguing that with people whose main argument is that I am not allowed to argue. It's one view or nothing.

So "expatriate" has exasperation as an aftertaste. The abbreviated form — expat — is almost as bad.

For it makes me feel like I used to be someone named "Pat." Like Pat Sajak perhaps. But I gave up Vanna White and all those vowels to join the ranks of Toms. Yet, no matter; I still go by "ex-pat."

Non-native? Ha! Kidding, you are! I would never use that.

For the word "native" is loaded with unwanted baggage. It rings of prejudice, old world order and bad Tarzan films.

With non-native then meaning what? I stand for non-bad Tarzan films? Don't confuse me.

Author Henry James lived long years abroad and suffered from a conundrum similar to mine. He didn't know what to call himself. Foreigner, alien, expatriate — nothing seemed to fit. His answer:

"I am a sojourner," he is said to have said.

I plan to try that the next time I renew my alien registration.

"Wait a minute!" I'll tell the clerk. "I'm not a foreigner! I'm a sojourner!"

And we sojourners just love watching clerks in panic. It's what draws us to Japan.

Brings us back to the beginning, it does.

"If you think you are hard to define," says my wife, "what about me? I am married to this tangle of terms. So what am I!?"

A pause. Only for effect.

Mrs. Yoda, I tell her

What else?



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