Recently, I was quoted by the incisive bullshit-callers over at my favourite foreigner-in-Nippon blogs, Westerner's Fear of Neon Sign. Specifically, an anecdote of mine was relayed in a post detailing "The Seven Stages of Gaijinhood." I've become a dedicated reader of WFoNS because few other bloggers as honestly appraise the unusual circumstances of being a foreigner in the most homogenous of developed nations; WFoNS maitre d' Calligraphy Kid is far from a fawning Japanophile, yet he resists the easy temptations of reactionary cynicism or softcore racism to which so many foreigners succumb.
Particularly impressive is that WFoNS dances along the knife's edge of writing objectively about gaijin while being gaijin. This is akin to taking judo lessons with vials of nitroglycerin stuffed in your pockets: not even a closeted homosexual raised as a Southern Baptist can compete with the self-loathing mustered by your average gaijin. To wit, this post from last fall describes the Western expat community in Japan as
that most mutually hateful and backstabbing of tribes... On an intellectual level, knowledge of things Japanese decreases in value the more people share it. On another, more carnal level, the attraction of Japanese women diminishes as more men partake of it. It goes without saying that foreigners in Japan, or gaijin, are natural rivals and have rarely produced anything of worth in collaboration with one other... Better reserve ‘we’ for strictly rhetorical use among foreigners in Japan....Which pretty much nails it on the head. What kind of a community coalesces around the mutual fear that you're all giving each other a bad name? The paranoia and self-policing inherent in being an Occidental is painful: everyone who sports a similar accent, appearance, or attitude could be totally ruining it for you and should be regarded, at best, with suspicion or, at worst, understated contempt. (I developed an especially icy regard for Australians, who I pinpointed as the prime offenders - but can you really blame me when I worked for this guy?)
What you'll also notice about the logic behind the gaijin's self-alienation is that it's total bullshit. Competition for social supremacy & cultural authority? As a foreigner in a country famed for its isolationism and xenophobia? Are you joking? Yet this Orientalist pissing contest is at the fore of a foreigner's thoughts at all times. Which is bloody stupid. Suffice it to say: not once when I've been in Vancouver have I seen two Chinese guys decked out in flannel shirts, tocques, and Sorels cattily correcting each other's Canadian raising over a can of Molson. Why? Because that's fucking ridiculous.
Now, counter to behavioral trends, I actually did produce works of worth with fellow foreigners (among others) during my tenure in Tokyo. In fact, this was largely because - at present - integration isn't an option: I was liberated from the quotidian responsibilities of the citizenry. I was afforded the objective distance that allowed me to focus on my particular curiosities & enthusiasms.
Which is why I unabashedly apply the word to myself. I incorporated "gaijin" in this blog's domain name, and into one of my e-mail addresses, not in a fit of Japanophilic flag-waving (I don't live there any more), but because the word distills a certain estrangement that is fundamental to how I relate to my surroundings. I choose the word not for its novelty, but because of its delicate suggestion of anti-socialism and self-imposed seperation. My nickname in North America is "the Old Man," which I enjoy, but that denies a certain vigor with which I still attack my endeavours. Similarly, I'm not vicious enough to feel comfortable self-describing as "Schadenfreude Seb." No sir; I'm afraid only the flavour of "gaijin" pleases my palette. Besides, there's an enjoyably Moebius-like logic that applying the word "gaijin" to myself will alienate certain people with whom the word identifies me.
The great irony to the gaijin's self-loathing is that it's as lazy & unsophisticated as any other prejudice: after all, gaijin frequently have nothing in common and, ergo, are of no threat to each other. Ah ha, but then isn't the resentment justified if so many dissimilar entities are clumsily lumped under the same umbrella? Well, shit, you got me there. But as long as people still debate whether label appropriation is positive and are unsure if "Bitch" is the new black, the war over the word shall rage on.
Postscript:: Rereading Tokyology's "I, Gaijin?" post (quoted above), a particularly backwards bit of logic had previously slipped by me. Personally disavowing use of "gaijin," Tokyology elaborates on acceptable social parameters for the word:
I don’t object at all to Japanese use of the word gaijin. I think it’s charming evidence of the time lapse in identity politics between Japan and multiracial nations. In a reversal of positive label appropriation, gaijin only sounds derogatory when I apply it to myself. I don’t want to refer to myself as a gaijin and I can’t understand foreigners who do. The word reeks of slow-burning underachievement.Let that stew for a minute. It's okay for the people who originated the word (as a racial slur) to continue using it, in whatever tone they like, because it betrays their quaint lack of sophistication. But for those to whom the word applies, to use it is demeaning and ghettoizing.
Wow. Now that is spectacularly ass-backwards. Hey, how about all the white people start tossing around the N-word because (the fools!) it reveals how socially unhip those crackers are, but under no circumstance shall the word be used by, or among, African-Americans (or -British or -Canadians) because it is a shamefully derogatory term, and its use a confession of inferiority. What the hell.
The truly telling moment within the above passage, though, is that last sentence: "The word reeks of slow-burning underachievement." This is not the first time that a confession of brutal self-doubt and second-guessing of purpose has passed for social commentary on WFoNS. The problem is that this existential panic is projected onto every other foreigner in the Far East. There may be a significant number of emotional refugees and self-defeatists living in bottles around Japan - but they're everywhere else too.
Perhaps The Problem is rooted in the way white middle-class language teachers monopolize the word, much the same way the United States has ruined "America" for a whole hemisphere. Typical, innit? How people use a word betrays more about their sense of self than social conventions. If only they were as concerned with how other people relate as they are with publishing & maintaining their self-image. Smack me if I ever don't include myself in that admonition.