Sunday, May 03, 2009

Homesteading On the Fringe

Okay, a return to meaningful content by way of an apologia: where have I been? Why have blog posts dwindled down to a bimonthly rehash of second-hand videos? Well... I've been busy. I actually have some kind of life again, and so haven't been able to spend my days tapping out long-winded dissections of pop-cultural minutiae or sonnets to some blinkered ideology.

So what changed since the last flip of the calendar page? I moved back to Japan. And the reintegration process (well, such as it is in a fairly xenophobic, homogenous society) has been smoother & faster than a greyhound slicked in canola oil. It's easy to forget that I did, in fact, spend a year-and-a-half living in northern Europe, and I'm frequently reminded only when people have asked me what Germany was like.

Okay, so it wasn't really like that - we lived in Hamburg, not Regensburg, fer chrissakes. But for all the memorable encounters I had in Germany, whenever I'm asked about my Teutonic tenure, I'm very tempted to launch into Ray Winstone's crowning monologue from Sexy Beast:
Nah. Fucking place. It's a dump. Don't make me laugh. Grey, grimy, sooty. What a shit hole. What a toilet. Every cunt with a long face shuffling about, moaning, all worried. No thanks, not for me.
I'm not advising anyone avoid Germany at all costs - by all means, go take a gander, the food's great! But the only expats I met in Germany who genuinely took to the place sported some combination of the followings characteristics:
  • an affection for austere, undanceable electronic music
  • an incurable, Morrisseyan melancholy
  • a fatalism that precludes even treading water as a way of life (despite living amidst Occidental affluence)
  • a fetish for black-booted thuggery
  • and/or a German spouse
I, on the other hand, was a poisson en plein d'air. If I was forgiven for not learning the language (having given up when my shitty accent was invariably met with English), I risked becoming a pariah for preferring Belgian beer to the local swill. I found the audiences at live shows stiffer than a cadaver with lockjaw. People in Hamburg talked only of the weather, people in Berlin only of money. I got on better with the ursine Russian who (probably) ran a brothel above my apartment than with any of the other locals, including the senile pensioner next door who'd deliberately lock himself out to earn attention & pity. And over eighteen months, the closest I got to finding a musical collaborator was a guitarist whose head was way too far up Mr. Bungle's clown-painted ass and never returned my e-mails.

Meanwhile, here in Tokyo, I'm gigging around in four bands.

It became wretchedly obvious rather quickly that everything I found fascinating about German culture had been predicated upon a cultural schism & political tensions that have since been buried under a Starbucks. But I've never been romantic enough to be content laying flowers in the dust where once stood the Palast der Republik, or pining for the days when Hafen City was a junkie-strewn shambles. Once the cheap thrills of Cold War kitsch & neue welle nostalgia lost their lustre, there was little more than marzipan to engage my interest.

Yes, it's likely I was missing the bigger picture of being in Germany, but I wasn't interested in hearing that. Also, a particularly pupil-constricting light was shone on my unease about a year after I'd first arrived in Deutschland. I was speaking with two (sorry, dude) satirically textbook British hipsters about which Yankee bands manage success across the pond - or not - and why that may be. I brought up a particular act that, predictably, was poverty-stricken during its lifespan and praised ad infinitum posthumously; a band of which I was a vague friend, and to whom my own music has been compared a few times. Oh yes, the hipsters had heard of them, but this band wasn't necessarily more popular now than they had been in the days they'd actually toured the UK (which is to say: barely at all).

This surprised me a little, considering how unabashedly necrophilic the British listening public can be. What exactly was/is this band's UK audience like, then?

"Well," my friend mulled it over, "People that really actually listen to them are weird. But not like a good weird. Like an... antisocial weird."

Coming from a member of a sociocultural class that prides itself on exclusivity, petty defamation, and inconsistent contrariety, such careful, measured use of the word "antisocial" clearly carried some weight. This kind of "antisocial" wasn't the affected snobbery of a night out at an Upset the Rhythm event - we were talking about someone disconcertingly unknowable and genuinely hostile.

Naturally, if anything makes an already-unsympathetic character even moreso, it's accusing them of being "hostile". But I restrained myself from breaking into some lightweight Tommy DeVito routine and realised that, perhaps, my friend was right. I'd abandoned the American music scene for being an morass of incestuous backslappers, a feel-good feedback loop devoid of innovation. And since then, I'd discovered that Germany had imported the hyperdisposable dance fashions & fickle indie-oneupsmanship that plague the UK. There was no shortage of Adorno-quoting dilettantes with asymmetrical haircuts who talked a mean line of modernist bullshit yet still stumble into the po-mo pitfalls of archival pastiche that make K-Punk apopleptic. I wanted no part in any of the above, and thus far had done a damn good job of extricating myself from all of it.

Where I had felt totally, rhapsodically at home had been in Japan - a country with a long & continuing history of suicidal devotion to maintaining homogeneity; a country that does little (if anything) to discourage hardcore nationalism and whose multiculturalism is as substantive & meaningful as choosing a T-shirt.

Slanderous as this sounds, this myopia (born as much of happenstance ignorance as of supremacist ideology) is endemic and is not merely a function of aging reconstruction-era conservatives. A brief anecdote: in several of the bands I play with, I'm the lone foreigner. Packing up after one practice last month, I overheard one of my bandmates damning me with faint praise (in Japanese, of course):
Seb's an good foreigner. He doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs, he's not a girl-crazy lech - okay, so he doesn't have a real job, but he's a good foreigner!
This wouldn't be unthinkable for a middle-American baby-boomer who pines for the fictive "golden era" of the '50s to say - but this came from the mouth of a chemically-indulgent twentysomething rock musician.

What is, for lack of a better term, totally fucked about these cultural biases & assumptions is that they are the very reason I feel at home here in Japan. Objective distance requires no social sacrifice. Existing well outside the mainstream is the starting point, not the endgame. "Antisocial weird" is the de facto existence of the foreigner in Japan.

And how bloody relaxing it is not to worry that we'll ever have to turn down membership to the club, because they will never have us.

1 comment:

Ms Bird said...

Love your point, so beautifully expressed, that '"Antisocial weird is the de facto existence of the foreigner in Japan". I think if you're trying to integrate and make lifelong friends in the same way as you'd define them in, say, Australia, then you'd have the mournful time that many longer term gaijin seem to have. If you're happy to stand back and see it all roll by without any anxiety about fitting in, then there's no better place. Especially since there are opportunities for standing back and looking that aren't available in other countries. It's the only place I've been where I can wander alone as a woman at any time of day or night (this is Kyoto, mind) and have absolutely no fear for my personal safety. I imagine it would be confronting for some women to not figure as an object of sexual interest, but I find it so refreshing to not...matter.
That not mattering is of course completely different for gaijin men, since they are such hot improbably hot currency over there. Japan is a fairy land for men who are too romantically remedial to be able to do the hard work of holding down a relationship in their own countries. Cruel but fair. In Japan, the ability of these men to draw beautiful Japanese girlfriends is dumbfounding, predictable and rarely based on merit. Someone tell me it ain't so.